TVLand: A Source of Catholic Genealogy?!

 [Note: a version of this post originally appeared at Geneablogie in 2006.]

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


Sisters Monica, Mary and Cecelia Bellasis…..A Work in Progress



I started my research deep in a rural village in the depth of Surrey England. As my research evolved and I researched back through the generations exploring the lives of direct and indirect ancestors I stumbled into the surname of Bellasis.

The connection starts through the my 7 x Great Grandfather Henry Budd. Henry and his wife Martha nee Ottway raised a family of 8 in Puttenham from 1724. I can speculate on the birth place of Henry, as the neighbouring village of Shackleford as documentation in the village of Puttenham indicates “First of the Budd’s“, so I know he was not born there. There are some early records which indicate that a Henry Budd was resident in Shackleford and there is also references to Henry Budd in the neighbouring village of Elstead a few miles away. Certainly these villages were within walking distance of my 18th Century ancestors.

Henry and Matha raised their family of 7 children in a time, fairly reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I can almost hear and feel the panic as Henry and Martha realised that they need to marry off their daughters to Gentlemen of certain means.

Their eldest daughter, Ester married George Bridges Bellasis. I have written before about the antics of George during his time in the East India Company, (for that post click HERE). The Bellasis family were well established. As I researched further through the line of Bellasis I encountered the half brother of George, Edward Bellasis. George’s father had been a vicar and so I was very surprised to see that Edward converted to Catholicism in 1850. It was this angle and part of the family that posed the most research and questions, not only about the family, but about the religious aspects to it.

Edward Bellasis was born in 1800 to the Rev. George Bellasis and his second wife Leah Cooper Viall. Edward lead an interesting life, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital and undertook legal studies at the Inner Temple. He formed a legal practice at the Chancery Bar and retired from legal practice in 1867. He died in France in 1873.

He was received into the Roman Catholic Church by Father Brownhill on 27 January 1850 and soon after his wife and children followed. He was keen on all things Catholic and was fairly instrumental within the Roman Catholic community; including founding the School of Oratorians at Edgebaston. Edward married twice, but it the children of his second marriage to Eliza Garnett that takes us along a fascinating path.

Together, Edward and Eliza had 10 children. Two sons, the eldest and youngest became Priests and three of his daughters became Nuns.

I had barely interpreted the information of the conversion, when I was sent this photograph by a fellow researcher.

The photograph is of three of the daughters of Edward Bellasis, Monica, Mary and Cecelia Bellasis. Where would the research lead and how far could I research their lives as Nuns? Now, I was in uncharted waters in relation to my research skills.

The Catholic Family History Society holds an index of Nuns, who were in the English Province of their Order. The index itself reveals the date of birth for the Nun, names of parents, religious name, dates of profession, date and place of death and the name of order.

Here are the basic details contained within the index:

Monica Bellasis
  • Born 25th November 1855
  • Died 27th April 1927 St. Leonards
  • Entered into Convent 16th January 1879
  • Professed 16th January 1881
  • Religious Name – M.Edward All of the Sacred Heart Child Jesus
Cecilia Bellasis
  • Born 28th June 1845
  • Died 25 December 1930, Harrowgate.
  • Entered Convent 5th August 1869
  • Professed 8th September 1871
  • Religious Name – St. Aloyius
Mary Bellasis
  • Born 4th January 1842
  • Died 18th June 1927, Harrowgate
  • Entered into Convent 12th December 1863
  • Professed 18th November 1865
  • Religious Name – Francis Xavier

Just these few basic facts give me, in addition to the timeline of their existence a starting point as I try to piece together their lives within their Church and Faith. I think this is going to be an interesting journey………

My Catholic School Memories

My parents sent my brothers to Catholic grade school but I begged them not to send me. I wanted to attend the local public school because the kids that were my age on my block weren’t Catholic. Not a one of them. So they were all going to the public school and I wanted to be with my friends. My parents gave in without a big fight so it was off to public school I went.

But that meant I had to go to religious education classes after school at our local Catholic church.

