Propter Amorem: The Pastors

“In a few years, dear Bishop, we will all have passed away and few will remember us either in praise or prayer.”
—Rev. Eugene O’Callaghan, pastor 1877-1880

In 1834, just a year before Rev. John Dillon began the long journey from Hamilton County to his new post as the first resident pastor for Ohio City and Cleveland, his bishop confided to his diary, “I doubt very much whether I shall ever allow him to receive Holy Orders. He seems to me conceited & vain.”

Bishop John Baptist Purcell enumerated Dillon’s many faults: he was “frequently overcome with liquor,” he caroused in theaters, he spoke to his superiors impertinently. In every way, young Dillon seemed to exemplify the criticism that had been made of unworthy Ohio seminarians by an influential layman who had written to the new bishop complaining, “We have made priests of every one that has come this way.”

Subsequent developments provide every reason to think that Purcell’s first impressions of Dillon said more about the bishop’s own youth, inexperience and still-maturing character than it did about the seminarian. And the most immediate of these developments occurred in mid-September of that very same year.

That month, Bishop Purcell did indeed confer Holy Orders on the man who had so recently been deemed unworthy. One Wednesday, Dillon was ordained a subdeacon in the modest one-story wood structure that served as Cincinnati’s Cathedral of St. Peter. On the following Friday, he and his seminary classmate James Conlan (who, by contrast, had been praised by Purcell for his “uniform piety and correct deportment”) were raised to the diaconate, and on Saturday, the priesthood.

Enclosed in a letter to the Leopoldine Society in Vienna that Purcell sent just a few days after Dillon’s ordination, Fr. John Henni included a detailed account of missionary activity throughout Ohio and bordering states. Here, he speaks hopefully about the long-awaited church that he hopes the young priest will be able to begin in Cleveland, to serve the growing number of Irish families that came to build the canal. From Berichte der Leopoldinen-stiftung im Kaisertume Österreich (8-15), available on HathiTrust.

In less than two more years, Fr. Dillon, age 29, would be dead of the bilious fever that seemed to rise malignantly from the stagnant waters of the Cuyahoga as it made its sluggish way across the Flats. The diocesan newspaper that was the organ of Purcell’s office would lament his passing. “It is truly astonishing that so much prejudice should have vanished, so much piety have been evinced, and so much substantial good done during the short term of his ministry.” Cleveland’s Catholics and Protestants were united in their grief.

Life was so compressed back then.

While Dillon’s body rested beneath the sod in Erie Street Cemetery, decades passed and memories of him faded. Railroads and canals transformed Ohio. Catholic farmers and Catholic laborers from Ireland and Germany crowded America’s unwelcoming shores and trudged westward to clear the fields and sculpt the earth. Purcell  accepted the burden of an archbishop’s pallium when Pope Pius IX placed it on his shoulders.

But throughout the long years of a ministry that carried him from the bustling Queen City to the Appalachian foothills to the same Ohio City parish that had been served years before by the friend of his youth, Rev. James Conlan remembered. And when he saw his own death approaching, he chose a profound and durable way to preserve that memory.

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Last month, Bishop Nelson Perez made his first visit to my parish, St. Patrick Church on Bridge Avenue, for the installation of our new pastor, Rev. Michael Gurnick. During the course of his remarks, the bishop mentioned that neither he nor Fr. Gurnick knew even the number of men who had filled that office, much less their names and accomplishments.  

For the two of them, both new to the parish, this is completely understandable. We are just one of dozens of parishes in this diocese, each of them possessing an interesting history. But personally, I felt a twinge of guilt. For several years, while vacuuming the rugs in the church narthex, I have pondered why only one individual who has served the parish in a pastoral role has ever earned a monument on the entryway wall. It seemed unlikely that only one of them was worth remembering.

John Dillon lived, served, and died before there was a parish dedicated to St. Patrick. But since he served the poor Irish laborers who were destined to found this congregation—and because his ghostly presence plays an important part in the story of his successor—it seems appropriate to have begun by remembering him.

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Very Rev. James Conlan, V. G. (1853-1875)

“…sound mind and memory…”

A leisurely morning’s walk would carry you from James Conlan’s birthplace in the Irish market town of Mohill, County Leitrim, to the rural townland of Drumconny, where John Dillon spent his youth. Much of the way, you would pass down lonely, narrow lanes bordered by hedges of rowan and whitethorn and bisected by a strip of scrubby grass that bespeaks the area’s low traffic volume.

Though the hedges and the even the lanes themselves might have been familiar to these boys, the loneliness probably would not.

Born at the dawn of the nineteenth century, just a few years after the native Irish of the county and their French allies had suffered a devastating rout by Crown forces at nearby Ballinamuck, James and John were part of a birth explosion that doubled the county’s population in twenty years. Even after the Great Famine wiped out more than a quarter of its men, women and children in the 1840s, there were still four times as many residents of County Leitrim as there are today. It was one of the most impoverished and overcrowded corners of Ireland, a hatchery of discontent colorfully described in Anthony Trollope’s first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran.

During their childhood, the Penal Laws suppressing Roman Catholicism in Ireland were still in effect, though not necessarily enforced. Catholics were required to pay tithes to maintain the Protestant church, and records of their baptisms, marriages and deaths are virtually nonexistent. It seems possible that young John and James learned their catechism in a “hedge school,” and may have even taken their first communion in the open air at a “Mass rock.”

I have uncovered no histories that outline how Conlan and Dillon met, when they emigrated, or how they ended up at the edge of the American frontier. But since recorded history provides only the briefest glimpse of their friendship—from 1833, when Purcell arrived in Cincinnati to find them enrolled in the seminary on Sycamore Street to 1834, when duty sent them in different directions—it’s worth reflecting on how connections that form between people whose child eyes took in the same scenery can penetrate much deeper than the roots of the rowan tree.


I’m not sure that the two Leitrimites ever saw or even corresponded with each other after Conlan rode off to start his first assignment in Steubenville. The priests of the far-flung diocese were not called together for the first informal synod until after Dillon’s death. But when Fr. Conlan made his will in 1875, he revealed not only deep charity for women (the bulk of his estate was distributed in bequests to his nieces and to charitable institutions for orphaned and “wayward but penitent” girls), but also enduring brotherhood. For there he declared:

“Being of sound mind and memory…I will and bequeath the sum of five hundred dollars ($500) to be appropriated to curb the lot wherein I shall be buried, and to erection of a suitable headstone over my grave and that of Rev. Father Dillon deceased whose ashes I desire to be gathered and placed in my own coffin.”

In making this poignant gesture, Fr. Conlan was not motivated by concern about burial in unconsecrated ground. Dillon’s remains had been removed from the Erie Street Cemetery and placed beneath the main altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist while Conlan was ministering there in 1852—surely, an appropriate and honorable final resting place for Cleveland’s first resident pastor. So what could have prompted the elderly priest’s request?

There is some reason to suspect that his peers may have been uncomfortable with Conlan’s plan. Maybe they thought it implied inappropriate intimacy? Or maybe, since Conlan had been notoriously opposed to fraternization with the Germans or even the Yankees, they just decided to give him posthumous credit for an intercultural fraternity he struggled to achieve in life?

For whatever reason, rather than simply following Fr. Conlan’s instructions regarding the headstone, his nephew Rev. Thomas J. Conlan and others commissioned J. K. O’Reilly of the Woodland Avenue marble works to create a much larger, more ornate and much more expensive monument than the one that Fr. Conlan had envisioned. But instead of two priests memorialized, there are three: O’Reilly added the name of the Very Rev. Alexis Caron, who had died in December, 1873. Maybe some of the additional cost of the grave marker was borne by Caron’s estate, the sole beneficiary of which had been the Vicar General of the diocese, Felix Boff?

There is one enduring place where the special friendship of Revs. Dillon and Conlan is memorialized. In the second volume of A History of Catholicity in Northern Ohio and in the Diocese of Cleveland, published in 1903, historian Michael W. Carr collected biographical sketches of hundreds of Ohioans who had contributed to the promulgation of the faith. Among these, he includes a single entry for “The Rev. Fathers Conlan and Dillon,” even though their sacerdotal careers overlapped very little, and he had ample text for a tribute to each individually. They are the only non-married people to receive such a treatment.

But I expect Fr. Conlan will have his own way in the end. In 1 Corinthians 15: 51-52, the resurrection of the body is ecstatically described:We will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

On that great day, on Woodland Avenue in Cleveland, two Leitrim lads—far from home but filled with energy and courage and gladness—will face their eternal life together.

‎☘

Rev. Michael Kennedy (1854-1855)

“Lux perpetua luceat ei”

He required that his burial vestments be new. The casket needed to be metallic, not some crummy pine box. The headstone—marble, mind you—needed to cost between $100 and $150, not a penny more or less.

Reading a stranger’s last will and testament can be like standing inches from his face. You might gaze deep into his eyes and sense that you have caught a glimpse of his soul—as in the case of Fr. James Conlan—or you might find yourself staring at a cluster of nasil hair. Our proximity to the will’s author can feel awkwardly intimate. This is what happened to me with Fr. Kennedy.

From History of St. Patrick’s Parish, Cleveland, Ohio 1853-1903, Francis Moran (ed.). Available on HathiTrust and Google Books.

The brief biographical sketches I’d been able to find for Rev. Michael Kennedy had been especially dry. These sources informed me that the young priest who served as pastor pro tem during Conlan’s ten-month absence from the parish in the mid-1850s had been born, ordained, assigned briefly to parishes and missions in all corners of the state, and buried. Slap on boilerplate language about supreme piety and great length of funeral procession. End of story.

Even his obituary in the Cincinnati Telegraph could have belonged to almost any priest of that era. If I wanted to find something memorable about this pastor, I needed to dig deeper.

The problem was that he had died too young, apparently without a friend who was determined to secure his memory as James Conlan would do for John Dillon. Small wonder that he did his best to secure it himself.

According to the 1860 census, Fr. Kennedy was born in Ireland around 1826. He may have spent some of his youth in the Sandusky area before his ordination by Bishop Rappe in July, 1852. After brief assignments in Dungannon, Summitville, and St. John’s in Canton, he was sent to fill in at St. Patrick’s temporarily while Fr. Conlan acted as administrator for a diocese in Vermont. Here, he kept the wheels in motion for the construction of the first church building, on Whitman Avenue. Afterwards, he left the diocese of Cleveland.

In the Cincinnati diocese, he spent a few years at St. Mary’s in Piqua, a few years at St. Mary’s in Chillicothe, and a few months dying at St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati. When he breathed his last there on January 13, 1864, most of the beds were occupied by wounded soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy, since the hospital near the Ohio River was a major terminus for “floating hospitals” carrying the casualties of battle. Even his death might have been overshadowed by this more momentous drama.

The less hard evidence there is about a life, the more imagination is inclined to supply the details. So I began to speculate. Why, I asked myself, did this priest work in such widely different places, all for relatively short stints? Why did he die so young?

The first answer that occurred to me was that he might have been on the fringe of the scandalous tribe of “tramp priests”—ordained and anointed men whose ties to an order or diocese frayed or were severed, causing them to wander here and there without lasting occupation. In 1880, one deeply disgruntled priest described this unfortunate situation in Sacerdos Vagabundus, blaming it on the arbitrary discipline meted out by missionary bishops who were free to move priests about or cast them aside at will. Perhaps Fr. Kennedy had proven unsatisfactory. Perhaps his early death saved him from ignoble dismissal.

I raked the shallow soil hoping to turn up something—anything—to contradict this impression. And I thought I’d found it toward the end of A History of Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary of the West. After the authors acknowledged apologetically their inability to name every donor to the school’s first library, they identified the major ones. And then: “The Library is also indebted to Rev. Michael Kennedy, formerly of Piqua, Ohio, for a small number of works.”

Good enough, I said. Now I was free to imagine not a lazy or incompetent wastrel, stumbling along a tipsy path from one short-term assignment to the next, but a bookworm with his head in the clouds. That’s the thing about amateur history: both jumping to conclusions and mixing metaphors—totally allowed!

The only little burr under my saddle involved the timing of Kennedy’s book donation. If it was made as a posthumous bequest, good. His legacy might be found even now among the stacks at the Atheneum of Ohio, whose respected library collection remains a valuable resource for theological and church history scholars. But if he’d donated before his death, then chances are that his “small number of works” were among the very large number of works that were pitched pell-mell out the library’s second-floor windows during a devastating fire in 1863.

“The most valuable sets were wet by water, torn, mutilated, and numbers lost….By this sad misfortune the most valuable portion of the Library perished.”

Fr. Kennedy would have remained a praiseworthy bookworm, but he would have died with the awareness that the generosity that would have cost a priest so much had been futile.

