This week is Catholic Schools Week. And February is Black History Month. This presents us with a great opportunity to explore some issues common to both.
African-Americans and Catholic schools have had a mutually enriching experience in America. But the relationship has not been without its bumps. I’ve chosen a unique microcosm by which to explore this relationship: the education of the French Negroes of Illinois.
Randolph County, Illinois, is situated just east of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. It is one of Illinois’ first two counties, the other being St. Clair County, just to the north. Randolph County contains such historic towns as Kaskaskia, Sparta, Chester (the county seat), and Prairie du Rocher.
At Prairie du Rocher, the first settlement was Fort Chartres in about 1721. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was established there about the same time. Then, in 1722, Philip Francois Renault, acting on behalf of King Louis XV, arrived in the area to explore for gold and silver. On his way to the Illinois country, Renault had stopped at Santo Domingo to purchase 500 slaves to do the heavy lifting of his precious metals exploration.
Renault and his expedition spent 20 years looking for gold and silver and finding none. He did however find lead which is still mined to this day in eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. In 1742, Renault departed the Illinois country and headed back to France. He left behind the slaves and their descendants.
The African-descended people Renault left in the Illinois country were largely Roman Catholic, of course, because of their French cultural orientation.
It is said that the black people who lived in Randolph County, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, over the next 150 years were descendants of these slaves.
Writing in the local diocesan publication The Messenger in 1984, Father Theodore Siekmann, former pastor of St. Joseph parish at Prairie du Rocher, observed:
Philip Renault and other French Catholics of his day aimed to be humane. They did provide for the basic needs of these people. They respected their dignity as children of God, endowed with immortal souls, and deserving of spiritual care and attention.
One of the regarded values of the French Catholics was education. Unlike the English and Scots-Irish slaveholders in North America, the French Catholics had no issue with educating their slaves. Father Siekmann writes, “the black Catholics in Prairie du Rocher had always attended Mass and received the sacraments along with the white people on an amicable basis. Indeed two of the black girls became Religious sisters, and were a credit to their religious institutes.” These two girls were Emma Micheau and her aunt, Adelaide Francis Micheau, both of whom joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence after a basic education in the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher. “Addie” became Sister Celestine and Emma was Sister Mary Philomena.
Much of the history of the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher can be pieced together from Catholic directories, Illinois state documents, oral history provided by the now-elderly last generation of French Negroes to actually reside in Prairie du Rocher, and an exchange of letters between Sister Mary Philomena and a sister of one of the orders which taught at the school.
One very useful source is the Sadlier’s Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo (an “ordo” is “a list of offices and feasts of the Roman Catholic Church for each day of the year.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ordo).
Sadlier’s tells us that from 1870 to about 1896, the Catholic school-age population in Prairie du Rocher fluctuated between 75 students in 1870 to a peak of 150 pupils in 1896. Sadlier’s also indicates that during most of this period, the church and the school in Prairie du Rocher were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Alton, Illinois. In 1887, the Diocese of Belleville was established and Catholic institutions in Randolph County came within its jurisdiction.
According to Sadlier’s, during most of this time, the instruction was conducted by a “secular” teacher. In 1896, however, the Sisters of St. Dominic began to lead the instruction at the school in Prairie du Rocher.
The opinions expressed below are solely those of the author.
There’s an old joke that goes something like this:
Papal Aide: Holy Father there is exciting news. Some of it’s good but some of it’s bad.
Pope:Okay, give me the good news first.
Aide: The Savior has returned to Earth! He’s on the telephone asking for you!
Pope: What could possibly be the bad news then?
Aide: He’s calling from Salt Lake City!
As such ecumenical matters sometimes go, relations between Catholics and Mormons have been relatively without rancor over the past several decades. Despite deep doctrinal rifts, the relationships between individual Catholics and Mormons have been free of the personal hostility which characterizes relationships between certain other denominations. In fact, the Bishop of Salt Lake City has said that Catholics and Mormons work together and get along fine in the Mormons’capital city.