When I was very young, they were called “Catechism” classes. I started them in the fall of 1st grade and they were held every Monday at 4pm throughout the traditional school year, save for the religious holidays that gave us a day off. In later grades (7 & 8) the classes met at 7pm and were referred to as “CCD” classes, which stood for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Yeah, that’s a mouthful, hence the CCD abbreviation. Now a days they call them “Faith Formation Classes”. It’s all the same thing.

True confession: I never really enjoyed catechism classes. First off, they were always held on Mondays. Mondays already felt like long boring days at school and adding another hour+ of education felt like torture. I’d get home from public school about 3:30pm and I’d have to be at catechism by 4pm so that didn’t leave much time to grab a quick snack and head back out the door for the long 😉 (.5 mile)  walk to our local church.

I hated that walk.

I had no one to walk with. And my parents never drove me or picked me up. So when it rained, I walked. And when it snowed, I walked. And when it was windy and bitterly cold, I walked. And by the time classes were dismissed (5:30pm), it was dark out or close to it for much of the school year. So then I had to walk home alone in the dark, in the rain, snow, wind, and bitter cold. And let me tell you, that half mile seemed like 5 miles to me! True, I had to walk to public school in the elements as well but I always had friends to walk with and that made it so much more bearable. When it came to getting to and from catechism classes, I was on my own.

In first and second grades, my catechism teachers were nuns. It was their job to prepare me for my First Holy Communion and Confession which happened at the end of my second grade school year. I also had nuns for teachers a few other years but I can’t remember specifically which grades. I don’t remember the nuns ever smiling or being friendly in the way that my public school teachers were. They were strict and for the most part had a “no nonsense” attitude. They did a good job of keeping us in line and teaching us our prayers though.

During the Advent season, just before Christmas, I remember making cut-out stained glass windows using card stock and colored cellophane paper. I thought those were really cool.

During Lent we were given “Lenten banks” which were tin cans, kinda the size of cat food cans, with a slot in the top. We were expected to fill our banks with coins and return them just before Easter. I wasn’t a fan of giving up some of my allowance for the Lenten cans but I did it because it was expected of me.

It was either the 7th or 8th grade when I had a male teacher for catechism. I tend to think it was 7th grade because I don’t remember him helping prepare us for our Confirmation (at the end of 8th grade). Anyway, he was totally lost with a room full of teenagers and didn’t know how to keep us in line. Some of the boys in my class made fun of him (he was kinda nerdy) and I don’t think he even realized it. It sure made the rest of us crack up though. Looking back, I recognize that was really rude of course. But at the time it made for a humorous year of CCD classes!

Those are the highlights I remember from my catechism years. The church and school where I attended catechism classes is still standing, still a Catholic grade school and a place for public school kids to attend “Faith Formation” classes. I suspect most of them get driven and picked up from their catechism classes though. It’s a different world now, not the one-car-per-family world I grew up in. I wonder if the kids like their catechism classes any more now that they don’t have to walk miles by themselves in the blowing snow, uphill, in the dark, without… 😉

Grade school wing of the Catholic school where my catechism classes were held

Candlemas Day

Today, February 2nd, is the 40th day after Christmas Day. For people of Polish descent who faithfully observe their ethnic customs, it is the last day of the Christmas Season. This holy time of year always comes to an end with a very important Church Feast, The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. On this special day we commemorate Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for the first time, 40 days after His birth. According to the ancient Law of Moses, every Jewish mother was excluded from attendance at public worship for 40 days after giving birth to a boy child. Mary fulfilled this command of the law by presenting two pigeons as a sin offering and through the paryers of a priest was pruified from the ritual uncleanliness associated with childbirth. This feast day, therefore, was formerly called the Purification of Mary.

Today the feast is commonly known as Candlemas Day because of the blessing of candles which takes place at the beginning of Mass. The lighted candles are carried in procession in church to remind us that it is Jesus Christ who is the true Light of the World, a Revelation to all the nations and the glory of the People of Israel.

