Litany of the Saints
From time to time, I get to hang out with a wild and crazy gang of fisheries biologists. They speak a different language as they discuss subjects like turbidity, effluent limitations, and Secchi depth.
When I first heard that last term, Secchi depth, I had to look it up. Secchi depth, sometimes called Secchi disk depth, is a measure of water clarity. It is determined by use of a device called a Secchi disk.
A Secchi disk is a circular plate divided into quarters painted alternately black and white. The disk is attached to a rope and lowered into the water until it is no longer visible. Secchi disk depth, then, is a measure of water clarity. Higher Secchi readings mean more rope was let out before the disk disappeared from sight and indicates clearer water. Lower readings indicate turbid or colored water. Clear water lets light penetrate more deeply into the lake than does murky water. This light allows photosynthesis to occur and oxygen to be produced. The rule of thumb is that light can penetrate to a depth of 1.7 times the Secchi disk depth.
Upon further investigation, I learned that the Secchi disk was invented in 1865 by a Catholic priest, Father Pietro Angelo Secchi. Although it has been improved upon a number of times, Fr. Secchi’s basic design remains in place today.
My discovery of Father Secchi led to an interest in other Catholic scientists. And indeed, history provides many outstanding examples. The list is so long that I’ve pared it down to five exemplary individuals.
Father Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)
Gregor Mendel, baptized as Johann Mendel, is universally acknowledged to be the father of modern genetics. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic. His family was German. He began studying for the priesthood in 1843 at the Abbey of St Thomas, an Augustinian institution. Before entering the abbey, Mendel had worked his family’s farm. He also studied physics and philosophy at Brno (then the principal city of Moravia; now in the Czech Republic).
After eight years at the abbey, Mendel was sent to the University of Vienna for two years. At Vienna, his physics professor was another renowned scientist, Christian Doppler. When Mendel returned to the abbey, he became a professor of physics.
Mendel had also studied astronomy and meteorology. Most of his surviving academic writing concerns meteorology. But Mendel is best known for his paper, Experiments in Plant Hybridization.
Mendel’s magnum opus was based on his study of variations in peas which had been planted at the abbey. He also studied honeybees, with which he had been familiar since his childhood experience on the family farm. From his experiments, Mendel derived two Laws of Inheritance. The first, the Law of Segregation, states that each individual has a gene or genetic locus for individual traits such as hair color, eye color, etc. Each parent also contributes a gene to the offspring. The gene that becomes dominant will control the nature of the trait.
The second law, the Law of Independent Assessment states that any particular gene is passed from parent to off-spring independently from another gene for a different trait.
Mendel’s work was not widely understood during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth century that scientists embraced Mendel’s genetic theories. Today, Fr. Mendel’s work is the basis from which all modern genetic science proceeds.
Father Jean Picard (1620-1682)
Fr. Picard was a Jesuit mathematician, astronomer, and hydrologist. Born to a large family in La Fleche, France, he later attended the Jesuit College Royal Henry-le-Grand. In 1644, he moved to Paris, where he began assisting a math professor named Pierre Gassendi. Together Picard and Gassendi observed numerous lunar eclipses. After Gassendi’s death, Picard became Professor of Astronomy at College de France in Paris.
In 1761, Picard became the first person to nearly accurately measure the size of the earth. His 17th century numbers were 99.56% of the modern figures.
Picard communicated with other scientists of his era and made significant discoveries outside his main field of astronomy. Very little else is known about Fr. Picard’s life.
Ignaz Phillipe Semmelweis (1818-1865)
Semmelweis was not a cleric at all, but he was Roman Catholic. He was born in what is now Hungary to a well-to-do family. He set off to the University of Vienna, intending to study law. somehow, he ended up in medicine. At age 30, he was made assistant to the director of one of two maternity clinics at Vienna General Hospital. This first clinic was used for the training of medical students. The second maternity clinic was staffed by midwives.