But the facial peace between Catholics and Mormons has been strained by issues related to genealogy. It is well-known that the LDS church has some of the greatest genealogical information in the world in both quantity and quality. They obtain those records by going out all over the world and collecting or copying the original records. What is less well known is the doctrinal motivation for collecting ancestral records. Not being a member of the LDS church I’m hesitant to characterize their purposes other than to say that I am informed that it has to do with so-called re-baptism of non-LDS ancestors. That is the least what the Vatican knew in 2008, when the Holy Father instructed Catholic parishes not to cooperate with Mormon records seekers.
This issue had been brewing for quite a while. In 1995, Mormons and Jews reached an agreement that the LDS church would no longer “re-baptize” or “seal” Holocaust survivors that some LDS members had characterized as their ancestors. In 2001, Pope John Paul II approved a statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which stated that baptism in the LDS church cannot be held to be a valid Christian baptism. The statement went on to say that because of differences between the Catholic and Mormon understandings of the Trinity, “one cannot even consider this doctrine to be a heresy arising from a false understanding of Christian doctrine.” L’Osservatore Romano, a newspaper which frequently reflects inside thinking at the Vatican said the ruling “changes the past practice of not contesting the validity of [Mormon] baptism.” The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time was Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Nothing much seems to have happened on this issue between 2001 and 2008. But then in January 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter which expressed “grave reservations” about the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism. A few months later, Pope Benedict XVI approved an order that each bishop should not “cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Cooperation includes allowing Mormon genealogists to have access to Catholic parish records. Ironically, just 10 days after this order was approved, Pope Benedict embarked on a visit to the United States during which two Mormons participated in a papal ecumenical service. According to the Catholic news service this was the first time any member of the LDS church participated in such a service.
This is a difficult issue for a Catholic genealogist to write about. Somewhat surprisingly, both the Vatican and the Mormon hierarchy seemed to downplay the impact of the letter on general relations between the two churches. Father James Massa, an official of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Catholic News Service that while the order had the potential to disrupt relationships between the two churches, the Catholic Church was embarking on a new friendship with the LDS church. At about the same time a spokesman for the LDS Church in Salt Lake City said that he had not seen the order and thus could not comment on it. He went on to say “We don’t have an issue with the fact that the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize our baptisms, because we don’t recognize theirs.” It’s a difference of belief.”
Other Catholic and LDS spokespersons further emphasized that the ban on allowing parish records to be given to LDS genealogists was not a major rift between the two denominations. The Catholic vicar general of the Diocese of Salt Lake City said that Catholics and Mormons enjoyed a long-standing mutually beneficial relationship. He said that the order concerning parish records was nothing new, because the Salt Lake diocese long had refused to give parish records to anyone “not authorized to have them.” This policy was much broader than Mormon genealogists.
So how should Catholic genealogists react to the church’s official ban on giving Mormon genealogists access to parish records?
Here are some things to consider: first of all, the Mormons do have the greatest collection genealogical records in the world. Additionally they have been an incubator for new advanced archival technologies. They allow free access to most of their records and have been known to create digital archives of Catholic parish records for the parish to keep.
I recall on my visit to the parish of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois in 2007, that the priest had labored alone and with great difficulty to get the parish records organized in a computer database. And before the completion of the project is computer crashed and the data was lost. Today, the records of St. Joseph parish in Prairie du Rocher are available free of charge as part of the set of records of the diocese of Belleville, Illinois on the LDS-run site FamilySearch.org.
Here are some other things to consider: the ban is directed to bishops and clergy, not to individual Catholics. So Catholic genealogists who cooperate with Mormon genealogists will not need the “Get out of Hell Free” cards available from my colleague Sheri Fenley.
Despite the ban, FamilySearch.org seems to add new Catholic parish records every week. Curiously most of those seem to come from outside the United States.
Perhaps the LDS spokesman quoted above was on the right track. Why should we as Catholics care that the Mormons believe in something that we don’t believe in? It is, as he said, a matter of belief.
One objection to the use of records by LDS genealogists has been the complaint that some of the Mormon records are inaccurate. Mormon leaders say that there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies primarily in the IGI. They say that they have taken steps to weed out inaccurate information in the IGI. Finally, the ban on cooperation relates only to the LDS church. No doubt there are many many other faiths with severe doctrinal differences with the Roman Catholic Church, who are not banned from examining parish records. And we’re not going to change their belief system by refusing to cooperate on genealogical records.
