“There is not one who does good, there is not even one.” – Romans 3:12
First, there is the chalk story busker. Today you could think of her as Blond April, but tomorrow, after the Grafton Street pavement has been hosed down overnight, when you see someone rewriting her story of childhood trauma in large, neat, colorful letters, the writer will have red hair, and you will think of her as Auburn April.
Next, there is the still body sprawled theatrically across the grass in St. Patrick’s Close. It is possible, on close inspection, to determine that the color of the narrow slit of glassy iris visible between his partially-open lids is blue, like the evening sky which the unmoving eyes reflect. There is an empty beer can laying inches from one limp hand. Maybe it was placed there as a prop by the man with the fancy camera who smirks as he leans in for a shot of this unwilling model for his “Typical Dubliners” Instagram album.
Finally, there is the man with the holes in his shoes curled on his side on a stone bench just a few yards from Rowan Gillespie’s sculpture Famine, along the Dublin Quayside. Unlike those gaunt images of starvation, he is on the husky side. Unlike the probably-intoxicated man by the cathedral, he appears to be merely drowsy in the afternoon sunshine. And unlike Blonde April, he does not imply any curiosity about the contents of your pockets, so you don’t offer him compensation before snapping a photo of those indisputable shoes—the footwear of poverty.
And what about you? How do you look?
Blond April has placed a cup suggestively at the corner of her carpet-sized chalk paragraph, so after you stand there and read her whole story—how she was taken from her family as a child, endured the deprivations and dangers of foster care, made her escape, but now dreams of college—you owe her compensation. You spare yourself the usual internal debate about the thin line between charity and enabling, and you drop a two-euro coin before granting her the further benevolence of engagement.
“Do you think you would have been better off if you’d been left with your birth family?”
She eyes you suspiciously, so you clarify. “I adopted a child from foster care, so I just wondered.”
She considers her audience carefully for a moment before deciding on the judicious reply, “Well, they were on drugs.”
“So, you wouldn’t have been safer?”
“Foster care wasn’t safe.”
It’s not a soothing reply. She has not cleared you of the indictment against the system. So to balance the transaction, you ask if you can take a picture of her story. She grunts assent, and looks away. This is the chance you take, when you decide to be a tourist attraction.
Your self-righteousness feels slightly shaky, so a few minutes later in St. Patrick’s Close, when you catch the photographer in the act, you choose redemption by photobombing. You ask, “Is he okay?” and lean into the frame to gaze into those blue eye slits.
“Alcohol,” the photographer replies, lowering his camera and miming a tipple. He dons an expression of concern. “I don’t think he is okay, do you think?”
The half-open mouth, the sunken cheeks, the pitted skin on his fleshy nose, with a tracing of swollen capillaries, the eyes that do not see. Could there be a dead body in the middle of a busy tourist district?
“Are you okay?”
He catches a breath, and although he still does not shift his eyes or hands, his cheeks flap slightly with the expelled air. He is alive. He has drunk himself into oblivion. He will sleep it off. You need not take responsibility.
The photographer tsks and trots off in the direction of the cathedral. And because it is nearly 5:30, and you had planned to attend evensong, you trot right after. It is so much more appealing to stop someone else from doing wrong than to start yourself doing right.
But though you settle comfortably in the peaceful sanctuary, eager to be entertained by angelic voices singing the Word of God, you are not to be let off that easily. If your own conscience has been caught slumbering, the lectionary has not. When it is time for the epistle, it turns out to be from the third chapter of Romans, and probably you would need to be deliberately obtuse to miss the point.
So the next day, when you are standing with several others, contemplating the hollow cheeks and emaciated limbs of Gillespie’s bronze figures, you notice the man with the holes in his shoes and you’re stumped. St. Paul, what would I do if I were not a hypocrite? Offer him my own shoes? Offer to buy him shoes? What is righteous? What is kind?
The man awakens from his snooze and rolls off the bench, stretching. He turns and regards you as you stand there irresolute. Then, with a tiny, knowing smile, and a glance at the famine figures, he put his hands in his pockets and strolls away down the quayside.