The only way to avert that pathetic tragedy: check the will.

I have known of excellent people, kind and generous people, who have put an inordinate amount of energy into arranging their going-away-from-life party. One of my good old college professors was said to have plagued the minister of his church with constant revisions to the funeral music program. It’s a way of creating closure, of keeping a grip on the steering wheel.

Maybe that’s what Fr. Kennedy had in his heart when he got so nitpicky and fastidious in his funeral instructions. But on first reading, my cheapskate sensibilities were offended. A new set of vestments? For a dead guy? At a time when the diocese was still heavily dependent on crates of donated altar linens, chalices, statues and other goodies shipped from European benefactors to needy American missionaries, this seemed almost obscenely extravagant.

The primary business of Benziger Brothers then and now was publishing; selling religious articles like vestments was a sideline. So I’m not even sure that there was a local supplier in Cincinnati where Fr. Kennedy’s executors could walk in to buy a complete suit of vestments off the rack in time for the funeral. Image from the Catalogue of Vestments, Banners and Regalia issued by Benziger Brothers for their booth at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. Available on HathiTrust.

Moreover, there was the priest’s insistence (he repeats it twice in one short will) that he is the procurator of the seminary. If he was, his tenure must have been so brief that it escaped mention in the seminary’s history. This is possible. During the time in question, the financial operations of Mt. St. Mary’s had already begun the slippery-slide that would end in catastrophe and closure after the Panic of 1873. But his obituaries identify his last office as pastor in Chillicothe.

And then there were his instructions for choosing a burial place. While his first choice was to be buried near his father in Sandusky, as he lay on his deathbed at St. John spelling out his final wishes, he mulled contingencies. Maybe it would be better to rest with his fellow priests in Sandusky? Or perhaps Dayton? Sheesh!

What was I doing here? Hating on a dead priest? This had to stop.

In my haste to jump over the legal mumbo-jumbo that prefaces many wills, I had overlooked some important bequests, and it was time to go back and review those.

There were a number of them. The books were a posthumous gift, thank goodness. The nuns who cared for him were remembered with a gift over and above the cost of his medical care. Cash to the brother in Ireland; cash and clothing and personal effects to the brother in Ohio. He spread his small fortune as widely as he could.

To his surviving sister, he left $200 “to her own and children’s exclusive use.” Was he looking out for a beloved sibling whose spouse might not have been so open-handed? And to his mother, the surprisingly large amount of $600 in cash and exactly $594 in gold, plus his bed and his cloak.

His aged mother had been listed in his Chillicothe household in the 1860 census. Where would she go now? To the sister who might have an ungenerous husband?

It was at this point that a plausible solution to the problem of Rev. Michael Kennedy occurred to me.

Maybe this was a young man slightly overwhelmed and preoccupied by the requirements of looking out for a large family and a widowed mother on the meager salary of a priest. Maybe he had scrimped and saved accumulating that sack of gold, when he would have happily spent every penny on his treasured books. Maybe the fancy funeral was for them, this family that had escaped famine only to find themselves enduring civil war.

That’s the other thing about amateur history: the more maybes, the merrier. Or at least, sometimes, the more merciful.

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Rev. Eugene O’Callaghan (1877-1880)

“Catholics are too timid; they seem to go upon the principle that, if they are tolerated, they are doing well. This is a mistake; if we let our rights go by default, we should not wonder if we lose them. We must be decided in our demands, and present a bolder front to our enemies.”
—The Right Rev. Richard Gilmour, 1873

In the last half of the nineteenth century, more than five hundred Roman Catholic churches were built in Ohio, and every time one was consecrated, priests traveled from near and far to assist in the solemn and glorious rites. Among other things, it made for a pleasant reunion of friends and colleagues.

But on one such occasion, as the clergy came together at the new Immaculate Conception Church in Bellevue, even more trouble than usual was brewing between a charismatic former pastor of St. Patrick Church and his frequent antagonist, Bishop Richard Gilmour. Raw feelings—of jealousy, hostility, distrust and even bitter loneliness—would soon be poured out in a series of remarkable letters between Fr. O’Callaghan and the bishop. A foretaste can be detected in the bishop’s homily as summarized in the Bellevue Local News.

“The Bishop deprecated any controversy,” the reporter begins. Gilmour called for the end of “bitter strife and contentions” and a renewed unity to “stem the current of infidelity and impiety now threatening to flood the land.” He expressed indignation at having heard “men daring God to his face and insulting High Heaven.” He demanded “obedience to country and to God.” He could well have been thinking, “And to me, too!”

Although the outrage he thundered over the heads of a congregation that had gathered in feast and celebration was framed as defense of the Lord, there was more than a little bit of self-defense implied, I think. And the people the bishop accused of perpetrating such affronts to his dignity were not unfaithful lay people or impious unbelievers, but his own clergy.

Detail from “Bellevue, Ohio, Sandusky & Huron counties 1888,” by Burleigh & Norris. Library of Congress. The Immaculate Conception Church is in the center of the image, at the intersection of Broad and East Center Streets.

There is no shortage of memorable vignettes from the life of Eugene Mary O’Callaghan. He had already gained great renown as a legal scholar, leader and writer before making his way to St. Patrick’s. In the first few weeks of Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration, the president’s agenda included ending Reconstruction, beginning the Nez Perce War, and attending a reception for Fr. O’Callaghan—a fair indicator of the cleric’s standing in the community. And many 21st-century parishioners have heard tell of the strapping priest (a former navvy on the Miami and Erie Canal) who helped drive wagons to Sandusky every week for two years, to quarry the stone that formed the outer walls of our present church.

But above all things, Fr. O’Callaghan was a warrior for justice, and the less familiar story of O’Callaghan’s tempestuous relationships with bishops is so consequential that it could—and did—fill a book. At a time in our nation’s history when identity politics and infighting have so damaged civil discourse, we could learn a lot from the example provided by this priest and this bishop, and how they handled a serious conflict at this particular moment in their long and difficult relationship.

From History of St. Patrick’s Parish, Cleveland, Ohio 1853-1903, Francis Moran (ed.). Available on HathiTrust and Google Books.

On Sunday, August 3, 1884, Bishop Gilmour’s anxiety must have been rising long before the nine-coach Nickel Plate excursion train to Bellevue pulled out of the Broadway Avenue depot. The pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, Rev. Walter Gibbons, had been transferred to that assignment under protest, and although he had lost his appeal when he took it to the Vatican, this had done little to relieve Bishop Gilmour’s worries.

Like his predecessor Amadeus Rappe, Gilmour was deeply distrustful of a close-knit group of Irish priests of which Gibbons was a member and O’Callaghan the recognized leader. Considering them a sort of new world Ribbonmen, he believed they were continuously fomenting revolt against the American church hierarchy, contributing to internecine strife with German Catholics in the region, and insubordinately going over his head in carrying their complaints to Rome.

He was not, then, in a frame of mind to be indulgent when, as the priests gathered in Bellevue to prepare for the joyous occasion, their collegial banter got out of hand.

The scene is described in a subsequent exchange of letters between the bishop and the priest. Fr. O’Callaghan stood at the center of a boisterous, chummy group that included several other powerhouse personalities. Rev. Thomas Smyth had been elected to two terms on the Cleveland Board of Education before being sent to Sandusky, possibly in an effort to break up the group that Bishop Gilmour had labeled “a cabal.” Rev. James Molony of St. Malachi’s, O’Callaghan’s best friend since their County Cork childhood, would later lead an Irish-dominated effort to prevent the installation of a German bishop as Gilmour’s successor. The priests were energetically discussing their favorite topic: church politics. And in an adjacent room, excluded from their conversation, sat their boss—alone.

While reading about Bishop Gilmour’s contributions to diocesan strife, I kept recalling this gentle passage from the children’s reader that he wrote for parochial schools. It’s good to remember that people are complicated.

Loneliness was a condition to which Fr. O’Callaghan was unusually sensitive. Most of his agitation against episcopal authority could be traced to his compassion for brother priests who were denied the company of peers, the stability of tenure among a settled congregation, and the security of long-term care when they became too old or frail to work. For years, he had hosted gatherings in his home for supper and conversation, as much for the purpose of banishing loneliness as for political organizing. So when he saw Bishop Gilmour sitting alone, he rallied his friends to try to include him in their discussion.

But it all went wrong. Someone mentioned the possibility of the pope teaching heresy. Someone joked, “the Church is a trimmer.” Someone exclaimed hyperbolically that “all the evil in the Church comes from Bishops!”

Hence, the bishop’s sermonizing on obedience.

After stewing for a couple weeks, Gilmour composed himself sufficiently to send a letter frankly accusing O’Callaghan of heresy and speaking against canon law. He must have done a lot of studying and praying over that letter. Both men were very painfully aware of O’Callaghan’s legal prowess, and his fearlessness in advocating for the rights of priests and nuns even when it set him in direct opposition to the bishop. Only a few months earlier, a priest who O’Callaghan was representing in an appeal to Rome against a Gilmour decision had suffered a career-ending stroke before his case could come to trial. There was some tension.

As a result, the response O’Callaghan sent to Gilmour was a prompt, terse, thorough, and well-researched defense and denial. However, it was not enough. The bishop was adamant: “You and your confreres should be less wild and scandalous,” he scolded. He reiterated the main thrust of his rebuke, and O’Callaghan parried, quoting the page numbers of the legal authorities to which he thought Gilmour ought to refer.

“Do you take it as a trifling matter to brand a priest as a malicious, persistent and active heretic? Do you think I have no feeling; no sense of honor; no conscience; no duty to Religion; that I should tamely submit to this outrage especially coming from my bishop?”

But by the end of this letter, the priest’s righteous anger was turning to grief. He ended by explaining how he had intended not to offend the bishop in Bellevue, but to befriend. “But while intending to please you, I only gave offense.”

To his credit, the bishop lowered his own foil. “Now we have spoken truly, man to man…If we have jarred each other, the jarring has quickened and purified us.” He acknowledged his longing for loyalty, and even opened himself enough to reveal his feeling of alienation from the clergy.

“You and your friends meet regularly…and you do not invite me to join you. You have treated me as a stranger in your midst…”

In his analysis of this exchange, former diocesan archivist Rev. Nelson Callahan marks these letters from the summer of 1884 as a watershed moment. Although there would be serious differences of opinion, rebuke and opposition, they had now taken a fair measure of each other, and both had emerged from the exchange with a better understanding of the delicate art of loyal opposition.

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In researching church history, I have sometimes encountered an argument in favor of soft-focus and diffused lighting when writing about the clergy. When in 1919 Sister Mary Agnes McCann contributed a transcription of Bishop Purcell’s diary to the Catholic Historical Review, Dominican scholar Victor F. O’Daniel (at the behest of “one of the highest ecclesiastics in the country”) peevishly objected: “It is unfortunate for the reputation of its author that he left such a book of useless notes, exaggerated statements, morose reflections and unkind criticisms. It is a pity that it was ever brought to light.”

But when the impurities are rinsed from history, the color is flushed away too. We are left with lists of dates and places, undocumented legends, and frequently implausible hagiography. The first we forget, the second we disbelieve, and the third we dismiss as hopelessly beyond our mortal reach.

By my count, 22 men have served a pastoral role in my church—some for a few months, others for a few decades. There’s the one who got his feet wet as the president of Loyola University of Chicago before diving into the really deep water on Bridge Avenue. There’s the one who was a revolutionary poet. All worth remembering.

If I could ask all 22 a single question, it would be, “What else did you love?” They would first answer God and the Church, of course, and rightly so. But what else? Because while the first two loves make them priestly, I think it’s that third-favorite thing that makes them memorable.

The Author Should be Canonized

“…the foam-flakes that dance in life’s shallows
Are wrung from life’s deep.”

—James Rhoades, “On the Death of Artemus Ward,” Spectator, March 16, 1867

The annual Spiritualist encampment at Brady Lake was once visited by the spirit of Artemus Ward, according to a report by the Plain Dealer on July 9, 1899. The audience was kept in such stitches as the once-rangy and facetious spirit channeled some humdinger drolleries through the medium of the plump and earnest Mrs. Carrie Twing, that no one thought to ask the dead humorist an important question:

Mr. Ward, do you think Cleveland ought to name a school after you?

If they had done so, I expect that this forerunner to Will Rogers would have reacted as folklorist Clifton Johnson reported he did so often while living. “He would chatter and gurgle and burst into occasional explosions of laughter so hearty that he would sometimes slide out of his chair and land on the floor.”