One of the ironies here is that the Catholic Church once had the biggest collection of genealogical records in the world. They weren’t centralized like the LDS records are. But for many centuries, the only place that genealogical records were kept was in the local church. After the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant churches alike continued to be the main repositories of genealogical records. Civil involvement in matters of birth, marriage and death is a relatively new phenomenon.
Because Catholic records aren’t centralized, there was an opportunity for cooperation that could have led to greater accessibility of Catholic records to historians, genealogists and the general public.
In 2008 I wrote:
“The LDS Church has been more than generous in sharing their extremely costly research endeavors with the world at little or no cost. I would hope that my church, had it been in their shoes, would be as magnanimous. In fact, what the Mormons have done is downright Christian. . .
” . . . Catholics and our faith are actually strengthened in a way by knowing and understanding our past and appreciating our ancestors. Curiously, we have the Mormons to thank for that.” See Catholics, Mormons at Odds Over Genealogical Records? at GeneaBlogie.
That’s still my thinking on the matter. What do you think?
Also posted at GeneaBlogie
November is National Black Catholic History Month.
Many Americans would have found antebellum Louisiana to be exotic place, with its French and Spanish influenced culture. Other southern Americans most likely would have been surprised that Louisiana’s tolerance of the nearly equality of les gens de couleur libres [free people of color]. But the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who prevailed in America would’ve been positively shocked at the practice of plaçage. This was a cultural phenomenon in which white men (usually of wealth and sometimes legally married to a white woman) entered into de facto marriages with free women of color.
These relationships produced children who were often openly acknowledged by their fathers and sometimes by the legal wife of the father.
In 1812, Henrietta Delille was born into such an arrangement. Her father, Jean Baptiste Delille-Sarpy, was a well-to-do white man, unmarried, who had a plaçage relationship with Marie Josef Dias, a free woman of color.
Henrietta’s mother, Marie, envisioned a life similar to her own for her daughter. But Henrietta had ideas of her own. She rejected the plaçage lifestyle, which cost her her relationship with her mother as well as monetary fortune. And although like most of her family, her complexion was light enough that she could have passed for white in Louisiana’s stratified racial society, she declined to do so, proclaiming herself a free woman of color.
As to the latter matter, race and color, Henrietta’s principles worked against her immediate interests. Because she was nonwhite by her own admission, the very devout Henrietta was denied entrance as a postulant by both the Ursulines and the Carmelites.
Under the tutelage of Sister Marthe Fortier of Dames Hospitalières, 14-year-old Henrietta began a ministry serving the poor, black, white, and mixed race, in the streets of New Orleans.
I believe in God. I hope in God. I love God.
I want to live and die for God.
Prayer of Venerable Mother Henriette Delille
After her parents died Henrietta used her inheritance to buy a house which she used as a school to teach religion to free blacks and poor whites. She was assisted in this regard by a French immigrant priest, Père Etienne Rousselon, and her friend, Juliette Gaudin. Later, another free woman of color, Josephine Charles, join in the effort.
With the help of Father Rousselon, the women eventually were recognized as a religious order of the Catholic Church. They originally called themselves the Sisters of the Presentation, but later changed the name of the order to Sisters of the Holy Family.
The Sisters of the Holy Family operated parochial schools and did other charitable work. By the middle of the last century, their membership numbered over 400. Today, although there are only about 200 Sisters of the Holy Family,the order continues its work. The sisters run schools and nursing homes in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, California, and the District of Columbia. They also do charitable work in Belize.
The Sisters of the Holy Family opened a cause for canonization of Mother Delille in 1989. In 2010 with the documentation of one miracle ascribed to Mother Delille, Pope Benedict XVI declared her “venerable.” the church’s investigation continues and with the documentation of another miracle she may be declared beatified. The process to formal recognition of sainthood can be lengthy. But many believe that Henrietta Delille will become the first US-born person of African descent to be canonized.
There is some controversy surrounding the potential canonization of Henrietta Delille. One issue is that she was a slave owner. She owned one slave, a woman named Betsy, whom she freed in her will. The other issue springs from the poisonous well of racism.