Parishioners lining up for procession at Candlemas, Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, Detroit, 2007

In Poland this day is called Matki Boskiej Gromnicznej which is translated literallly as Mother of God of the Thunder Candle. The candles blessed this day are called gromnicy or thunder candles because they are kept in the home for use especially in time of thunderstorms to protext the house from being hit by lightning. They are  also a protection against other natural calamities such as floods, fire and drought. The blessed candles are also lit at the bedside of the dying to protect the individual from Satan, and to light the way to heaven. It was believed by many that at the time of death there was a contest for the soul of the dying between angels and the devil.

At the Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan there is a beautiful painting hanging in one of the halls which depicts Mary walking at night through the snows of the Polish countryside, carrying a large candle in her hands as if it was a sword. At her feet wolves can be seen running fearfully away from her and from the small cottages of the townsfolk she is protecting. Polish legend says she walks across Poland with her gromnica aglow, protecting homes and farm animals from many packs of hungry wolves, that prowl about looking for prey during the harsh Polish winters.

Even though we do not live in rural Poland, on this occasion I encourage us all to invoke the Blessed Virgin for her help and protection on one of her special feast days. May Mary continue to protect each one of us from the dangers that roam the dark streets of our world at night during the remainder of this winter.

[Many thanks to Rev. Mark A. Borkowski, Associate Pastor, Ss Peter & Paul Catholic Church, Detroit, Michigan, who was kind enough to allow me to share his article with you.]

Father Mark Borkowski at Mass (Candlemas, 2007), Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, Detroit

My maternal and paternal grandparents were married at Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, were members of the parish, and no doubt walked in procession there for the Candlemas celebration. It warms my heart to think of them celebrating this very Polish, very Catholic, feast day.

The Value of a Catholic School Education

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).

Yearbook for Duquesne Catholic School 1976-1977; Owner: Lisa Alzo, for private use

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.

Holy Trinity School (a.k.a. "Hunky Tech"), Duquesne, PA, 1941. From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

Classroom of Sr. M. Camilla Alzo at Holy Trinity School, Duquesne, PA, 1941; From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

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.

Holy Name School, Photo courtesy of Jim Hartman, April 2005.

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.

You Will Always Be in Our Hearts

My father, Francis Joseph Danko, passed from this life on 04 January 2012.  As much as my family knew this day was coming, it still seemed that we were unprepared for his death.

One of the most important decisions we had to make was the choice of a church in which to hold the funeral.  The Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, New York, the church we had attended as a family, did not seem like a suitable choice because the church no longer had a permanent pastor and we would have had to bring a priest in from somewhere else to celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial.

We had decided that McVeigh Funeral Home would conduct the funeral since McVeigh’s had arranged the funeral for my father’s sister Helen and we were familiar with them.  Besides, the funeral home was just up the street from our old family home.  We had also decided that my father would be buried in Our Lady of Angels Cemetery where several other family members, including my mother, were buried.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

SOURCE:  Church of the Blessed Sacrament (Albany, Albany County, New York); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 08 January 2012.

We decided, then, to hold the funeral at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, around the corner from the funeral home and on the same street as the cemetery.  In December, my father had asked to see a priest and Father John Bradley from Blessed Sacrament came by to visit Dad and administer the Anointing of the Sick.  Blessed Sacrament is still a thriving parish in Albany, close to our old home, close to the funeral home, and close to the cemetery.

My sister and I met with Father Anthony Gulley who would celebrate the Mass.  We discussed my father’s life and made some decisions about the details of the funeral.  Father Gulley asked me to choose the first two readings and I decided on readings that would emphasize the belief in life after death.  I read the first reading from 2 Maccabees 12:43-46:

A reading from the second Book of Maccabees

Judas, the ruler of Israel, took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.  In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.

The word of the Lord.

My cousin Karen, my father’s Goddaughter, read the second reading from Romans 6:3-9:

A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans

Brothers and sisters:

Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.  We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.  For a dead person has been absolved from sin.  If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.  We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him.

The word of the Lord.