This very question came up recently when I was talking with a friend about a review I’d just posted on Goodreads for a collection of stories by Cleveland’s most famous forgotten comedian. My review, while mostly favorable, had acknowledged Artemus Ward’s troubling tendency to draw from bigotry’s rancid well when quenching his insatiable thirst for hilarity. Even in the early part of the 20th century, when Jim Crow laws institutionalized racism, Artemus apologists like Don Carlos Seitz felt the need to acknowledge, “Like other professional jokers, he has some poor ones, at which it is wrong to smile.” My friend wondered: Does a guy who poked fun at people’s race, religion, gender, and disability really merit an honor like this?

After the roof of the old Artemus Ward school came close to collapsing in 2006, ThenDesign Architecture came up with a beautiful new building. Maybe we should have come up with a new name, too.

While Charles Farrar Browne loafed around the Plain Dealer editorial offices between 1857 and 1860—filling his column with glittering nonsense because it was so much less fatiguing than actual reporting—he created the character of a showman named Artemus Ward, who traveled around the country displaying moral waxwork figures, sagacious wild beasts, and one especially contrary kangaroo.

Browne rose to international fame quickly after his first creatively misspelled “Artemus Ward” letters appeared in the Plain Dealer. After enough papers had reprinted the letters to make his pen name known across the country, Browne moved up to a position as the editor of a New York humor weekly, went on tour as a popular lecturer, and started publishing his jokes in book form. Mark Twain loved him, Abraham Lincoln loved him, London society loved him.

Not everyone loved Artemus Ward. In his diary entry for January 2, 1862, newspaper correspondent Thomas Butler Gunn gave his review: “The lecture proved awful rot…New York audiences are the best-natured in the world I believe; the stuff would have provoked a storm of hisses in London.” He inserted this newspaper engraving by Edward Mullen. The diary is now held by Lehigh University.

There was a lot that was lovable, and I’ll get back to that shortly. But first, let’s talk about Oberlin, where—as A.W. put it—“on rainy dase white peple can’t find their way threw the streets without the gas is lit, there bein such a numerosity of cullerd pussons in the town.”

The story from which that quote is drawn is among those that made the cut for the 1912 collection Artemus Ward’s Best Stories. And that was after editor Clifton Johnson had weeded out the ones that were “objectionably coarse.” Originally published in the Plain Dealer on March 30, 1858, “Oberlin” told the story of the fictional showman’s visit to the college town where—though Artemus didn’t specifically acknowledge it—Mary Jane Patterson was then preparing to become the first African American woman to be awarded a college degree.

Upon arrival in Oberlin, Artemus reports that he “kawled on perfesser Finney of the Kollidge,” referring to Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, who was then president. A representative snippet of their conversation:

“Sez he mister Ward dont yure blud bile at the thawt that three milyuns and a harf of yure cullerd brethren air a clankin their chains in the Sowth? Sez i, not a bile–let them clank.”

It’s interesting to me that when Browne brushed up this text for inclusion in his first book in 1862, he changed the name of the college professor from Finney to Peck. I assume this was because, a few months after the letter appeared in the PD, Professor of Sacred Rhetoric Henry Everard Peck gained some renown when he participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue that helped set a match to the kindling prior to the conflagration of the Civil War. That made him funnier, I reckon.

I suppose it’s partly because Oberlin’s is the atmosphere wherein I drew my own first breath that I find this Artemus letter especially problematic. I grew up with the understanding that the progressive goals of that community made it almost a hallowed spot, and it’s still jarring to find that other northern Ohioans found it ridiculous.

So scratchy do I find this letter, I think that if I had been a young black Clevelander in the summer of 1966—after the Cultural Gardens had been defaced with KKK and Nazi slogans, and the Hough riots had left four people dead and a neighborhood in shambles—and I had chanced upon a copy of Artemus Ward’s witticisms, my own right index finger might have started itching for the trigger of a spray paint can.

I found this image of the now-missing Artemus Ward bust by Frank Jirouch accompanying the American Colonial Cultural Garden article on Cleveland Historical, which drew it from Cleveland State University Special Collections. It appears to be the photo originally published on page 2 of the Plain Dealer on September 9, 1966. The previous day, 24 monuments had been defaced in apparent retaliation for earlier white supremacist vandalism in the same area.

If we were to judge only from this isolated example of Artemus Ward/Charles F. Browne humor, it seems unlikely to me that any present or past Cleveland school board would elect to spell out his name in large letters over the heads of our city’s kids. So why did that happen?

Browne died of tuberculosis in 1867, not having quite reached his 33rd birthday. He had lived a short life, but he had accumulated an astonishing number of friends. Some of his old drinking buddies from Cleveland were among the founders of the Artemus Ward Club, a society of newspaper men who—besides enjoying convivial evenings in the club rooms—also endeavored to keep the memory of their namesake alive. Frequent press references were made to their colleague long after his death, so that for decades, Clevelanders would recall the comic whose work was quickly fading elsewhere.

It was undoubtedly in this same spirit of cheering for the home team that Mayor Harold H. White spoke up for Artemus during the installation of a bust of John Hay that had been donated to the Cultural Gardens at Rockefeller Park by B’nai B’rith. During that ceremony, just a few weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland, the mayor suggested that, between them, Mark Twain, John Hay and Artemus Ward represented “the real American spirit,” and so all three should be represented in what was then the American Colonial Garden.

Each of these men, of course, were at least as flawed as any of us. Probably statesman Hay’s efforts to aid Jewish refugees of pogroms at the turn of the century helped everyone to overlook the fact that his own novel, The Bread-Winners, was very staunchly anti-labor. And Twain’s genius for painting literary portraits of durable American character has allowed him to weather many attempts to ban his books. But unlike the friend whose story about a jumping frog he helped to promote, Browne’s humor didn’t stand the test of time.

When his own friends and supporters—notably “dean of American letters” William Dean Howells—felt the need to acknowledge that much of Ward’s comedy crossed the invisible line and was best forgotten, it’s difficult to explain why the honor of having a school named for him was first promoted by one of the most literate people in Cleveland history: Linda Anne Eastman, who oversaw the construction of the main library while serving as the first female director of a major library system. She was also the head of the “Artemus Ward Committee” of the Early Settlers Association, which was urging the city to mark the centennial of Browne’s birth.

We all come to civic issues bearing our own pack of personal bias, and mine includes a sentiment against honoring comedians with school names when there are bona fide Cleveland scholars such as Edward Christopher Williams who remain unrecognized. But because Eastman is also one of my personal heroes, her support for this honor prompted me to really hunt for some justification among the small treasury of Browne’s extant words.

Funnily enough, I found some in his last published work, which bore the unpromising title, “Converting the Nigger,” when it was originally published in The Savage-Club Papers.

In this sketch, Artemus Ward is confronted by umbrella-brandishing missionaries out collecting money for tracts in order to send the word of God to the newly-freed slaves. Uppity female reformers being ever a favored target of lampooning by the more conservative Browne, Artemus enjoys a few pages-worth of barbs with these ladies before he turns to the one black man in the group, and the tone suddenly changes:

“I said, ‘My fren’, this is a seris matter. I admire you for tryin to help the race to which you belong, and far be it from me to say anything agin carryin the gospel among the blacks of the South. Let the gospel go to them by all means. But I happen to individooally know that there are some thousands of liberated blacks in the South who are starvin. I don’t blame anybody for this, but it is a very sad fact. Some are really too ill to work, some can’t get work to do, and others are too foolish to see any necessity for workin. I was down there last winter, and I observed that this class had plenty of preachin for their souls, but skurcely any vittles for their stummux. Now, if it is proposed to send flour and bacon along with the gospel, the idea is really a excellent one. If on the t’other hand it is proposed to send preachin alone, all I can say is that it’s a hard case for the niggers. If you expect a colored person to get deeply interested in a tract when his stummuck is empty, you expect too much.’

I gave the negro as much as I could afford, and the kind-hearted lan’lord did the same. I said, ‘Farewell, my colored fren’. I wish you well, certainly. You are now as free as the eagle. Be like him and soar. But don’t attempt to convert a Ethiopian person while his stummuck yearns for vittles.’”

This is a far cry from some of Browne’s earlier comments on race, which have been most usefully assembled by James C. Austin. While acknowledging that, “Browne was not a prophet and he did not, in this respect, rise above his times,” Austin, like Howells, Johnson, Seitz and Eastman concluded that Browne possessed qualities that, when combined, were worthy of commendation: the wit that made him famous, the selective compassion that earned him friends, and the pliancy that—had he been granted opportunity for greater maturity—might have eventually worked to root out his bigotry.

Of these qualities, it is the last one that is, to me, the most praiseworthy. Charles Browne had a conscience that, while conservative, was capable of change. Austin’s assessment of the sketch that was quickly renamed “The Negro Question” was that it “showed the triumph of his humanity over his partisanship.” While Browne openly and repeatedly acknowledged his own prejudice, sometimes in terms that are quite disgusting to prevailing modern sensibility, he continued to place himself among the very people he mocked, to make friends with them, and to try to understand them. And then, if his opinion about them changed, so did his writing. In these—and those—days of rigid, unwavering partisanship, this seems almost miraculous.

Is it enough to earn him a school? I don’t believe Browne would think so.

Charles Browne sincerely respected education (even the one provided by Oberlin College), and regretted for his whole life that he had been deprived of it by his father’s early death. In the will that provided for the disposition of his meager estate, the most notable provisions were for the education of his young valet and the awarding of his personal library to the child from his hometown of Waterford, Maine, who scored highest on the upcoming school exams. It’s very difficult for me to imagine that Browne himself would have seen a school as a suitable tribute to his work.

This is not to say that his work is wholly unworthy of tribute. In an unsourced excerpt published in Scribner’s Monthly in October, 1878, Browne stated his own case:

“Humorous writers have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists [sic] and solid writers that have ever spoken or written….They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.”

The most famous example of this fact has become part of our national mythology. Preserved by Wayne Whipple in his 1908 collection The Story-Life of Lincoln, gathered by him from an interview with Judge Hamilton Ward that was published in the Lockport Daily Journal on May 21, 1893, and based on a conversation or letter from some 25 years before that, former Secretary of War Edwin Stanton related to the judge this story from September 22, 1862:

On that day, the President Lincoln opened the meeting of his cabinet by reading a couple chapters from Artemus Ward: His Book, which was hot off the press.

When not a single member of the war-burdened cabinet joined in his jolly appreciation of the showman’s stories, he wondered, “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh, I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

And then, Stanton reported, the president sighed, drew the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation out of his hat, and read it out loud to his astonished cabinet.

The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet, painted by F.B. Carpenter ; engraved by A.H. Ritchie. Via Library of Congress. I believe the open book on the floor is a brand-new copy of Artemus Ward: His Book, which Edwin Stanton (left) has just ripped from Lincoln’s hand and hurled across the room in disgust.

When he had recovered adequately from his amazement, Stanton shook Lincoln’s hand and gasped, “If the reading of chapters of Artemus Ward is the prelude to such a deed as this, the book should be filed among the archives of the nation, and the author should be canonized.”

It’s as difficult to say whether Browne’s words helped the Emancipation Proclamation on its pilgrimage as it is to conclude that they prompted the besmirching of his Cultural Gardens bust. If they did the former, as Stanton suggests, then he has surely earned his place among the saints. But I’m still not sure he’s earned his place on West 140th Street.

So Many Needful Things

Shortly after Simeon Stylites chose to abstain from shelter and set up housekeeping atop the pillar where he would spend 47 years as Syria’s most famous tourist attraction, the local religious authorities—suspecting him of unholy attention-seeking motives—tested his obedience. He passed, and was permitted to stay atop his perch. But when St. Wulflaicus tried the same stunt more than a century later, his bishop told him to knock off his nonsense and shinny right back down.

Abstainers have always had their motives questioned and their resolve tested, as any vegan or teetotaler can attest. Even St. Paul famously poked his good friend Timothy to mix a little wine with his water, and Gautama Buddha chucked hardline asceticism in favor of the moderate zone between self-denial and self-indulgence.

I can understand this. It’s pretty easy for abnegation to spill over the shallow threshold into proselytizing, and no one loves a nag—especially a self-righteous one. Slightly more difficult to comprehend, though, is the animosity shown toward people like Erik Hagerman.

Hagerman’s total abstinence from Trump-era news was the subject of a recent New York Times article. The fact that I know this, and that I am acquainted with the criticism his story prompted, is evidence that my own Lenten observance has been far less radical. While Hagerman has blocked all news media consumption for more than a year—hushing friends and family who mention current events and plugging his ears with white noise whenever he’s in public—I am merely avoiding direct and intentional consumption until after Easter. For 47 days from Valentine’s Day through April Fool’s Day, I just don’t read, watch, or listen to the news, unless one of my trusted filter friends sends me a link.