There are some who object to characterization of Venerable Mother Delille as the first “African-American” or black potential saint. They claim that she was not a black woman but a “Creole.”
The term Creole with respect to people in Louisiana has several divergent meanings, all of which arise from the racialist need to classify people. It was the same “need” that led to the so-called “one drop rule.” Under that rule, Henrietta Delille is certainly a black woman. In any event, she self-identified as “nonwhite.”
This dispute illustrates our continuing human failure to see life the way God wants us to see it. It illustrates as well the conundrum of “race” in America. As Catholics we all want to celebrate the holy life of a good person. On the other hand, tucked into our little human-defined niches, we don’t want others to take what we believe is ours. I know that the ways of God are but a mystery to us but somehow I feel certain that in welcoming Henrietta Delille to his kingdom he didn’t turn around account and see how many blacks, whites or Creoles were already there.
C. Davis, Henriette Delille, Servant of Slaves, Witness to the Poor,” (Sisters of the Holy Family,New Orleans 2004)
Answers.com: Henriette Delille (2012) http://www.answers.com/topic/henriette-delille
National Black Catholic Congress, Mother Henrietta Delille, http://www.nbccongress.org/black-catholics/mother-henriette-delille-famous-blacks.asp
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.”
An Historical and Personal Perspective
Most people when asked to name a “Catholic” state in the US, think first of Maryland. Maryland has a unique Catholic history among the original 13 colonies. But arguably, New Mexico is the most culturally Catholic state, at least historically.
New Mexico celebrates its 100th anniversary of statehood this year. The 47th state joined the Union on January 6, 1912.
New Mexico’s European history, of course, traces back to Spain. In 1521, following the defeat of the Aztecs, Spain, established the “vice royalty of New Spain,” which covered much of western North America, south of Canada. All of present-day New Mexico was part of new Spain. In the 1520s and 1530s, explorers Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and Francisco Alvarez de Coronado for gold in New Mexico. A Franciscan, Marcos de Niza, described the Spanish quest in 1539. Franciscans would play significant roles in the 16th century explorations of New Mexico. These expeditions experienced much hardship and failed to find any gold. For the next 50 years after Coronado, there was little activity in New Mexico.
Near the end of the 16th century, the Spanish eventually established a permanent colony in New Mexico. San Juan de los Caballeros was built near the confluence of Chama and Rio Grande rivers. Franciscan missionaries were a large part of this community. San Juan was intended to be the capital of the province of Nuevo México; however, constant conflicts with the indigenous population led the Spanish to move the provincial capital to a location near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This new capital, established in 1609, was called Santa Fe. More than 400 years later, it remains the capital of New Mexico. It is the oldest continuously occupied capital in the United States.
In the early 1700s, Spanish settlers moved into the Rio Grande Valley and established Albuquerque. One of the first buildings in Albuquerque was the Church of San Felipe de Neri, on which construction was begun in 1706. The original church was completed in about 1719. This church collapsed in the rainy season of 1792. A new church, which still stands in Old Town Albuquerque today, was built in 1793.
European Catholics who came to New Mexico included not only Spaniards, but Irish and Italian immigrants as well. In 1853, Jean Baptiste Lamy, a native of France, became the first Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Fe. In 1875, Lamy was consecrated the first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Lamy was a legendary churchman who did much to improve the administration of the Church in the American West. Part of his great influence was due to the sheer size of the Santa Fe see. Since 1875, parts of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe have been spun off into the Vicariates of Arizona and Colorado, and the Dioceses of Dallas, El Paso, Las Cruces, and Gallup.
Although the culture and history of New Mexico are inextricably tied to the Catholic Church, modern demographic trends have caught up with the Land of Enchantment. Only 26% of the population identifies as Catholic according to the United States Religious Landscape Survey (2007), conducted by the Pew Foundation Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s only slightly more than the U.S. nationwide figure of 24% Catholic. These figures represent a significant change from the 1920s, for example. The 1920 federal census found 360,350 inhabitants in New Mexico, while the federal Census of Religious Bodies in 1926 counted 215,553 Catholics. The figures work out to roughly 6 out of 10 New Mexicans as Catholics in the 1920s.