Later in the service, and again at the gravesite, Father Gulley recited the Prayer of St. Francis, my father’s patron saint, and the patron saint whose name I took for my confirmation name:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Rest in peace, Dad.  You will always be in our hearts.

Church Closings and the Family Historian

It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of Catholic priests here in the United States. Virtually all dioceses and archdioceses are scrambling to figure out how to cope with the situation. In the Archdiocese of Detroit they have been working on constructing a plan for the future since 2004. Representatives from each parish have been a part of the planning process. A few weeks ago, the proposed plan that the representatives came up with was made public. That plan would have 9 parishes close and another 60 merge into 21. These are pretty drastic but unfortunately necessary changes. They aren’t the first parish closings in the Archdiocese of Detroit and likely won’t be the last.

At some point in February 2012, Archbishop Allen Vigneron will announce which of these changes, recommended by parish representatives, will need to be implemented. It is expected that the plans approved by the Archbishop will be implemented immediately and completed by June 2012. As you can imagine, it’s made for some anxious times for many metro-Detroit Catholics. Nobody wants to see their beloved church and Catholic community closed or merged. Everyone is hoping their parish will be spared. But at the same time we know that can’t be.

As a Catholic, I understand how difficult it can be to let go of one church and begin worshiping at another. Over the years you develop friendships and allegiances with neighbors and church staff that are difficult to replace at a new parish. You’ve established routines over the years and there’s comfort in the familiarity of knowing what to expect in your parish throughout the liturgical year.

It’s even more difficult for the Catholic genealogist and family historian. Parish records get relocated. Family histories that are tied to a given parish for several generations must end. Traditions that are tied to the church will come to an end as well. A Catholic church and the Catholic faith are ties that bind many families over generations. These are institutions that are held as sacred. Respected. Honored. It’s difficult to imagine life without them.

The houses my grandparents and great grandparents lived in after they immigrated from Poland to Detroit are all gone now. One by one they were razed as a result of urban blight and urban renewal. Of the 6 Detroit churches my ancestors had strong family ties with, 1 parish was closed and the building razed and 1 parish was closed but the building remains. The other 4 churches are still standing and have active parishes but few registered parishioners. Who knows how much longer that will be the case? They are in neighborhoods that have few houses left standing and they rely heavily on people coming in from the suburbs to attend Mass. I suspect a couple of these churches will be closed. That makes me very sad.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church

I can’t revisit my grandparent’s houses. With those buildings no longer existing I’ve relied on visiting their parish churches to connect with them. Whenever I attend Mass at one of those beautiful old churches I can’t help but think of them. I run my hand along the back of the pew during Mass and wonder if they sat in that same space and touched that same pew. I go to Mass and walk down the same aisle they walked down for communion more than 120 years ago. I make my confession in the same confessional they did and wonder about what sins they may have confessed when it was their turn to talk to the priest. I gaze at the same stained glass windows I know they gazed at when the beautiful morning sun came streaming through and set the colors ablaze. And I wonder about the glory of God the same way I know they must have.

When I attend my local suburban church I don’t have those same connections. Even though I’ve attended there with my immediate family for years, the type of connection I feel is not the same. It’s not that deep familial connection with the past. I would hate to see it close but I wouldn’t miss it like I would miss the old churches of my ancestors.

What about you? Have you visited the churches where your ancestors worshiped? Are they even still standing? Perhaps it’s not too late for you. Whether you live in metro Detroit where church closings are imminent or another area of the country, you may lose the opportunity to do so soon if you haven’t already. The shortage of priests isn’t going away soon. More church closings are probably coming to a diocese near you. Take the opportunity now to visit the churches of your ancestors. You’ll be glad you did.

My Two Christmases

It’s Christmas time again!  No, 2012 hasn’t gone by that fast.

“Thirteen days after Western Christmas, on January 7th, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. It’s a day of both solemn ritual and joyous celebration.” [Quote Source: Russian Crafts].

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that my grandmother, although baptized  Greek Catholic, and raised in that faith, had joined the Russian Orthodox church (St. Nicholas) as an adult.  This was long after she arrived in America and settled in Pennsylvania.