Most of the comments (as far as I read) seemed to pin on Hagerman all the rotten epithets of 21st-century America: elitist, affluent, complicit, liberal. By turning off the news so that he could retreat from the blazing daylight into the sandy sett that his wealth provides, Hagerman is a traitor to democracy, they say, a shirker of his patriotic duty. As an afterthought, a few of the comments made passing reference to how Mr. No News has decided to spend his fortune as well as the time and energy he once squandered on voracious news consumption: he is trying to reclaim an endangered piece of Ohio’s natural heritage.

Hagerman sets himself up for censure by agreeing to provide the material for a news story that he won’t read, which does seem a little like the strict vegetarian who roasts a turkey for Thanksgiving. But setting aside that inconsistency, what has Hagerman done wrong? He hasn’t called for the abolition of the news media, but merely acknowledged that the news is not presently part of his own citizenship toolbox. He’s among good historic company.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Both of these quotes flowed from the same pen—Thomas Jefferson’s. Both are repeated frequently, though not that often side-by-side. The dramatic shift in Jefferson’s attitude over a twenty year period illustrates the unavoidable extremes that come along with freedom of the press. We can’t govern with it; we can’t govern without it.

But there’s more to governance than reading the paper every day. There’s picking up the trash in the park, teaching the illiterate, caring for the sick and elderly, studying the history, making the art, growing the food, advocating for the oppressed, praying the prayers, reclaiming the strip mines. Many of these tasks are undertaken by people who not only do not read the news, but cannot, for a wide variety of reasons.

The outraged commenters are the Marthas to Hagerman’s Mary. Having chosen for themselves the cumbersome task of trying to keep pace with the data and analysis churned out from thousands of outlets every day, they resent anyone who has chosen a better part.

Read More

I am, against my better judgment, reading the New York Times.

It’s not that I object to rising left-wing hysteria—I’m just as cozy in my own fleece-lined echo chamber as the next gal. Too cozy, really, considering the wealth of more enriching experiences available to me if my time were not being shop-vac’d so efficiently. There are broken things to fix, art to make, food to cook, fellow creatures who might be feeling neglected while I try to sort out market trends, international intrigue, and scandal.

I’ve tried to correct this by going cold turkey from Feedly and Facebook, spurning news site bookmarks in favor of the more virtuously engaged Goodreads and Cambridge Buddhist Centre Thought of the Day. I even considered disabling Google Most Visited, but hesitated lest the next person looking over my shoulder conclude that I am attempting to conceal some shameful predilection.

And yet here I am, at nytimes.

I resolutely scroll past the top stories. I know for sure that these will be toxic. There will be a photo of some smug, sneering, or superior face and, gazing into those eyes, I will struggle to subdue hatred in the manner suggested so often by my Buddhist advisors.

I pause, instead, at a Farhad Manjoo piece called, “Welcome to the Post-Text Future.” This seems encouraging, given my predicament. “The internet was born in text. Now, video and audio are ascendant,” the teaser asserts. “Writing is being left behind, and [of course] everything will be different.”

Now, personally, I thrive on change: I am a chronic rearranger of furniture. This is the very definition of “progressive,” is it not? When faced with  adversity, I nurture the hope that everything will be different. And now, Mr. Manjoo is going to tell me when, and how much.

But when I click, the screen is filled with a John Yuyi image of a young person with short bangs, a sprinkling of blemishes, Yuyi’s signature temporary tattoos, and slightly puffy grey eyes that shift left and right as if reading a very, very short piece of text. Like a one-second Boomerang video, there’s no forward thrust in this movie, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The eyes don’t display emotion or move down the page before snapping back to the top. I imagine s/he is reading and re-reading the single word, “Goodbye.”

And for a moment, I think that’s it. Mr. Manjoo, a former writer for Slate and Wall Street Journal, has forfeited the game to Ms. Yuyi. Maybe this is some sort of protest? “You think GIFs are news, do you? Well, troll this, goldfish!” But then I notice the narrow grey block of scroll bar.

I am a little disappointed to find that my first impression is wrong. Rather than the writers’ version of a silent parade, Mr. Manjoo and his colleagues give us over 4,500 words of text about the death of text. I remember that this author also wrote a book about living in a post-facts world, in which he undoubtedly supported his thesis with many hundreds of facts.

We are accustomed to white-robed prophets and their signs: The End of Books is Near, The End of Libraries is Near, and now, The End of Text is Near. The schools stopped teaching cursive, the president stopped reading intelligence briefings, and literacy was fossilized.

If this does happen, the visitor to the label-free museum of the future will be left to decide for herself whether that specimen evokes more of the tragic pathos of the ichthyosaur giving birth or the “glad that’s gone” relief of the 6-foot-long millipede Arthropleura. But one thing is already certain: the fossil of literacy, for all its pearly, gem-encrusted beauty, will be one of natural history’s smallest relics.

It has only been since the 1960s that world literacy has risen to more than half the population. As recently as 1800, OECD and UNESCO estimate, it was much less than 15%. The span of time since the invention of the internet, the printing press, the reed stylus of the Mesopotamian scribes—this is a tiny dot on the timeline of the universe. Recalling this comforts me, somehow.

Like the oil reserves, Windows 7 and Kiribati, there is some chance text will not actually disappear entirely in my own lifetime. I think I can expect to always see my screen cluttered with the 85 golden keywordscure, improve, get rid of—that researchers say drive people to keep reading. I expect that “Read More” links disguising the depth of rabbit holes will proliferate throughout the news media, and that link-filled blog posts of all sorts will entice the undisciplined to open wide the internet’s taps, until readers drown in the flood of words.

Scrolling past Manjoo & Co.’s 4,500 words, I return to John Yuyi’s illustrations. Her models flex, roll eyes, touch earlobe. Do the images prompt insight, reflection, understanding? Or do they just provide a quiet space, however brief, when I am not thinking at all?

Fanny Elssler’s Slipper

The performance has caused a seismic shift to your internal landscape, lifting stratum upon stratum of long-buried emotion, and at this moment, your heart which—as recently as the pre-show cocktail hour—rested quietly in a tranquil plain, has been thrust upward and outward, lifting your soul and your corporeal self toward the glittering tracery ceiling, the sky, the heavens! The performance has changed you. You stand.

Or:

The performance has entertained you, very much. It’s been a tough week, the boss was unreasonable, the kids were a pain, and as you bent over to fasten your shoes just before heading out the door, blackness clouded your vision for the second or third time this week and you started thinking stroke? But for the past two hours, you forgot the high insurance deductible and the track meet that will eat up the whole day tomorrow and the bonus you didn’t get, and you enjoyed a good, hearty chuckle. But now, as the curtain descends, you notice that your left foot has gone to sleep—stroke?—so you stand, shaking it until the tingling stops.

Or:

The performance? Meh. The company? Is there a superlative of that adjective? Could your companion be the meh-est, the most meh companion with whom you’ve ever wasted a precious evening of your life? It was hard to focus on the show, what with the whispered running commentary, delivered in a murky cloud of halitosis that prompted you to shift in your seat until you heard the irritated tsk! of the lady behind you. You had considered claiming that you had a headache during intermission and ducking out, until you realized that you never did download that Uber app or learn to use it. Before the first pair of audience palms have made contact, you are already struggling into your coat, tucking the program into your pocket. But you have dropped a glove, so you stand, poking around beneath the seat with your toe. And, feeling the peer pressure, hundreds of other glove-losers stand with you until the house lights are mercifully illuminated.

Fortunately, it’s all the same to the gratified, humbled and teary-eyed diva, who sweeps into a low, low curtsy, hand over heart.

Napoleon Sarony, “Fanny Elssler,” lithograph by Nathaniel Currier c1840. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Monroe H. Fabian

I cannot remember the last time I sat at the end of a concert or play. Judging by the audience response, every one of the dozens and dozens of performances I’ve witnessed has managed to reach the very summit of perfection. We have all risen to our feet more or less enthusiastically—all but a couple of purists who clap stiffly and lean toward the ear of their neighbor to comment for the umpteenth time about how devalued the standing ovation has become. Their fannies remain glued to the velveteen upholstery on principle.

There’s been a lot of talk about standing lately, and I will admit I have personally been flummoxed. I was born into a religio-cultural tradition that places a lot of significance on posture, in which changes to the norms—kneel after communion? stand? sit?—can prompt controversy and an ugly, creeping proliferation of puritanism. When you add to posture the element of applause, the situation gets even more sticky.

Do we require a referendum on applause, a protocol for posture? Should we all agree on some basic standards? Since in our flawed democracy, we cannot trust these things to individual choice, must we produce a pocket-size guide outlining the proper stance and response for given conditions, along with the penalties for failing to conform? Or are we obliged to follow the sweeping arm of the performer-turned-conductor who demands and directs the response, like Harvey Fierstein at the end of Torch Song Trilogy?

My own fervent wish is that—rather than imposing pressure on each other about the proper way to stand, sit, kneel, or applaud—we encourage more creative responses to inputs. Legend has it that when Austrian ballerina Fanny Ellsler danced before Martin Van Buren in 1840, members of Congress were so thrilled that they insisted upon drinking a toast from her pointe shoe. Now wouldn’t such a spontaneous compliment—offered, of course, only by those whose spirits truly moved them—stroke a fragile ego in a way no compulsory response could ever do?

Always patriotic, Washington newspaper “The Native American” ran a piece detailing at length the manner in which the “foreign” audience in New York had embarrassed themselves with excessive accolades.

Ordinary Time

I think now that he should have been buried in his green chasuble, instead of white. At least that’s how I interpret this very last of the stories Fr. Mark DiNardo has shared with me.

My husband and I are in the church, and it is night. We are alone, except for the empty vessel that we are trying to avoid glimpsing as we tidy around his casket. Neither of us is good at funeral rituals. The hugs, the words of condolence, the moments of solemnity—we manage these things awkwardly when we don’t avoid them entirely. We have been grateful in this case to have claimed a role that is purely practical.

So while John empties the trash and cleans the restroom, I vacuum up fallen flower petals and sidewalk salt, and I whistle.

As far as I know, it is not sacrilege to whistle in church. The very man we have just waked has caught me whistling in church on more than one occasion, and he didn’t judge. In this case, it is “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” one of his favorites.

As I switch off the vacuum, I hear a rattle at the side door, and I go to admit another of his practical parishioners. Together, we consider the placement of the flowers. Tomorrow, there will be so many clergy around this altar; should we not clear a wider path? We shift arrangements here and there, and hope we aren’t accidentally adding to anyone’s grief. She lingers for a moment, reluctant to see the last of our friend and teacher. “He looks peaceful, don’t you think?” I don’t know.

When we can think of nothing else to do, my husband ties up the trash bag and I turn off all the lights, except the ones above the casket. We triple check the front doors. We don our coats and hats and look at each other in the darkened vestibule. It is difficult to leave him in here, alone.

But as I try to push open the side door of the church, I disturb a man who has spread his bedding there. It’s a cold night. The light snow that fell this morning stills forms a crust at the edges of the swept sidewalk. I wonder, “What would Mark do?” I ask the man if he needs help finding a better place to spend the night.

He says that the bright windows of the church made him hope it might be open. I explain about tonight’s wake and tomorrow’s funeral, and I tell him that a parishioner who is a police officer is planning to keep an eye on the place. It might not be the best night to sleep on the porch. I suggest he think it over while I pop back inside to try to look up some shelter ideas. If he’s still there when I come back out, I say, I might have an idea for him.

My husband and I sit in the pew next to the body of our much-loved pastor and consult our phones. We come up with a possibility, but as we check the door, we find our neighbor has moved on.

However, a different man is now making his way toward us, and even through the door’s beveled glass, I recognize him by his gait. When I worked at the library across the street, he was known as “a problem patron.” He is demanding, unreasonable, and sometimes intimidating. Not exactly scary, but not pleasant, either.

“Um, let’s just wait here another minute.” Tweaking John by the coat sleeve, I hastily back out of the vestibule and into the church. It really is difficult to leave.

On our third try, I decide that we’d better make one pass around the outside of the church before we head home, just to be sure everything’s as it should be. We toss the trash in the dumpster and circle around to the front doors, where we see a car sitting with headlights on. Recognizing the driver, I bend down to his window to see what’s up.

“I thought I’d, you know, keep him company,” he shrugs. “Catch up with him a little.” This is one of many good people we know who came to this neighborhood to do Christian service and never left. It occurs to me that his family may have received six of the seven sacraments right here in this church.

I explain that everything’s locked up now, and he stares out the windshield blankly. He pats my mittened hand, shifts into gear, and slowly turns toward home.

They are all still here, at our door: the homeless, the troubled, the bereaved. There are problems that don’t get solved, and tasks that are never finished. In all our wide, green, numbered days, there is all this work to do.

Two Thirds Through Twelvetide

Standing at the window at the tail-end of a very cold December day, looking out across the snow-covered garden, I think, “This is a job for Little Cat Z.”