What happened? Much has to do with changes in Latino demographics over the years. Whereas the Latino population of New Mexico once was predictably overwhelming Catholic, as in Latino populations elsewhere there has been tremendous growth in Protestant Evangelicals among Latinos in New Mexico. The 2007 Pew survey found the total percentage of Protestant Evangelicals in New Mexico to be about 25%, nearly equal to the percentage of Catholics. Approximately 20% of Hispanics in New Mexico are said to be Protestant Evangelicals.
My Catholic family moved to New Mexico in 1961, several months before the 50th anniversary of statehood. We attended Mass at the two chapels located within the boundaries of the semi-secret Sandia Base, then the nation’s premier atomic weapons installation, located on Albuquerque’s southeast side. Our pastors were chaplains from all of the military services. We attended public schools in Albuquerque, although a lot of our friends went to Catholic schools, especially Holy Ghost School in the southeast quadrant.
Because we didn’t go to Catholic school, we had to attend catechism classes every week. These were taught by nuns of the order of Sisters of Charity, augmented by lay teachers from the community.
In 1961, as I recall, the catechism classes were on Saturday mornings in the meeting rooms of the multi-faith chapel officially known as “Chapel No. 2.” this was a relatively recently constructed edifice across the street from the hospital; like the hospital, it was gleaming white. Apart from officialdom, everyone called it “the New Chapel.” So was it distinguished from “Chapel No. 1,” which was also known as “the Old Chapel.”
[The Old Chapel was across the street from the parade grounds, a large green open space ringed by huge poplar trees and guarded on the side which faced the chapel by empty replica shells of Fat Man and Little Boy, both natives of New Mexico. The Old Chapel at this time was an exclusively Catholic venue. It was a wooden building constructed to Army specifications for World War II chapels. I imagine before the New Chapel was built, it too, served a multi-faith purpose. In the early 1990s, now part of Kirtland Air Force Base, the Old Chapel was converted into a child care center. More recently, the building was torn down.]
Several years later, catechism classes were moved to Sunday mornings at 7:30 before the nine o’clock Mass in the New Chapel.
There was a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) chapter on the base. CYO was much fun. We had hayrides and dances, went ice-skating, and to the movies. We got to know other Catholic young people through CYO.
My brothers and I became altar boys during our time in New Mexico. We made great friends like Mike Stark, Frank LoCasio, and others, and had memorable experiences (no, the time I got sick on the altar during the 5:00 a.m. sunrise Mass one Easter doesn’t count!).
An almost sinful obsession of mine (other than genealogy) a few years ago was watching Gunsmoke [formerly on TVLand, most weekends; also early mornings during the week.] Some weekends, it seemed as if the time passed and little got done except hours of Gunsmoke. Let me tell you about one of those days.
At the first strains of the compelling theme music of the day’s first episode, I could feel myself being drawn in. By the time George “Smokey the Bear” Walsh had solemnly and ritualistically intoned, “Gunsmoke . . . starring James Arness as Matt Dillon,” I was captured. To mitigate the situation, I tried to think of some genealogical angles to Matt Dillion, Festus, Doc, and Kitty that I could blog about. I was still pondering that when the fifth episode of the day began. An obviously very ill woman was being tended by three black nuns. The woman’s two children were nearby. The nuns agreed to see that the children made it to the farm their father was supposed to be preparing for the family near Dodge City [Episode #14, Season 15; first aired 12/29/1969]. Having already seen four episodes that morning, I was actually about to turn the television off and get down to some real business when
one of the nuns mentioned that they were members of the “Oblate Sisters of Providence.”
I sat back down to watch the rest of the show.
[The children’s father (Jack Elam, as despicable as ever in his Gunsmoke recurring role as Pack Landers!) turns out to be a drunk layabout and petty criminal who offers to help the nuns build a school so as to get his hands on the funds donated for that purpose. It’s a sort of bizarro version of Lilies of the Field]1, 2.
What re-captured my attention was the mention of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which is an actual order of Roman Catholic nuns headquartered in Baltimore. Founded in 1829, it was the first religious order for African-American women. The first Superior General, Mother Mary Lange, started the order for the benefit of Haitian immigrants. The order has concentrated on child development and education.