As a result, we always had two Christmases in my family.  Because  it  was  more  universal, our family would have a big celebration on December 25th, which included the secular traditions  of a Christmas tree and Santa Claus, but also observe the January 7th Christmas with my grandmother.  In later years, when my grandmother’s health was failing and she could not attend the services in person, she often listened to them on the radio (there was a church that did a broadcast).  We would listen with her.

Observing the religious rituals meant we also got to enjoy the wonderful foods of the Vilija (Christmas Eve) supper twice as well.  More mushroom soup, more bobalky, more pirohy, more everything….yum! My poor grandmother (and mother too) seemed to be cooking for four weeks straight!  But those were very special times!

As it happens, January 7th is also my Auntie Sr. M. Camilla’s birthday (see my very first “Catholic Gene” post “My Auntie: Christ’s Career Woman and Our Family Historian”).  She would have turned 94 today.

Luckily, I have a freezer, and a microwave, so today I will be heating up the remainder of the mushroom soup and pirohy I stashed away after December 24th, and will play my Slovak Christmas carols one more time.  And I will remember my grandmother, and my Auntie–two of the most faithful people I have ever known–as I once again celebrate the true meaning of Christmas in my heart.

St. John Neumann

Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; we are not here, that we may go to bed at night and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind, and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die. God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, …for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has worked, we too have but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do his work, we must rejoice in ours also. ~ St. John Neumann

St. John Neumann (1811-1860)

By secular standards, St. John Neumann’s story is a typical American immigrant success story.  He arrived in the U.S. in 1836 from Bohemia, alone and without the promise of a job. But he quickly achieved his dream of becoming a priest, and sixteen years later, at the age of 41, he became the bishop of one of the largest dioceses in the United States, Philadelphia.

But, despite St. John Neumann’s rise to success, he was not the typical American immigrant – he was a saint! He would have eschewed the idea that his life was successful and would have preferred a different kind of success – spiritual.  He did not want to be a bishop and only wanted to serve God and serve God’s people. It is because of his pastoral works, his humility, and his acts of kindness that he is remembered today.  For his feast day, celebrated today in the U.S., I would like to share more about his amazing life and also relate how his life affected the lives of my family years after his death.

John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Prachatitz, Bohemia (today, the Czech Republic). From childhood he had inclinations towards the priesthood, and his high intelligence allowed him to receive higher education. He wanted to enter the seminary, but he had heard that the overcrowded seminary only accepted applicants with letters of recommendations from important people. Undaunted, and unshaken in his faith, he applied anyway – without recommendations – and was admitted to the seminary in 1831.

At the seminary, John excelled in his studies and showed a strong proclivity towards foreign languages. But he faced obstacles as well. At the time, the seminary was rife with heretical thought and an almost unholy atmosphere, and he lacked a spiritual director.  The darkest hour came when the bishop indefinitely postponed all ordinations in the diocese because of an abundance of priests! But John’s faith never wavered – when he heard that America desperately needed German-speaking priests, he decided to make the long journey.

John Neumann arrived in New York in 1836.  When he contacted the bishop the next day, Bishop Dubois was delighted at his arrival – so much so that John Neumann was ordained a priest only three weeks later for the diocese of New York. The diocese at the time included the entire state of New York and one-third of New Jersey. Of the 200,000 Catholics in that large area, there were only 36 priests – and only 3 spoke German. John was immediately sent to the parish of Buffalo, which included over nine hundred square miles from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania.

The time John Neumann spent as a parish priest ministering to the Catholics in this large area is in itself worthy of admiration.  John Neumann worked tirelessly to provide sacraments to the Catholic immigrants as well as minister to their educational and medical needs. At this time in American history, anti-Catholicism was rampant. John Neumann made sure that Catholics were educated in their faith, and he also won over many converts to the faith.

Eventually, traveling by foot over vast distances put a strain on the priest’s health. John felt that his spiritual needs might be better met through a religious community, and in 1840 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Two years later, he became the first Redemptorist priest to make his vows in America.