A vivid pink cloud of brick dust—a byproduct of the rebuilding of our house foundation—has settled across the clean surface of the snow, creating an image straight out of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

I have no VOOM!—the atomic cleaning force activated by the raising of the tiniest cat hat—with which to erase the pink snow spots that, come spring, will be smothering my grass. Nor can I do anything about the obstacle course of tarps and PVC pipes and concrete blocks that make every trip outside with the dog an expedition. But I do see a few silvery flakes sifting past the garage security light. When eradication fails, sometimes concealment serves.

The work we’ve done on the house this year has involved a lot of making things temporarily worse in the hope that in the long run, things will be much better. As a result of this constructive homewrecking, throughout Advent our house had jackhammers instead of jingle bells and muddy boots instead of mistletoe. With the demolition of the foundation immediately preceding the onset of Ohio’s arctic blast, I spent a couple nights babysitting the plumbing. Every hour or so, I wandered through the slumbering house turning faucets on full blast, lest we add busted pipes to a casualty list that already includes the lawn, a great many drywall joints, our driveway pavement, and the back porch.

But on Christmas Eve, we cut the very last tree and headed back home to start the Christmas season anyway, ready or not.

Now that we’ve reached a place in life where we no longer feel obligated to create holiday magic, we’ve also realized that such magic is incredibly easy to conjure, even in the midst of chaos. When the house is lit only by colored lights and candles, we don’t really notice its scars.

Soon after Epiphany, when the tree has been reduced to firewood and the contractors have left and the midwinter thaw has revealed all that the snow has been so benign in concealing, I know I will groan for want of voom. But for now I’m just grateful for the blunting of sharp corners.

When We Were Great

“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

A few months ago, a notorious public figure answered an important question that’s been on the minds of many of us for the past two years: “When was America last ‘great’?” Recently, a lot of writers have focused in on just five words that he inserted parenthetically into his interesting answer: “…even though we had slavery…”

For the most part, these analyses have implied that America could not possibly have been great during that part of its history when slavery was legal because slavery was the opposite of great. This is a defensible argument, if social justice is used as the measure of a civilization’s greatness. But in pressing that point, the writers tend to overlook a bunch of other troubling issues with this answer.

Was there a time when American families were more united than they are now? Was there a time when the country possessed a “direction” that was more easy to define, more unanimously endorsed, than it is now? And was the last time those conditions existed prior to December 18, 1865?

“…the time when families were united…”

Child labor, coverture, immigration, economic inequality—all of these things placed great strain on all sorts of family bonds. But if you’re considering the extent of family unity before emancipation, the obvious place to look is at the families of enslaved people themselves.

By the time the Civil War began, slaves made up more than 12% of the United States population. Family members could be sold and traded, bred like livestock, and impregnated through rape. If an enslaved person gained freedom through escape, manumission or self-purchase, it might be at the cost of losing contact with the rest of the family. So much for family unity.

“…they cared for one another…”

Under this heading, the first idea that springs to mind is the so-called “right of chastisement”—a most peculiar component in “care of the family” as commonly defined in antebellum America. In that patriarchal time, this right belonged exclusively to the male head of the household, and it gave him the right to beat his wife and children in order to keep them in line.

It’s interesting that it was the Supreme Court of Alabama that, in 1871, finally rejected this “ancient privilege,” in the case of Fulgham v. The State of Alabama. No more were husbands free to thrash their wives providing the diameter of the switch was no greater than that of her wedding ring. “The privilege, ancient though it be, to beat her with a stick, to pull her hair, choke her, spit in her face or kick her about the floor, or to inflict upon her like indignities, is not now acknowledged by our law.” In Alabama, at least. North Carolina and Mississippi were a different matter.

And they say nothing good came out of Reconstruction.

“…our families were strong…”

If they were so strong, how come so many people were obsessed with the worrisome possibility of incest?

The icky subject of incest has popped up in literature, law and religion for countless centuries, but it was a special fixation for nineteenth-century Americans. In his book Domestic Intimacies, historian Brian Connolly outlines some of the reasons why.

Increased mobility, as the rapid expansion of the country resulted in families busting up and moving in different directions, combined with slow and difficult communication to make losing touch with close family members a regular occurrence. As a result, people in great numbers began to fret about the possibility of accidental incest. After all, if long-lost siblings, parents, aunts and uncles can disappear from one’s life, swallowed up in the vast American country, then maybe they could also reappear in the most distressing and inconvenient manner.

‘…our country had a direction.”

This is the part of the answer that hurts the most. Because, obviously, the direction we were heading as a nation in mid-19th-century America was toward civil war.

The Civil War didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 1860, and it didn’t have one easy-to-blame cause. For decades, the country had been struggling to define itself, and finally it became apparent that the team could not pull together without busting up the rig.

At the Battle of Front Royal, on May 23, 1862, two regiments from the same state met each other in that village and did their best to kill each other. The Union 1st Maryland Infantry and the Confederate 1st Maryland Infantry faced each other, with Capt. William Goldsborough taking his brother Charles Goldsborough prisoner. The Union—and the union—were big losers.

Personally, I have no nostalgia whatsoever for that time of “direction” and “greatness.” I am astonished anyone does.

Confederate Major Gen. George Crittenden. From the Mt. Sterling Library Association Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky.
His brother, Union Gen. Thomas Crittenden. From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

Children of a Warrior Nation

“Lord God, Who can’st do all things!
The children of a warrior nation lift to Thee their disarmed hands
from all the ends of the world…Have pity on our country and on us.”
Adam Mickiewicz

What force could make a group of people with shared history, values, and economic concerns splinter into shards? Once shattered, is there any magnetic force capable of pulling it back together? And can it ever again form a mass free of the cleavage planes that marked that previous fracturing?

If you sit toward the back on the Joseph side of the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Cleveland’s Slavic Village during the ten o’clock mass, you can start to answer at least one of those questions. Even if you do not understand the Polish words of the liturgy, you may nevertheless comprehend the devotion. And as you listen to the shushing sibilance of the responses, you can look up and to your right, and get the beginnings of another answer.

The sun shining through the glass there illuminates a sorrowful scene. A mournful woman clad in black clings to the Christ of the Crucifixion, wearing the thorny crown of his own unjust torment. The woman is bound in shackles and a heavy chain, and clutches a prayer book reading “Boże zbaw Polskę.” A flag marked with dates and lashed to a pike has fallen beneath them, and behind them stretches a shadowy city.

Some quick googling after mass:

The woman is Polonia, symbol of a country that had vanished from the map. Her scroll reads, “God save Poland,” and the dates on the fallen flag mark the moments when that land was repeatedly rent by conflict. The archangel, charging knight and white eagle that are linked behind the flag’s central emblem of the Madonna and Child—these are symbols for an independent union that existed only in the prayers and hopes of an oppressed, disappointed and scattered people.

Sometimes it’s easier to focus on one hammer that smote a shattering blow than it is to understand the vice that applied the crushing pressure. So I stick this image of Poland in Chains in the back of my head, and start following Fr. Kolaszewski.

Advent of an Autocrat

All great drama includes great conflict, but the story of schism in Cleveland’s Polish Catholic community seems to have a blood-and-thunder scene in every act. The plot includes a little murder, an abundance of mayhem, at least one dreadful act of God. And under the blazing center stage lights, breathing hard and sweating through his lacy vestments, stands the stout fellow who is either hero or villain, depending on how you look at it.

Slavic Village Historical Society

His name was a fluid thing during and after his life, but I will call him by the one that appears on his naturalization and death certificates. Francis Kolaszewski was a parish priest and a Polish American, though not necessarily in that order. Before founding his own schismatic congregation and getting himself excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church, he was the first resident pastor of Cleveland’s St. Stanislaus parish.

It was he, fresh out of seminary, who oversaw the construction of one of the country’s largest, tallest, and most glorious churches, in one of its poorest ethnic enclaves.  It was he who, donning biretta and bearing collection tin, went knocking on the doors of his impoverished flock, or greeted them outside the rolling mill gate on pay day, forcefully reminding them of their obligation to finance all that glory. And, when the flow of donations wasn’t of sufficient volume and velocity, it was he who accumulated a secret debt of staggering proportions.

The bishop found out about that eventually, but not until he had banished Fr. Kolaszewski from Cleveland for prompting one “grave allegation” too many.

If you were raised Catholic in the last half century or so, then you get a sinking feeling anytime you hear the word “allegations” attached to a priest. And there does seem to be a whiff of that particular unpleasant odor around Kolaszewski. What, for instance, do you make of this notice from the Plain Dealer’s “City Jottings”?

Antonia Kosterski tells the court of common pleas that she was damaged November 2, 1887, in an assault made upon her by A. F. Kolaszewski in the sum of $5,000.

Damaged? Assault? By a priest? Surely a victim of that sort of assault wouldn’t have filed a lawsuit so publicly back then. Would she?

Historian Charles Kaczynski, examining correspondence on file in the archives of the Diocese of Cleveland, detected more fetor. In March, 1888, Pittsburgh’s Polish daily paper contacted Bishop Gilmour: We hear that the pastor can’t keep his hands off the ladies in the parish! We hear the good father beats his own aged father! Bishop, do you care to comment?

A few days later, the Plain Dealer “reported” perhaps the strangest piece of satirical fiction in its history: A little devil had been born among the Poles in Newburgh, as the neighborhood around St. Stanislaus was then called.

Plain Dealer, 3/22/1888, p9

This is probably a good point to interject: it’s always tricky to rely on daily newspapers for historical fact, particularly when studying events that took place during the heyday of the yellow press, when anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant sentiment ran rampant.

But it’s also silly to ignore them, especially when one’s interest is primarily in what ordinary people thought was happening around them. Newspapers are most helpful in getting to know public figures who welcomed the attention of the press. Although many of the clergy involved in this story thought it wise to play their cards close to the vest, Fr. Kolaszewski was not among them. When the newspaper didn’t come to him, he went to them.

Since the Plain Dealer piece referred glancingly to an unnamed Newburgh minister, and since there was but one minister tending to the spiritual emergencies of the vast majority of Polish Newburghers, that one promptly took up his pen in reply. This was “a mean story,” he pronounced. If it were true and he, “knowing all the Polish people in the city of Cleveland, knowing every family in particular most perfectly,” then he would have been alerted to the fact of Satan’s incarnation, naturally.

Actually, the editors had sought comment from the priest prior to going to print, and he had suggested the story was probably nothing more than an exaggerated report of his priestly prowess. Recently, “he had been called to exercise [sic] demons from some people who were possessed of them, which he successfully did.” Simple as that.

I assume Bishop Gilmour, scanning the paper over his morning coffee, slapped palm to forehead.

Bishops’ Bane

By this time, Kolaszewski had long been a bit of jagged gravel in the bishop’s slipper. Notoriety of any sort was hardly a desirable quality for a humble pastor, and ever since his first big splash preaching against the “riotous assemblies” of striking Polish steelworkers in 1885—when scolding his underpaid parishioners into submission to the Man had earned him a visit from a grateful mayor and police commissioner—Kolaszewski had gloried in the spotlight.

It would only get worse. In November 1890, as chronic intestinal disease and the stress of episcopal duties carried Bishop Gilmour within sight of death’s door, he received a fat envelope containing a 1,900-word, 18-point reply to his order that priests demonstrate their readiness for the pastorate by completing a written exam.

This incredible letter, written by Fr. Kolaszewski in a late-night fever of indignation and contempt, has been interpreted by historians of the Polish Church Wars in a variety of puzzling ways. Fr. Nelson Callahan, the late diocesan archivist who published the letter in its entirety, saw it as the work of “a great man” and evidence of phenomenal pastoral success.

I doubt very much that the bishop saw it that way. While Kolaszewski truthfully summarized the tremendous challenge of church construction, fundraising, and ministerial care of a large, poor, non-English-speaking parish, it’s hard to read this hysterical cataloging of his herculean accomplishments without thinking, “Whose idea was it to build ‘the grandest and most beautiful’ church in the first place? And if you had time to write this massive letter, are you sure you didn’t have time ‘to study a few definitions by heart’?”

But regardless of Kolaszewski’s view of himself as the hardest-working man in the diocese, Gilmour was dealing with an epic to-do list of his own, and it was killing him. He did put the wheels in motion for an investigation into what was going on in Newburgh, calling on Fr. Seraphin Bauer of Fremont to head it up. When Gilmour died a few months later, the whole mess fell into his successor’s cassocked lap.

In that spring of 1891, the Kolaszewski scandal-of-the-month involved some questionable wills and his failure to appear when called before the probate court. In one case, a widow moved to void her late husband’s deathbed will, in which he’d decreed that a third of his benefits be contributed toward the building of a new house for his priest. Since that priest happened to have been present when the dying man made this will—“in a semi-conscious state,” as the Plain Dealer reported—and since that priest kept possession of the will, and then failed to produce it promptly when called upon to do so by the probate court—well, it caused some hubbub.