Semmelweis soon discovered an odd statistic: maternal mortality rates at the first clinic where the students trained had twice, sometimes three times the rate of the midwife-staffed second clinic. The leading cause of maternal mortality was septicemia.
After eliminating all the variables he could, Semmelweis was left with the conclusion that the only significant difference between the two clinics was the staff. But why did the medical students, with superb academic training have a greater mortality rate than the midwives who had not the benefit of academic training?
The answer turned out to be rather simple: the medical students also trained with cadavers and the midwives had no contact with cadavers. The medical students took no hygienic steps between cadavers and infant deliveries and often used the same instruments for both activities. When Semmelweis realized this, he instituted a procedure requiring the students and staff at the first clinic to wash their hands with a chlorine based solution. Within a month, the mortality rate at the first clinic dropped to parity with the midwife clinic.
Semmelweis had proven something the significance of which escaped even himself: that hand washing could prevent the transmission of germs between persons. He believed he had succeeded only in preventing “cadaver contamination.”
Even the simplest understanding of Semmelweis’ accomplishment drew scorn and ridicule in the scientific community. Semmelweis was forced out of his position and run out of Vienna.
Aggravated, outraged and bitter, Semmelweis began to speak out against his opponents. He wrote vicious screeds against them. His associates and family came to believe he was insane and had him committed to an asylum. He died there two weeks later. Some sources say septicemia was the cause of his death.
Father Pietro Angelo Secchi (1818-1878)
We end where we began. Father Secchi was primarily an astronomer. He studied astrophysics. After training by the Jesuits in Rome, Father Secchi embarked on an academic career. He taught in the United Kingdom and at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Rome, Fr. Secchi was made the director of the Observatory of the College of Rome (now called the Pontifical Gregorian University).
His work in astronomy was prodigious. He discovered three comets, including one named for hm. He created the first classification scheme for stars. He made precise maps of lunar craters and color drawing of the planet Mars. And he invented the Secchi disk for use in another field in which he was interested.
Faith and Reason
As said above, the list of Catholics, both clerical and lay, who have made substantial contribution to science is a long one. It includes Roger Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Nicolas Copernicus, Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal, André-Marie Ampère, Enrico Fermat, and many more.
Some Catholics and non-Catholics question whether the Church can really exist successfully in a science-influenced world. Aren’t faith and reason polar opposites? And by the way, what about that business with Galileo, whose publications were banned and who spent the latter portion of his life imprisoned or on house arrest for suspected heresy?
For what it’s worth, Galileo was effectively rehabilitated in the 18th century. In the twentieth century, Pope Pius XII called Galileo one of the “most audacious heroes of research.” In 2008, the Church celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s earliest telescopic observations.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds:
159 Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”
“Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”
Today kicks off the first day of Catholic Schools Week 2012, (January 29-February 5). The theme is: Catholic Schools – Faith. Academics. Service. In order to Catholic Schools Week, I thought I would write a post about my 12 years of Catholic education.
For grades one through eight I attended Duquesne Catholic School (no longer open). This school was made up three different schools in three different buildings: Holy Name (grades 1-3), St. Joseph’s (grades 4-6), and Holy Trinity (grades 7 and 8).
After Junior High “graduation” I then attended Serra Catholic High School.
My father also attended Holy Trinity (he called it “Hunky Tech”–that was because it was the school of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne, now in West Mifflin, PA–which was identified as the “Slovak” church). My mother, however, was Greek Catholic, so when she was young she had to attend the Duquesne public schools. Dad did not have the chance to go to a Catholic High School and attended Duquesne High School. My aunt, Sr. M. Camilla Alzo, who belonged to the Blessed Sacrament of the Incarnate Word order, taught at the school for a few years even though her home convent was in Victoria, Texas. I shared her story in a previous post.