As a Redemptorist priest, John Neumann was assigned to parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and continued his ministerial work with the same intensity as before. He became so well known for his piety, learning, and work ethic that in 1851 Archbishop Kenrick, Archbishop of Baltimore and former Bishop of Philadelphia, asked John Neumann to be his confessor.  Much to his horror, Archbishop Kendrick asked the Pope to appoint John Neumann as his successor in Philadelphia.  John Neumann felt he was not worthy of such a dignity, and if appointed it would cause “a calamity for the church.”  Pope Pius IX felt otherwise, and in 1852 John Neumann was consecrated as the 4th Bishop of Philadelphia.

At that time, the diocese of Philadelphia consisted of two-thirds of Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and all of Delaware. In this vast area were 170,000 Catholics in 113 parishes ministered by only 100 priests.  Although we think there is a shortage of priests today, these numbers are staggering.

John Neumann exhibited the same zeal in his work as bishop as he did as a priest. He sought to visit every parish in the diocese as well as hospitals, orphanages, and religious communities. He avoided the pomp and ceremony customary of the office of bishop and preferred to live on a smaller scale without secretarial staff. He continually gave his belongings to the poor.  Other bishops scoffed that Bishop Neumann would wear tattered clothes unbefitting of his “stature”. He never rebuffed the remarks nor defended himself, but merely continued to live as piously as he could.

John Neumann accomplished much for the diocese of Philadelphia. First, he attempted to make a pastoral visit to every parish – even the most distant from the city of Philadelphia. He used this visits as an opportunity to meet the parishioners, and because he spoke eight languages he was able to hear confessions for many immigrants.  Next, he established the first parochial school system in America.  As if that weren’t enough, he published catechisms that remained in use until the publication of the Baltimore Catechism thirty-five years later.  John Neumann, the Bohemian immigrant, founded the first Italian Catholic parish in the United States, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in Philadelphia. He introduced the devotion of Forty Hours to the United States as well. And in a rather amazing accomplishment, in the eighty months he served as Bishop of Philadelphia, he founded eighty new churches as well as forty new schools. He even founded an order of religious sisters, The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.

On January 5, 1860, the bishop was not feeling well. A fellow priest asked about his health, and Neumann replied, “I have a strange feeling today. I feel as I have never felt before. I have to go out on a little business and the fresh air will do me good.” He added mysteriously, “A man must be ready, for death comes when and where God wills it.”

The bishop went to run some errands. On his trip home, he collapsed on the corner of 13th and Vine Streets and died. He was only 48 years old.  He was buried in the Redemptorist church of St. Peter. Today, St. Peter’s has a shrine to St. John Neumann and visitors can see his body lying under the main altar.

St. John Neumann at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann located at St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia, PA

Soon after John Neumann’s death, there were reports of miraculous cures from his intercession. The first scrutinized miracle took place in 1923 when an 11-year-old Italian girl was cured of peritonitis. In 1949, a 19-year-old college student in the Philadelphia area was near death after a car accident; he was healed after prayers for John Neumann’s help.  These two miracles led to the beatification of Neumann in 1963.

The third miracle – the one that led to Neumann’s canonization – took place in 1962 when a young Philadelphia boy was given six months to live after a cancer diagnosis. After visits to the shrine at St. Peter’s to pray, he was completely healed within five months.  St. John Neumann was canonized on June 19, 1977.

St. John Neumann left his mark on Philadelphia in many ways. My family immigrated to Philadelphia over forty years after his death, yet his life impacted my family in several ways as well.  First, the Redemptorist church in which St. John worshipped and was buried, St. Peter’s Church, is in the neighborhood where my Bavarian great-grandparents settled.  It became their church, my grandparents’ church, and my father’s church. All worshipped there in the presence of St. John Neumann’s body, and the story of his pious life and miraculous intercessions were well known in my family as a result.