Subsequent historians have not been able to pinpoint the exact “grave allegation” that pushed Gilmour’s successor, Bishop Ignatius Horstmann, to seek strong remedy to his priest problem. But by April, 1892, things were clearly spinning out of control. Kolaszewski’s assistant, Fr. Francis Motulewski, sent a desperate letter to the bishop, pleading for him to call a halt to the pastor’s heavy-handed fundraising: “Rev. Kolaszewski requires money of everyone coming to confession,” he repined.

Some ten days later, the Plain Dealer heard rumors that the sparks flying in the St. Stanislaus rectory were threatening conflagration amid its already-toxic atmosphere. Kolaszewski denied it: “The story grows as all such stories do, until from a little thing not worth mentioning they have a big story. They look at a mosquito and think they see an elephant.” Since he went on to describe himself dragging his assistant bodily out of a classroom in which the young man was teaching children, I will admit to suspecting that there was something at least vaguely proboscidean to this story.

Bishop Horstmann must have reached a similar conclusion by this time. In desperation, he sought assistance outside the church, from a somewhat shady character whom Cleveland Historical has dubbed “Cleveland’s version of The Donald.”

A few years later, Oliver Mead Stafford would butt heads with progressive mayor Tom L. Johnson over a scheme to illegally tap the city water supply for his factory. But in 1891, his big deal was a real estate development called Pulaski Park. Before it collapsed under the weight of lawsuits, that project made some good money for Stafford, though I don’t know how his business partner faired. The business partner: Fr. Kolaszewski.

It’s hard for me to imagine what sort of help Bishop Horstmann expected to get from Stafford. If it was only the removal of Kolaszewski from his diocese, then he did accomplish that—at least temporarily. But it was going to cost him. In exchange for resignation and transfer to the Diocese of Syracuse, where Kolaszewski had family living, Horstmann agreed to pay the errant priest $3,000, absorb his personal debt, and refund $4,400 that Kolaszewski had supposedly used to repair the rectory—at a time when entire houses in the neighborhood were selling for less than half that price.

Kolaszewski must have found this acceptable, because off he went to Syracuse. But not quietly, and not for long.

‘Sensational Rumpus’

First, there was the formal resolution. That bit was rather dignified, I thought.

The document issued to the press following a mass meeting of Kolaszewskians had all the formality and solemn threat of a thrown gauntlet. Crediting him with single-handedly bestowing peace and prosperity upon their parish, they declared that any charges against their pastor emanated from the “evil and corrupt minds” of “a few black sheep among us.” If the priest went, this contingent implied, there’d be hell to pay.

Then came the noise: the clamor of hundreds of angry parishioners, shouting their protest. This time, the “Church Tumult” reported in the Plain Dealer in June, 1892 came from the anti-Kolaszewski contingent, as they watched van-loads of what they took to be church property being hauled out of the rectory—at the same time as a forlorn funeral party waited in vain for a pastor to officiate. Perhaps if Kolaszewski had handed them the inventory he’d prepared a few days earlier, they would have been as impressed as I was by the precision of its alphabetical order and the fastidiousness of its red grosgrain ribbon binding, and they never would have doubted him.

At any rate, eventually, the diocesan chancellor overseeing Kolaszewski’s removal stepped in to bury the departed, reassure irate parishioners, and generally try to calm the wind and waves. But the chaos only increased as the pro-Kolaszewski side mounted a counter-protest. And with their shepherd banished from the fold, the sheep grew fangs.

Next: violence. The story picked up off the national wire by papers in Milwaukee, Denver, and elsewhere claimed that it was mostly women storming the rectory now inhabited by the unlucky replacement pastor, Fr. Benedict Rosinski. Fr. Kolaszewski had itemized 28 brooms among the parochial school furnishings, and these women seemed to be shaking all of them. Fists flew. A gun was brandished “by a brother of the priest’s”—Ignatius Rosinski, not Patrolman Leo Kolaszewski of the CPD. For all the accusations about Kolaszewski that were ricocheting around the diocese and whizzing out across the broader field of Polish America, there was an impressive contingent that loved him fiercely and were prepared to fight for him.

After the nasty skirmish in the rectory yard, these Kolaszewskians accepted strategic retreat, but only briefly. Bishop Horstmann visited the parish and firmly asserted his authority. Rosinski, shaky but stalwart, persevered. And, then, the customary courtroom scene.

Some months before, during the course of the rising unpleasantness, Fr. Kolaszewski had managed to get a number of his own parishioners arrested for conspiracy against him. These parishioners were finally having their own day in court. In the fall of 1892, several suits against Fr. Kolaszewski for malicious prosecution came up on the docket.

The priest was deposed from the relative safety of Syracuse. Included in his deposition were photos, presumably illustrating his injuries. One of the photos described by the press included what sounded like a dramatic shot of the beleaguered pastor with a rope around his neck. Motion to suppress parts of his deposition were sustained, and plaintiffs were awarded small, but perhaps symbolically meaningful judgments. Did they ever collect, do you think?

Interlude

Now, things get considerably more raucous in the next act, so let’s pause a moment to consider the view of the battlefield from the cathedrae.

In Cleveland sat Bishop Ignatius Horstmann: American-born of German heritage, but a prelate who saw himself as “ultramontane” first and foremost: a firm, fast believer in papal authority. Catholic historian Joseph Lackner has described him as much more Roman than American. This placed him on a collision course with the Americanist Poles he sought to lead.

Meanwhile, the diocese of Syracuse was in the care of the Most Rev. Patrick Ludden. Ludden had been born and raised in County Mayo before immigrating to North America and beginning his ascent through the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He would eventually find his plate loaded with his own spicy helping of Polish factionalism. If you’re interested, start with the priest who defended himself from kidnapping by brandishing a loaded pyx.

Ludden and Horstmann were both staunchly conservative. Between them, the Irish and the German bishops represented the dominant forces in American Catholic hierarchy. By the time their Polish brethren arrived at the table, all the best seats had been taken.

However, in Syracuse as in Cleveland, the needs of the Polish community could not be ignored, at least when Fr. Colley (the Americanized name his family in that city were using) was at the helm. Given the relatively small size of the Syracuse Polish community at that time—estimated at around 120 families—and given Fr. Colley’s notoriety, it says a great deal about his personal magnetism that he was given Bishop Ludden’s endorsement to immediately set to work in founding the first Polish parish in Syracuse. Within six months after being ejected from Cleveland, Fr. Colley was dedicating a new church building. Whatever other accusations might be leveled against this man, he could never be justly accused of laziness.

And then, only a few months after founding that church, he was gone. The local newspapers reported that in March 1894, the Onondaga County Medical Society had learned that the priest had set up a lucrative little practice of his own, providing medical advice and herbal remedies for a variety of female complaints. Since this has sometimes been used as a euphemism for abortion, the potential for scandal is obvious. The medical society told him to cease. He wouldn’t. They told the bishop to rein him in. He refused the bit. They arranged for his arrest, and that’s when he skedaddled.

Practicing medicine without a license: another shady enterprise for Rev. Kolaszewski/Colley. Was this accusation substantiated? I don’t know. If I could get a peek at Collection 3124, Box 1, Volume 5 in the Cornell University rare and manuscript collections, maybe it would shed some light on this chapter in the story.

In their history of Immaculate Heart of Mary, William Radeker and Glenn Sobola say, “Other than a number of unconfirmed reports and scandalous insinuations, there is little reliable information about Rev. Kolaszewski’s activities in Syracuse.” They suggest that the reason for his dismissal on April 1, 1894 was his involvement in the independent church movement.

Personally, I think even unconfirmed reports are of interest when they become part of a pattern that recurs over time and space. But let’s say we give him the benefit of the doubt on this one—what did he do next? When he abruptly departed from Syracuse, he left behind unsettled debts.Two years after Kolaszewski returned to Cleveland, the bitter Syracuse parishioners who had loaned him money to build a church were still trying to collect.

Murder and Mayhem

The year 1894 was so freaking crazy in the Warszawa neighborhood.

Truly. I don’t know how anyone got anything done for about nine months, what with the rock throwing and the head bashing and the pistol shots and all. Geez.

When Fr. Kolaszewski made his abrupt exit from Syracuse, he did not head straight to Cleveland. First he paid a visit to a friend in Detroit, Fr. Dominic Kolasinski.

Now, don’t go following that link very deeply unless you can tolerate the disappointment of learning that our Rust Belt sibling city beat Cleveland to the punch and to the murder and to the priestly excommunication and to pretty much every other scandal and horror that makes this piece of local history so titillating. The factionalism in the Detroit Polish community had done all of that already. In fact, in the couple of days he spent there before his adoring disciples recruited him for a triumphant return to Cleveland, Kolaszewski managed to receive a very thorough how-to briefing on how to spearhead a churchly rebellion.

In the space of a few weeks in May, Kolaszewski’s supporters in Cleveland went from hosting a nice welcome home reception to frantically digging a foundation for their church. In between, the local press was giddy from the spectacle of so much that was worthy of their column inches. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

“St. Stanislaus,” Plain Dealer, 5/6/1894, p10

Tell me: do you hate this reporter just a little bit here, or are you only feeling his smuggery? I’ll get back to this later in the analysis, but let me just warn you: anyone who can’t feel at least a little admiration for the loyalty and respect shown by these people—however misguided—is totally voted out of my club.

But while the local press rejoiced at the return of this colorful character, Bishop Horstmann was less enthused. He promptly issued a letter warning Kolaszewski to cease all priestly functions. Kolaszewski ignored it.

And then, on May 26th, Elizabeth Janicki, seven months pregnant, was found fatally wounded and staggering amongst the weeds in a vacant lot at the intersection of Kenyon and Ackley Streets. Although the entire circumference of her skull had been fractured by some heavy object, she managed to survive long enough to tell that she did not recognize the man who had attacked her late the night before. Her priest, on the other hand, was very ready to share his own theory.

“I will tell you one thing,” he remarked to a reporter. “She was the principal witness in that attempt to kill me with a bomb placed in my carriage just previous to my leaving Cleveland.”

Bomb? What now?

He referred to an earlier and equally grisly episode when he claimed to have been the victim of an assassination attempt, or—more accurately—an alleged assassination plan. He even claimed to know the identity of the bomber who had gotten cold feet. And, conveniently enough, the man he fingered as his would-be assassin had himself been murdered and his body burned in an apparent arson the summer before.

I kind of forgive the coroner and the newspaper reporters and the prosecutor and a large part of the public if they raised a skeptical eyebrow at this testimony. Rev. Kolaszewski definitely had an unusual history of knowing important facts about people who were too dead to contradict him.

There are a couple reasons why I’ve formed the opinion that the priest committed perjury before the coroner—and may have influenced some of his followers to do the same—during that inquest in the summer of 1894. The first involves timing.

He claimed that the bomb plot had been hatched in spring, 1892, and that the man hired to blow him up had visited Mrs. Janicki “more than a year ago”—so probably sometime in early 1893—and confessed. He produced letters and sworn statements during the coroner’s inquest to support these claims. Koscinski was then killed in August 1893.

Why would anyone have waited two years after the unexecuted execution and nearly a year after the execution of the failed executioner before knocking off the long-silent supposed witness?

Then there is the legalia of it all. In looking through documents at Western Reserve Historical Society, I was repeatedly struck by Kolaszewski’s flourish for legalese and the trappings of legal processes. Think back to the deposition he made in the lawsuit against him for malicious prosecution. Remember that stagy-sounding photo of the rope around his neck? Or the red-ribbon-bound alphabetical inventory? Or this addendum to a contract he prepared himself for the purchase of the St. Stanislaus high altar:

This day February 26, 1889

A. F. Kolaszewski, present pastor of St. Stanislaus Church, Cleveland, Ohio, Donate said High Altar to the church, and oblige myself in conscience and before God to pay said $2,325.00 as above named under the following conditions, viz:

I. That if I shall live and be pastor yet of said church at the time when the Altar shall be completed and set-up in the church.

II. If I should die, before said High Altar would be completed and set up in the church, it is my will that said High Altar should be paid from my estate and money I shall leave, as stated and directed in my will and testament, deposited at the Broadway Saving Bank, with Mr. O. M. Stafford, Cleveland O.

III. But if I should resign my position as pastor of said church, or be removed by my Bishop to some other church, before said High Altar would be completed and set up in the church, I do not and will not oblige myself in conscience and before God to pay for said Altar. The congregation will have to pay it.