My parents did not want to send me to the public schools and felt strongly that I receive a Catholic education, and they made the sacrifices necessary to pay for me to have this opportunity. And so off I went to first grade at Holy Name (in 2005 the school was demolished). I was very sad when I saw pictures of this event (see below). I met my first best friend there in that school, and my first favorite teacher, Sister “K”. I always loved going to school at Holy Name.
So, what did I learn from my 12 years in Catholic school? Actually, quite a lot. First and foremost I learned respect. My parents taught me how to respect myself, and how to show respect for others–especially my elders–even in times when I might not agree with them. The nuns and teachers in school reinforced this lesson. On my first day of school, my mother told me, “You are to listen the nuns. Pretend they are me. If you misbehave, I WILL know about it, and they have my permission to punish you. Then, you will be in trouble when you get home too.” I was SO afraid to disobey those nuns! The majority of my classmates were too from what I can recall. Sure, there were those who were a bit ornery or always seemed to be in trouble. People may frown upon this “fear factor” today, but one thing is for certain: I never remember having to worry that someone might bring a gun in and shoot everyone, or have a bomb, etc.
I also learned discipline and how to apply it both to my work, and my personal life. I believe my quality of education was much higher in the Catholic schools. Our classes were smaller and the teachers, for the most part, truly cared about their students, and even more than 30 years later, they will remember you. I found some of my old report cards–very interesting to read. I received one “bad” report–in 1977-78–in Math (this is not surprising because to this day “I don’t do Math! My English grades were always better!). The teacher wrote that I was “getting careless in my work…and not concentrating.” Since a parent had to sign the report card and could make comments, my mother, who was not happy, did sign it but requested an interview with the teacher. My mother wrote: “I will not tolerate this kind of work from Lisa. What can I do to help her? This is the first bad report since she has been in school. I’m very disappointed in her and her Dad is too.”
Talk about tough love! You can bet that I did better after that report! I did improve my grades for the next grading period. Mom was a stickler when it came to school. Very strict. My Dad not so much; he cared, but he let my Mom handle it. It was not fun at the time, but I appreciate my mother pushing me to do my best. It has provided me with the strong work ethic I still have today. I went on to be an honor student in high school, even winning three awards for being an “Outstanding Student” in Biology, English, and Psychology! Out of the three, the Psychology award surprised me the most, but the priest who taught the subject said he gave the award solely on merit and that the papers I was writing for his course were college level papers and how my mother should send me to Harvard. Of course, my mother, the ever frugal Slovak, asked “And, how do you suggest we pay for Harvard?” He suggested scholarships, etc. I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I did graduate Magna Cum Laude from West Virginia Wesleyan College where I went on to receive several senior awards, including the outstanding student in the English department. I furthered my education by earning a Masters in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.
This past November I was truly honored that one of my former Duquesne Catholic School teachers (Mrs. “Y”) attended MY lecture at the Pitt Slovak festival. We had been corresponding for a few years by e-mail after she spotted a couple of my books in the local bookstore. It was such a thrill to see her again and to have her tell me how proud she is of me for the work I am doing with genealogy/family history. A few months ago, I received an e-mail from another teacher from my Duquesne Catholic days congratuling me on my work. I also keep in touch with several of my former high school teachers.
Of course, religious education was also a major part of the Catholic school experience. The nuns were always quizzing us on the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Apostle’s Creed,” the “Ten Commandments,” and how to correctly pray the rosary. I plan to write a future post about one of these nuns, so stay tuned.
By writing this post I am in no means saying that Catholic schools are perfect. Not all the teachers were caring or good at their jobs (about a year or so ago I read a story in the Pittsburgh papers about one of my former teachers who was arrested and in quite a bit of trouble). However, I do feel that my Catholic school education helped to shape the person I am today. For this I am grateful.
So, as Catholic Schools Week begins, I’d like to say a big “Thank You” to my parents for making the choice to provide me with a Catholic education, and also to all of those teachers who cared enough to make sure that I succeeded.