On the 1920 federal census for Baltimore, there is a two page section for the St Francis Convent and Orphanage, operated by the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Listed in that section is 16 year old Emma Micheau, born in llinois. She’s the last and youngest “assistant inmate” listed before several boarders ranging from 38 to 94 years old, and then the orphans. “Assistant Inmate” appears to have been the description given to all the nuns and novitiates except the “Superior General” of the Order, who in 1920 was the Reverend Mother “M. Frances.”
Emma Micheau was the daughter of Marshall and Sophronia Micheau of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. Marshall Emmanuel Micheau was the son of George Micheau, who had been born in Missouri in about 1852 and George’s wife, Mary Emma Roy, born in Prairie du Rocher in 1855. George was one of five sons of George [1813-1907] and Margret [1834-?] Micheau.
As a religious, Emma was known as Sister Philomena. After her initial stay in Baltimore, she returned to Missouri and later became the Superior at St Frances Girls School in Normandy, Missouri.
In taking Holy Orders, Emma Micheau was following the example set by her aunt, Adelaide (“Addie”) Micheau, who was the daughter of George and Mary Emma Micheau. Addie, born in 1885, became Sister Celestine, OSP, and was resident at the Order’s mission school in St Louis and later, at the Normandy, Missouri, orphanage.
Sister Celestine was my wife’s first cousin once removed and Sister Philomena was my wife’s great-aunt.
Mother Mary Philomena (nee Emma Mary Micheau)
Research Tip: The Oblate Sisters of Providence maintains an Archives and Special Collections Library at the Our Lady of Mount Providence Convent in Baltimore, Maryland. The collection is accessible by appointment only between the hours of 9am and 4pm Monday through Friday. Photocopying and photograph scanning services are available. Some of these records contain the names of orphans and students who resided at the various OSP facilities. Many other religious orders have similar archives.
A tip to search for Catholic religious persons is to use the words “father,” “mother,” “brother, or “sister” as either a first or last name. For example, if you search the 1850 census for Maryland for “sister” as a first name, you come up with about 185 members of the Sisters of Charity in Frederick and Baltimore. Catholic dioceses and archdioceses also have records of their personnel as well as worshippers. For more information on Catholic genealogical records, see the guide at http://home.att.net/~Local_Catholic/.
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Whether one says Feliz Navidad or Froeliche Weihnachten or just “Merry Christmas”, spoken from faith and love the words have a universal meaning of hope for all. And that’s my prayer for my Catholic Gene colleagues, our readers, our brothers and sisters around the world, those we know as well as those we’ll never meet.
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among all with whom He is pleased.”
Part of my childhood was spent in Germany. I went to a German school for part of that time and we had a German nanny. I was immersed in the culture and language at an early age. And Christmas in Germany became one of my favorite times and some of my best memories.
We celebrated every year Sankt Nikolaus Tag. On the night of December 5, we would place our shoes outside the door. If we had been good that year, Sankt Nikolaus would leave chocolates, fruit, and other goodies in our shoes. If we had been bad, then we would find wood switches in our shoes the next morning. This was the commencement of the Christmas season which would last until Epiphanie (January 6). As Donna Pointkouski has written here, celebrations of this sort are Catholic traditions in Germany, especially in the southern regions such as Bavaria.
The story of Saint Nicholas’s generosity was the certain precursor to the now secularized story of Santa Claus. But today, some German Catholics object to the blurring of the distinction between the holy saint and the jolly elf who slides down chimneys (whom they call “Weihnachtsmann” [“Christmas Man”]). They’re waging a campaign to maintain the dignity of the historical St Nicholas by declaring Weihnachtsmann-free zones. Even the German version of CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ) supports the campaign in some areas. See the website Weihnachtsmann-freie Zone at http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/.
Another Catholic tradition that I first became familiar with in Germany is the Advent Calendar. This is a calendar for counting down the days of Advent until Christmas. Frequently, the calendar has little doors to open for each date. There may be a religious message or gift, or a small toy, piece fruit, or candy associated with each opened door. I looked forward to each Advent in Germany to get a new Advent Calendar.
Other countries have embraced the idea of the Advent Calender. American Catholics see the Advent calendar as a way to be reminded daily of the need to prepare for the greatest liturgical event of the year.