When I think of the Doherty family, I picture a clear blue sky, shining between the rusty weave of a playground backstop, and jammed in between the twisted links, a tennis ball.
This image is drawn from an early Doherty encounter when, as my own tiny son scratched with a stick in the always-mesmerizing, endlessly fascinating orange clay dust of the old Fairview Park softball field, some of the bigger kids were playing with a tennis ball and a chunky plastic bat. One of them dealing the ball an especially tremendous whack, the pop-up foul shot high into the air, lodging in the chain link backstop. The o’s of many child mouths drooped into frowns.
“We need a Doherty,” called our friend Jeanne from the sidelines, where she stood with her toddler Gabe perched on her cocked hip. “A Doherty could get that.”
And, sure enough, there went a Doherty—it must have been Mark, or possibly Matthias—scrambling like a spider monkey up the backstop, and popping the ball out. Then, turning a victorious grin to his adoring fans, he braced his gym shoes against the chain link as if intending to fly from that height onto the infield. But a warning call of, “Now…” from Jane brought him down the more advisable, slower route.
After this, the name of Doherty became part of our family lexicon. It started with obvious cognates: a tattered blue grocery bag fluttering from the high branches of a blossoming pear tree, a lost balloon bouncing against the ceiling of St. Paul’s gym. We would see something out of reach or unattainable, and remark, “Well, this is a job for a Doherty,” recalling the graceful ease of the little boy who knew instinctively that if you just throw your whole self at a problem without fear, you have a better chance of success than if you stay safe in the dust.
Over the years, “We need a Doherty” began to take on more nuanced meaning. Say that John and I had spent the morning cleaning the gutters, bemoaning our increasing age and decreasing nimbleness as we tentatively ascended and descended the shaky ladder. Then, the conversation might go:
“Know what we need?”
And then we’d try our best to channel our inner Doherty long enough to get that last really difficult gutter over the back porch.
Eventually, our confidence in the Doherty brand prompted us to appeal directly to the family on a couple of occasions when we seriously doubted our own strength and stamina. Our favorite of these happened last summer, when Greg and Matthias, armed with sledge hammers, made about half an hour’s work of an old house foundation that had for twenty years posed a much-hated hazard even as it lurked under our kitchen.
My own tendency when considering the tennis ball in the backstop is to focus first on the ball—the obstacle, the dilemma, the loss. Gradually, as frustration builds, I will direct my resentment to the chain link, and the way it cruelly snares the ball in its flight. But the right thing to do, I know—the Doherty thing—is to look past those things, at all those diamonds of azure sky. Then breathe deep, and take a running leap.
“Whether or not people are aware of the fact, they cannot live without myth, nor can they reach full stature as people without true myths… A proper response to true myth is necessary to moral and spiritual health.” —Rolland Hein, Christian Mythmakers
Look carefully. Can you spot the holy women? Not counting those androgynous angels, I think.
In the old church that once stood directly behind this iteration of St. Patrick–Bridge, facing Whitman Avenue, the women around the altar were more obvious. There, the image of the Virgin Mary rose in solemn progress toward heaven, while St. Bridget—beloved badass shero of the Irish church—guarded the tabernacle.
Since 1913, when the apse of the “new” church was extended, the guys have dominated. That happens a lot. But there are still women there, if you look hard enough. There is, for example, Kattie Dee.
Technically, it isn’t Catherine but rather her mother, Mary, whose name appears in gothic font beneath the feet of St. Augustine: Mr. and Mrs. John Dee. But it is through the aging eyes of Kattie—as she was called in the 1900 census—that I try to see the golden light of sunset streaming through the folds of Augustine’s draped vestments.
It’s not that I dismiss the contributions of the great Latin fathers, nor those of our anti-slavery patron. But at this moment in history, I struggle to extract much edification or comfort from men in miters.