Also, as mentioned above St. John Neumann is known as the Father of the Parochial School System. My mother and grandfathers attended public schools, but my father, two grandmothers, my brother and I and numerous cousins all attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Until the Catholic school system was organized by St. John Neumann, there was no centralized method for Catholic education in this country. Those of us that “lived through it” are grateful that it existed.  We always felt special attending Catholic school because we shared our faith daily in addition to sharing the quest for knowledge about other subjects. As Catholic school children, we had a greater exposure to attending Church and learning about the faith, and we got to experience priests and nuns as our teachers.

The institution of the Forty Hours devotion by Neumann also impacted my family’s lives. Forty Hours is a 40-hour-period of Eucharistic adoration that represents the traditional time Jesus’ body was in the tomb from his death to Resurrection. The Forty Hours devotion began in Italy by St. Phillip Neri, but St. John Neumann was the first to introduce it to America. My teenage experiences with the annual Forty Hours at my parish positively impacted my faith. It became a celebration of sorts, and the music, prayers, and special guest preachers revitalized the parish.  Coincidentally, the priests who came to preach were from the Redemptorist order and lived at St. Peter’s – they were wonderful preachers.

St. John Neumann’s name has a way of occasionally appearing in my own life because of the many churches he built during his tenure. Most of these are not within the city limits of Philadelphia, but quite far away, and stumbling on to these legacy churches showed me just how much territory Neumann covered as a pastor.  My first Neumann-church find was somewhere near Scranton, PA – unfortunately, I do not remember the name, and there are about 27 churches founded in what is now the diocese of Scranton in addition to the cathedral.  As teenagers we were “far away” from home – nearly four hours north on the PA Turnpike – and visited a small, old church on our travels. On the wall was a sign that indicated St. John Neumann had made a pastoral visit to the church – and I wondered just how long that horse ride must have taken! I came upon another of his churches close to the town where I now live. The church, St. Peter’s in Riverside, NJ, would have been another long ride and must have included a ferry across the river since Neumann lived before the local bridge was built. This St. Peter’s is also the church where my brother got married.

Whether or not you have had that “personal” connection to the saint as I do, after reading his story hopefully you will find St. John Neumann’s life worthy of admiration for all of the good works he accomplished. He also continues to do good through intercessory prayer and miracles. All of that is rather amazing for a man who was told that he couldn’t be ordained because there were too many priests!  I pray that the church will be blessed with more priests like St. John Neumann.

St. John Neumann, pray for us!

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Celebrating the Feast of St. John

If you call out the name “John” at any of my family’s gatherings, you’re likely to see more than a half dozen men turn around to respond.

“John” was my father’s name, the first name of both of my grandfathers, and the name also shared by several of my uncles, cousins, and plenty of my male ancestors.  The English version derives from Latin, Greek, and originally, from Hebrew (meaning “YAHWEH is gracious”–see Behind the Name).

On December 27th, the Roman Catholic church celebrates the feast day of St. John the Apostle.

St. John: Photo from

John is a popular name thanks two significant figures from the New Testament (later saints): John the Baptist, and the apostle, John.

John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and the brother of James (also known as Saint James, the Greater).  John, a fisherman, was a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a devoted follower of Jesus.  He stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross, and upon hearing of Jesus’ Resurrection, John was the first of the apostles to reach the tomb. Before he died, Jesus appointed John the guardian of his mother, Mary.  John is also known as:  “Apostle of Charity; Beloved Apostle; Beloved Disciple; John the Divine.”

In addition to preaching, John is traditionally regarded as the author of the fourth Gospel, three Epistles, and possibly the Book of Revelation.  Therefore, it seems only fitting that he is the patron saint of writers, editors, typesetters, bookbinders, booksellers, Asia Minor, and more. It’s been noted in the Christian tradition that John was the only one of the original twelve apostles to live into old age and not be killed for his faith.

I think that it was fitting my father was named John.  Although not much of a writer, Dad was a devoted son, brother, husband, father, and friend.  He also had a deep faith in the Lord.

In celebrating the feast of St. John, I remember my father and other family members who were named for him.

Also, as a writer, I often turn to St. John for guidance.  For example, I asked for his help so I could finish this post!  🙂

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