As it turns out, the Advent Calendar in reality is neither of Catholic origin nor “traditional” (at least not in German historical terms). The idea dates from about 1850 and originated among German Lutherans!
German Christmas carols, however, are firmly grounded in Catholic tradition. My favorite German carol is this one:
At the German school I attended, we learned that the words were written by an Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr in 1816. In 1818, Father Mohr asked Franz Joseph Gruber to coompose a melody for the song. Tradition holds that Father Mohr asked Gruber to compose the music for guitar because the piano in his church was not functioning. Some historians today find this story apocryphal. Whatever its origins, it has become a Christmas tradition worldwide. An Episcopalian bishop, John Freeman Young, wrote the widely used English translation in 1859.
The first Christmas song I learned in Germany has also become a classic. The traditional version consists of a melody of an old German folk song and words composed by Ernst Gebhardt Anschutz (1780-1861). Here’s Nat King Cole’s popular rendition:
Este noche es la primera noche de la novena de Las Posadas.”
My Catholic family moved to New Mexico a little more than 50 years ago. New Mexico had not yet been a state 50 years at the time. Thanks to my parents’ emphasis on learning and culture, and aided by the mandatory Spanish classes in Albuquerque’s public school system, we soon became familiar with the cultural practices of the Land of Enchantment. From food to music to dress, we became as completely “Mexican” or “New Mexican” as we possibly could.My favorite traditions were the Christmas ones. The people in New Mexico honored a Mexican tradition called Las Posadas. Brought originally to Mexico from Spain, this is a nine day event celebrated from December 16 to December 24 (“Buena Noche“). Every night, there is a live dramatization of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. A couple portraying Mary and Joseph go from house to house for shelter and are turned away, until finally they are admitted. There are songs that go with this dramatization–some of which I remember to this day. The songs are sung by los peregrinos, begging for shelter, and are answered by los hosteleros. At the place where they are finally admitted, there is a great party. One feature of the party usually is la pinata for the children. A pinata is a papier-mache effigy on a string, dangled above the ground. It is filled with candies, fruits, nuts and other goodies. A child who is blindfolded (con los ojos cubiertos) holds a stick (en los manos un baston) and swings at the pinata to break it (ya se romper la pinata). An adult usually controls the movement of the pinata by the string. The other children sing cantos para romper la pinata(songs for breaking the pinata).This pageant is repeated every night for each of the nine nights, with different families playing the Holy Family, other pilgrims, and the innkeepers. A different house hosts the party each of the nine nights. In some Catholic countries whose cultures derive from Spain, the pageant involves carrying statues of the holy family instead of live participants. Some form of Las Posadas is celebrated in Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Cuba.
Here are some of the songs I recall from Las Posadas in Albuquerque:
Todos: [Everybody sing!]
Entren, Santos Peregrinos, reciban este rincón, que aunque es pobre la morada, os la doy de corazón.
The video below gives an idea of what the music sounds like:
And then on the way to the great party, the throng might sing:
Let us march singing
Let us march singing
con gozo y fervor
With joy and fervor
para ir saludando
To go greet
las glorias de Dios!
the Glories of God!
One version of the pinata song is this:
No pierdas el tino,
Mide la distancia
Que hay en el camino
Dale, dale, dale,
No pierdas el tino,
porque si lo pierdes
pierdes el camino
No quiero oro
No quiero plata
yo lo que quiero
es romper la piñata
pa’ los muchachos
que son muy tragones.
cacahuates de a montón
Don’t lose your aim,
Measure the distance
That’s on the way.
Hit, hit, hit,
Don’t lose your aim,
Because if you lose it,
You lose the way.
I don’t want gold
I don’t want silver
What I want is
To break the piñata
For the kids
Who are very greedy
The piñata has pee,
Peanuts by the ton!
For more information on Las Posadas, see the following links:
Personal Note: I cannot think of Las Posadas without remembering two very special teachers who brought different cultures into our classrooms long before it was fashionable (or on the other hand, mandatory) to do so: my fourth grade teacher, Theodora Erikson Cooper (1907-2006) and my fifth grade teacher, Nathalie A. Harshman (1907-2001). May God bless their souls forever and ever.