A. F. Kolaszewski
pastor of St. Stanislaus Church
Cleveland, Ohio.

Apart from emphasizing how shaky his position in the diocese was even three years before his removal, this addendum gives some feeling for his apparent belief that if it looks official and sounds legal, it must be true and it shall come to pass—even if it won’t, really. Because heaven knows Pelzer & Bro., the high altar maker, was left waiting for payment pretty much as long as most of the St. Stanislaus contractors.

That penchant for the dramatic seems evident in his early appearance before the coroner in the Janicki case, when he came forth bearing letters and sworn statements regarding the dead woman’s witness to a crime that was never actually perpetrated. After commanding the attention of the coroner for two days of testimony, this evidence is never mentioned in the press again.

However, a few weeks later, detectives brought two girls, Frances Glowna and Pauline Witkowski, to testify. It’s interesting to me that some of the wire stories identify Fr. Kolaszewski as the one who produced these witnesses. I haven’t found local stories that suggest he took them by the hand and trotted them before the authorities, but they did come from among his flock.

Unfortunately for everyone, the girls turned out to exemplify “unreliable witness.”

First, Frances claimed that on the night of May 26, she had been walking with her sister Stella and their friend Mary Sygmunt, when Frances heard three men plotting and saw one, John Lisiecki, attack Eliza Janicki.

Pauline said she had only heard the story the next morning from Frances, and hadn’t witnessed anything herself. That’s pretty much the last we hear from Pauline.

Next, sister Stella was brought to testify that, although she had been walking with Frances and Mary that night, somehow she’d missed the whole murder thing. The next day, Frances had told her about it. However, she did say that John Lisiecki had told her if Frances didn’t stop telling lies about him, he would smash her face, and that their dad, John Glowna, had told Frances to shut up or get whipped.

Then Mary testified: she was sure John Lisiecki had struck Eliza. She had seen it with her own eyes.

But then, the court heard that some of the witnesses had been tampered with, including Frances. She was brought back to testify again, and she admitted she had lied. She hadn’t seen Lisiecki at all. She didn’t explain why she had lied.

When Mary was brought back in, she cried and said she was afraid to testify because her life was in danger. People had threatened to kill her if she talked any more. Once reassured that she’d be protected, both Mary and then Frances went back to their original story: Lisiecki did it.

On Lisiecki’s part, he wasn’t doing much better as a witness. His alibi of spending the evening with friends was pretty unsubstantiated.

Next, Frances submitted an affidavit retracting the retraction of her retraction. If you’ve lost track, that means that now she was willing to swear that she did not see Lisiecki kill Eliza, because she was at home. She had heard the story from Mary, who had asked her to testify with her because she was afraid to do it alone.

Mary also submitted an affidavit saying that, while it was true that she’d convinced Frances to testify with her, she actually hadn’t witnessed the attack either. She’d been fed the story by Joe Pawlowski—an early and ardent Kolaszewski supporter—while she was in his butcher shop, and told that if she didn’t tell that story to the coroner, she’d be locked up. She said she had seen three men at the time and place she’d claimed before, but none of them had a stone and she didn’t recognize any of them.

Then Mrs. Pawlowski the butcher’s wife put in her two cents. She said that when Frances and Mary were in her husband’s shop, they had declared that they had seen Lisiecki attack Eliza, and that Joe had told them they’d better tell the cops.

Well, Coroner Bell had big plans to go see the World’s Fair in Chicago, and this was all getting pretty tiresome. Lisiecki was charged with murder, and his trial began.

After some false starts and a little confused waffling, Mary returned to her original story: she heard the plot, she saw the attack, the attacker was Lisiecki. Yes. He did it. She really meant it this time. Why hadn’t she mentioned witnessing a murder when she got home? Because, well, her parents were busy.

Lisiecki was bound over to a higher court.

In November, Joe the butcher wrote the coroner two letters chockful of hearsay claiming that John Glowna had told him that both of Glowna’s daughters had in fact seen Lisiecki commit the murder, and that their mother and two women from St. Stanislaus had threatened them and forced them to change their story.

John Glowna testified and said that Joe the butcher’s story was a big lie. However, he did say that Mary (but not his own daughters) had claimed to have seen Lisiecki with a stone in his hand, but had not seen him strike Eliza.

Got that?

Perhaps it’s needless to say that the case against Lisiecki eventually faded away as the dew. I went looking for the coroner’s case file to see if the translated testimony was any clearer than the confused mess of the newspaper summaries, but the file seems to have been misplaced. The case did get reopened with new testimony a couple years later, but by then there were other matters of a more spiritual nature commanding Fr. Kolaszewski’s attention.

Cuyahoga County Archives, Coroner’s Case Files 1833-1900

The Measure of Devotion

In the summer of 1894, Eliza’s premature infant lay unavenged in its tiny grave in Calvary Cemetery. Having been unable to uncover a burial record for its mama, I went looking for her in the same vicinity. I never found her. Just the barely-noticeable divots in the sod where the cheap grave markers of Cleveland’s poorest Catholics are being gradually swallowed by the earth.

Fr. Kolaszewski, meanwhile, turned to weighty doctrinal matters.

Shortly after the buggy bomb testimony before the coroner, Bishop Horstmann concluded that he’d had enough of these shenanigans and excommunicated the rebel priest, warning his followers that if they didn’t straighten up and come to heel, they’d be next.

Immediately before the testimony, one of the St. Stanislaus contractors filed a lawsuit against Kolaszewski for nonpayment. Then his former business partner’s bank, Broadway Savings and Trust, sued him for more than $20,000 in bad promissory notes. But mere financial concerns were the least of his troubles.

The bigger issue that would face him for most of the next decade was establishing an identity for the new congregation he’d formed. What sort of church was this, exactly?

In writing about the Polish people of Cleveland after World War I, sociologist Charles Coulter would employ one of his favorite adverbs in describing them as “measurably devout.” However, his admiration for this devotion was tempered by some uneasiness with the manner in which it became manifest:

“Although the Pole may quarrel easily with his priest in this country, although he may criticize the method of the church or even establish an Independent Polish Church, go in a body and ask admission to a Protestant denomination, or permit a radical political doctrine to function as his cult, all of which has happened again and again in Cleveland, even in his resentment he can never forget the debt his country owes the church. He remains at heart a Roman Catholic. Indeed until recently so universal was his adherence to the Church of Rome that the Pole was considered a traitor to his people if he was not a Roman Catholic.”

The tangled threads of politics and religion exemplified by the Poland in Chains window at Immaculate Heart of Mary make it challenging to sort out the priorities of the real souls who were that church’s founders.

Certainly the best guide to understanding the founders is the unpublished, thoroughly sourced version of the parish’s centennial history by Radeker and Sobola. But recently, when I enjoyed coffee and history talk with Mr. Sobola at the Red Chimney, even he found himself with a lot of questions remaining after years of study. “I wish I could be transported back,” he said, “I wish I could be there then, so I could know.”

At the beginning, the seceders’ determination to remain Catholic seemed quite clear. From the Marian patronage under which they’d placed themselves to the sacramental structure that remained at their core, there was little about this congregation of protesters that seemed even remotely Protestant. As they continued the construction of a physical church, they also worked to form a communion that extended beyond the borders of Cleveland and Ohio and even beyond Polonia, extending an invitation to “all Catholics who are dissatisfied with the government of the Church of Rome, but not with the faith,” as the New York Times reported.

In fact, as they hurried to pull together a convention of like-minded church people to meet in Cleveland in August—not coincidentally, during the same time that Polish Catholics loyal to Rome had already planned their own convention here—there was an urgency to establish everything that a “real church” would possess. A proper cemetery in which to bury their dead was a required asset, and so Fr. Kolaszewski acquired land a few miles south of Immaculate Heart of Mary and set about finding a bishop to consecrate it.

Surprisingly enough, Bishop Horstmann declined the job. So Kolaszewski called upon the services of an episcopus vagans—a “stray bishop” unattached to any particular church but claiming apostolic succession—to do the honors.

Everyone loves a parade, and Fr. Kolaszewski loved them with great ardor. He had already organized one or two of them in the short time since his return from Syracuse, and the consecration of St. Mary Cemetery by Bishop Joseph Vilatte called for something special. What with the torrential downpour, the mud-caked first communicants, the saber-waving cavalry and the gunshot, special is just what he got.

Plain Dealer, 8/20/1894, p1

So dreary was this episode, when resentful Roman Catholics disrupted this procession of rejoicing Independent Catholics in an ugly dust-up at the intersection of Marceline and Deveney Streets, that even the flinty Plain Dealer reporter assigned to cover the day’s pageantry seemed a little touched with pity.

In some ways, though, that Sunday, August 19, 1894 seemed like a pinnacle of parish life for Immaculate Heart of Mary that would not be surpassed for more than a decade. As the “Knights of St. Casimir and St. Michael, with their flat topped hussar helmets and aiguiletted uniforms of yellow and blue and gold, galloped hither and thither” atop their trusty steeds, waving their drawn but surely dull-edged sabers, some observers would have laughed. Some would, and did, throw rocks. But many then and a few now look upon that scene and see a sincerity, a frustrated faith, a demand for dignity, that is far from funny.

‘We Will See Trouble Here Yet’

Even before Vilatte had come to place his blessing on the new church and cemetery, there were signs that the hastily-dug foundation was not sound, metaphorically speaking. The parish organist, abruptly resigning during a dispute with Kolaszewski about the baptism of his child, had presaged, “I tell you, we will see trouble here yet. There will be a fight, not between the two factions, but inside the Kolaszewski faction. You wait.” By Christmas, the wait was over.

After flinging bold words of defiance at his Roman Catholic superiors and drawing leftist allies like notorious newspaperman Alfons Chrostowski to his cause, Kolaszewski abruptly shifted course. He began making overtures to Monsignor Francesco Satolli, the newly-appointed Apostolic delegate to the United States. Naively convinced that he could get back in the good graces of the mother church while still holding onto local control of property and governance, Rev. Kolaszewski assured his congregation that by Gaudete Sunday they’d be rejoicing in reunion with Rome.

Some were furious at his ridiculous vacillation. Some were relieved. But nearly all were probably disappointed when, in response to their priest’s overconfidence, the diocesan chancellor Monsignor Felix Boff dismissed any such concession to the schismatic priest’s demands. He sniffed, “The church will continue to exist when he and his petty schism have passed into oblivion.” This turned out to be a much more accurate prophesy than the one he’d made a few years earlier at the dedication of St. Stanislaus Church, when he had “predicted that eventually Father Kolaszewski would be the happiest man in Cleveland.”

Over the next few years, Kolaszewski’s resources and his energy for rebellion dwindled. At one point, thinking turnabout to be fair play, he announced that he was excommunicating Bishop Horstmann, his rival Rev. Rosinski, and other Roman Catholics who probably yawned and blinked with boredom, if they even went that far in acknowledging his pronouncement. At another point, he became enraged with the local press when they reported what appeared to be merger negotiations between Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Methodist Episcopal Church.

But mostly he got older, more weary, more financially strapped, and, during a serious illness in winter 1897, more concerned about the safety of his immortal soul. But he was not yet so close to eternity that he could relent in his rebellion, and so upon his recovery, he and his church still stood separate and increasingly lonely between Warszawa and Pulaski Park.

‘Sacrifice Everything’

He had one more unholy hurrah before he called it a day.

In the spring of 1903, Rev. Kolaszewski threw his weight behind an idea that in better times would have met with universal agreement in Cleveland’s Polonia. He wanted to erect a statue of the universally beloved Polish-Lithuanian patriot and American Revolutionary War hero, Tadeusz Kościuszko—who one local editor called, with sincere admiration but an unfortunate degree of prescience, “one of the most gallant and pathetic figures in the long history of lost causes.”

Within a few weeks after the contentious dedication of the city’s statue of Lajos Kossuth—a project that had been opposed by a groundbreaking coalition of Slavic immigrant groups—a corporation had been formed for the purpose of raising funds and soliciting designs for a Polish monument. American monument mania had reached fever pitch by this point, with whole industries growing to meet the demand for statues, classical columns, obelisks and florid combinations of all of the above.

Unlike the Magyars’ plans to erect a statue of their hero Kossuth in Public Square, the Poles intended to place their Kościuszko in a park, thereby avoiding the problem of elevating one ethnic group above others. Since their subject had commanded respect across ethnic boundaries with such rousing battle cries as “There is a time when you have to sacrifice everything to have everything saved,” resistance was not anticipated.

The objections began to arise when lightning rod Kolaszewski became the public face of the project. Perhaps it was his utter certainty that others found off-putting: declaring an exact date for the monument’s dedication long before any agreements had been made about the sculpture or its placement. Perhaps it was just the bitter memories of the St. Stanislaus/Immaculate Heart of Mary split. Or perhaps it really was, as the press reported and Kolaszewski himself stated, that his enemies feared the erection of a Kościuszko whose angular features had been carved to resemble a certain pudgy-cheeked schismatic priest.

No kidding. At one point in the months-long dispute, when the completed statue reposed in its packing materials at the Carabelli granite works near Lake View Cemetery, the anti-Kolaszewskians circulated the rumor that their hero had been made on the cheap and given the face of Fr. K. The attorney representing the monument committee dismissed this idea as “puerile.” Since, after another long year of arguing, the statue was eventually placed on its pedestal in Wade Park, you can be the judge:

“They say the statue looks like me and will be a monument to my own vanity,” Kolaszewski told a reporter. “I may have a monument someday, but it will not be this one.” Not long ago, I walked around the perimeter of the Cleveland Museum of Art, through the parking garage and—there being no “Keep Out” signs evident—down the service road and up the short scramble to the top of the lonely knoll where the Kościuszko monument stands supervising the construction of the Nord Family Greenway. There I found that the priest, as usual, was only partly right:

If he ever had sacrificed his own vanity, his heroic self-image, his compulsion to play the revolutionary when in truth he lacked the endurance for such a venture, maybe he would have saved everything. Maybe he could have brought his people together instead of busting them apart.

The Wheelwright

In the summer of 1908, fifty thousand people crammed the streets around Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago to witness the consecration of the Most Reverend Paul Peter Rhode, the first Polish bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Three weeks later, the bishop was on a train bound for Cleveland, to dedicate St. Hyacinth Church…and to see what he could do about locating some sheep.

What did it feel like to be on the outside looking in at that joyful reception, as the bishop’s entourage was greeted with bouquets of flowers, music and the radiant faces of thousands of Polish Clevelanders? Did it sting to know that your unwilling arch nemesis, Fr. Benedict Rosinski, had shared in the liturgy and the banquet as a Polish congregation that you didn’t found was dedicated by the young and handsome bishop? Was this pain the beginning of penance?

When the pomp and pageantry of the St. Hyacinth dedication had quieted, and before Bishop Rhode left the city, he took a moment at St. Stanislaus to invite the last remaining members of Immaculate Heart of Mary’s dwindling congregation to rejoin the fold.

The vote was prompt and unanimous. Rev. Kolaszewski—humbled at last—submitted his own request for reconciliation. While Monsignor Boff lifted the excommunication from the formerly-schismatic congregation, the Pope alone had the power to deal with the priest.

The end was not entirely a quiet one. Having recently caused the literal destruction of his wood frame church by leaving a thurible to catch fire under the altar, Rev. Kolaszewski also lived long enough to see the front page photos following the April 21, 1909 tornado that brought down the glorious steeples of the first church he’d ever built. Although the church would soon be repaired, it would never again reach so high into the heavens.

While a quick-thinking teacher had saved all the school children in the 1908 IHM fire, one little boy was killed by falling debris in the 1909 tornado that took down the St. Stanislaus steeples.

He went into retreat in the home of his sister, Anna Barzen. There, in a modest house at the corner of Denison and West 42nd Street, he died of endocarditis and nephritis on December 2, 1910.

There’s a lot about Fr. Kolaszewski that I have never figured out. Actually, I don’t even feel confident about his name. Some sources say the surname was originally “Rademacher”—German for “wheelwright.” It’s an apt name for a man whose own machinations often seemed as mystifying and subject to conflicting interpretations as Ezekiel’s wheels. But though “Rademacher” does not appear in the census, naturalization records or death certificate, two standard reference works on Polish Americans declare this as a fact.

Of course, both of those sources have also been harshly criticized by reviewers for their bias. The earliest use of the Rademacher name that I’ve been able to actually document was in 1894, the year of the schism, by Clement Bielinski. In a virulent anti-Kolaszewski speech, he accused the priest of fraud and deception, implying that he’d been hiding his Bismarckian secret identity under an alias.

While the history writers of his own era tended to be mainstream, conservative, and therefore anti-Kolaszewski, more recent local history is sometimes more forgiving than wholly forthright. By 1990, when Fr. Kolaszewski was mentioned in a nostalgic Plain Dealer article, he was described as “a dynamic visionary” rather than a firebrand and fomenter.

Similarly gentle, some histories refer to Fr. Kolaszewski having been laid to rest among brother priests in Calvary Cemetery, but a careful look at headstones suggests no such fraternal landscape. Spiraling down the hill on whose crown he is buried, I found no nearby stones with a deathdate before his own, except probably his illegible nextdoor neighbor. A cynical viewer might look upon the headless sheep on that stone and be reminded of his earthly flock.

I did run into the 1912 monument for Monsingor Boff. This was the diocesan Vicar General who, after decades of strife, finally un-excommunicated the remnants of Kolaszewski’s parishioners once the dying priest—ailing, financially strapped, and increasingly abandoned by his parishioners—finally abandoned his own defiant denial of authority.

Boff’s stern stone eyes gaze out past the wayward cleric’s humble marker, roughly in the direction of that other cemetery, St. Mary’s, where Kolaszewski had buried his loyal followers who had the bad luck, bad timing or bad judgment to die—from the mainstream RC point of view, at least—unshriven.

‘The Judicious Cannot Help But Grieve’

He used nationalist fervor as a wedge, prompting neighbors to hurl insults, accusations and rocks at each other.

As his followers humbled themselves, he wallowed in their adulation.

He aggressively accused others of lying while growing his own Pinocchio nose until it sprouted leaves.

While receiving infinite, unquestioning loyalty, he did not reciprocate. Instead, he flip-flopped on important issues, turning allies into adversaries.

While denigrating and spurning the press, he simultaneously craved their constant attention.

And no matter what else might happen in his little world—even someone else’s tragic death—everything, everything had to be about him.

But as he approached his own last days, he was finally convulsed with either remorse or fear. He abandoned all of his positions, begged forgiveness, and accepted the authority that he had for years so brazenly defied.

There are some hints in his last will and testament that suggest confused contrition. First, after assigning some small bequests, including one drawn from funds he expected to be returned to his estate by the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, he assigned to Bishop Kaminski of Buffalo the task of selling his books.

Kolaszewski had concelebrated the ordination of Stephen Kaminski to the diaconate during the tumultuous convention of August 1894. His protégé gained even more national notoriety than Kolaszewski himself when, as a priest, he loaded his altar with firearms and started shooting. If you happen to have held onto a lot of sociopolitical contraband, this seems like a pretty good person to put in charge of its redistribution.

In Kolaszewski’s final arrangements, all traces of Polish heritage seemed erased. Having been buried from the German parish of St. Boniface, he requested that fifty masses for his soul be said at the German church of St. Joseph on Woodland Avenue. He even named as executor of his estate a German classmate from his seminary days, Rev. Nicholas Pfeil of the German parish of St. Peter. Fr. Pfeil declined to serve. His followers having long been taunted with the derogatory nickname “Fritz,” it was almost as if Kolaszewski had ultimately embraced non-Polishness.

So, in the compilation of this longest-of-all long blog posts, what did I learn?

My mother’s people were German Catholics, and my local parish is Irish. Until a friend offered to show me around Immaculate Heart of Mary a few months ago, I’d been ignorant about the pain with which Polish Cleveland had been birthed.

I’d looked from high places across the hundreds of spires rising up into the sky over Cleveland, and felt a little sorry that there had ever been a need to build two churches less than a block apart because the ethnic communities could not bring themselves to worship together. But I had never really realized, until thinking about the image of Poland in Chains, what it meant to be a Polish Catholic in America.

As I got to know this community a little better, I did what I generally do during such projects: I tried to read what the people I was trying to understand would have read. Charles Coulter had suggested that the most popular fiction writer among the Polish patrons frequenting the Cleveland Public Library was Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz. So I read his novel After Bread, which describes the hardships of Polish immigrants to America:

A Mazur, when he has a club in his hand, and especially when he has other Mazurs at his back, will not be driven from his path, and to those who would molest him he is ready to exclaim: “Have a care; we are not fools; dare not to touch us, or we will lame you.” It is known that the Mazurs like to band together, to settle in bodies, so that one can run with his club in his hand to help another.

However:

They were without guidance, power to order their affairs, or smooth their misunderstandings. They had not the experience to know how to go to work. A body of Germans would have combined together to clear the woods, build houses, and then would have measured off to each man his portion; but the Mazur, at the beginning, wanted to settle on his own land, to build his own house, and to cut down trees on his own lot. Every one wanted also to get land near the central glade, where the trees were few and water the nearest. Thereupon arose contentions, which gradually grew…

They came from a country that had disappeared from the map of Europe for over a century. They were imported in cattle boats, tricked into accepting low wages for dangerous and exhausting work, despised by the ethnic communities that had preceded them and who saw them as scabs, and, as church communities, deprived of rights to property and self-governance that they believed would come with the American promise of freedom. Having been shackled by their oppressors in their captive homeland, they felt shackled by their church here.

In 1863 – Polonia by Jan Matejko (1838-1893), a blacksmith fits the mourning Polonia with shackles after the January Uprising failed to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

I am not Polish American, so I don’t know if someone from that community would react as I did upon reading the following snip from a 1909 copy of the Fortnightly Review. Arguing that some of history’s sensitive or controversial documents and artifacts ought never to be displayed for public scrutiny, the writer proclaims:

“In my experience the Polish people are very prone to mind too much the business of their parish priests and too little their own; and I think history bears me out on this point; to spread before them…the faults of the clergy, their little intrigues among themselves, their want of obedience to their superiors, etc., etc., must tend to aggravate a condition of affairs over which the judicious cannot but grieve.”

I reject that whole thing. How much more grief is caused when, for want of a little probing, we look up at the image of the woman in shackles and can’t recall just why she’s weeping?

Thanksgiving Morning, Middletown, Ohio

We didn’t choose to spend Thanksgiving in Middletown, Ohio, merely because I’d recently read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. But when we decided to travel to our college girl instead of asking her to make the second 4.5-hour trip from Cincinnati to Cleveland this month, it did enter our minds that maybe Middletown could use a little of our holiday spending.

If you vacation in the greater Middletown area anytime soon, we recommend comfort food brunch at Barn-n-Bunk Farm Market followed by a brisk hike at beautiful Twin Creek Metropark.

I also didn’t seek out the story that I received from the breakfast attendant at the hotel. This is just a thing that happens to me. I can literally walk down the street, nod good afternoon to someone, and the next thing I know, I’ve heard about the spouse who they stopped loving before the accident, but who they now feel chained to by a crippling honor. Fortunately, the breakfast attendant’s story was a lot more uplifting than that one.

The image that stuck with me were the tied shoes in bed. If I understood her correctly, those were included in the early morning ritual that she follows nearly every school day.

Her family, she said, was pretty dysfunctional. That’ll happen after a couple of generations of crime and drugs and despair. But she felt like things were heading in a better direction now. Kin who were lifting the family average had custody of the children while those facing harder times tried to get their acts together.

That’s how she came to find herself with two school-aged children at home, just when the nest had started to feel less filled with the squawking cries of the unfledged. She was glad to have them, wanted to help, and she knew she could manage it if she just got a good system. The tied shoes were part of her current strategy.

See, her job demands early rising. Her employer had found a way to help with that part: she gets a wake up call at 4:30 from the hotel’s switchboard. They’re glad to do this. Sometimes that caller, working almost alone in the silence of a slumbering hotel, seems eager to chat. But she’s got to cut it short. She’s got three people to dress.

At eight and ten, you’d think that the grandkids would be able to dress themselves, but that isn’t the sort of early training they got. With one parent dead and the other incapacitated, learning skills like buttoning, tying, tucking and zipping would have been as likely as learning cello and Japanese. They’ve only been with their grandma for a few months, and it takes pretty much as long to learn life skills later as it does sooner.

So at 4:30 on school days, the breakfast attendant gets them out of bed, hoping that the rest they’ve received so far has been mostly adequate to their needs. She leads them quietly through face-washing, tooth-brushing, dressing in school clothes and tying shoes, hoping that they can do these things while remaining mostly unconscious in the pre-dawn darkness. Once they’re dressed for their day, they lay back down for a few more hours of sleep.

Then she leaves for work, hoping that her adult son really will wake in time to get the school kids up for the second time. She crosses her fingers that the 10-year-old really will watch out the front window for their ride while he eats his cereal or toast. She prays that they will both attend to school work, learn a lot, stay away from drugs, find work they love, live happily to old age.

I assume that this hopefulness fills much of her waking thought. That is undoubtedly why, given a nearby bucket with a little room left to hold them, she poured off some of her excess thoughts on Thanksgiving morning.

The next story I heard in the breakfast room was told by an older gentleman, and it was about how this holiday is ruined now that they refuse to stand for the flag. That one ends tragically.