When I consider the lives of the saints, the ones I find most companionable are the ones with no purported miracles attached, no visions, no theological pronouncements—people whose lives of faith might be inferred from the scanty evidence of local newspapers, property records and grave markers. With some mental gymnastics, I suppose I can imagine myself in conversation with, say, the anti-feminist St. Jerome—cringing disconsolately while he catalogs his disdain for my clothes, my ideas, my happy marriage—but it is much easier for me to picture myself folding laundry with Kattie Dee.
And so I envision this middle-aged, unmarried woman here on an autumn evening in 1959, kneeling before the Marian altar. I picture her lifting tired eyes to the serene image of Mary distributing Graces from atop the globe, as she appeared to St. Catherine Labouré. I consider the probable hardships and disappointments of Kattie’s life, and I imagine a faith that I could emulate.
For more than five years, the hammering air compressors and clanging bells of the Madison line streetcars have been hushed, the pounding of steel wheels on steel rails replaced by rubber on asphalt. So Kattie can hear the shifting of the building’s arthritic joints—the creaking and the sighing. Surely, she sighs herself as she prays out her grief.
Of the nine children born to the couple memorialized in our Augustine window, four have died since midsummer. After years of scrutinizing scrawled envelopes as a mail clerk, did Kattie’s eyes strain to read the small type of the Plain Dealer death notices? That’s where I found, on the same day in July of that year, her sister Mamie listed just above her brother William.
Like a lot of families, my own has endured an ungluing that will not be mended. But even so, if any two siblings were to die on the very same day, I think I’d be craving whatever grace I could get.
When Kattie’s younger brother, Matthew, passed away a few months later, he also received a modest notice rather than a more informative obituary, even though he had recently risen to some local prominence in Parma. There, after years of civic service, he had been promoted to Clerk of the Municipal Court after his much younger hard-partying predecessor was convicted of embezzlement and “perversion.” But Matthew only spent four more years toiling in the bubbling cesspool that was the Parma justice system before he finished his mortal career at the age of 63.
But I reckon that on this imaginary evening, it would be the most recent death that would occupy the very front part of Kattie’s mind. It doesn’t take long for the chill to penetrate this limestone after the steam’s been turned off on Sundays. If Kattie is kneeling there praying for her siblings’ relief from Purgatory, I expect that the name of Annie rises most often on the cloud of her breath.
Separated by only a year from each other but by more than a decade from the only other Dee daughter, Kattie and Annie have been lifelong companions. For most of their adult lives, Annie kept house at their little place on West 38th Street, just a few doors south of the family home that their parents purchased in 1888. Meanwhile, Kattie’s small salary—barely more than a quarter of what her baby brother David brought home during his brief stint as a pipefitter—paid the light bill and the butcher.
By 1959, though, Kattie might have gotten used to loss both in the fiscal and the familial sense. Cleveland as a whole had reached a peak and begun a gradual descent, diminishing the prosperity of her parents’ generation. And she had been only twelve years old when her brother John Jr. stepped off the streetcar and collapsed on Lorain Avenue.
By the time two buddies found him there and carried him the half block to his home at 17 Mechanics Street, John was gasping his final breaths. He died surrounded by his overwhelmed siblings. No bruise or bleeding, no intemperate habits or rowdy living could explain it. The doctors speculated about poison—some Gilded Age roofie slipped maliciously to this dependable boy who, when he walked home from his grocery clerk job near the old market house, kept his wages in his pocket instead of squandering them on drink. But in the end, they settled for the vaguery of “lymphatism,” while the neighbors whispered “melancholy.”
In those days, as they spread the black pall across the casket beneath St. Patrick’s vaulted roof, there would have been ten Dees left to mourn—enough to claim a whole pew. Eldest child Mamie would soon be Mrs. Hodge, but was then still working as a stenographer. Brother James had survived a wild boyhood highlighted by a brief stint in jail. That adventure had followed a local preview of the Spanish-American War in which his gang of “Spaniards” clashed with the boys from the Isle of Cuba neighborhood in an epic battle to claim the territory of Walworth Run. Little Willie had survived a mauling by the neighbor’s St. Bernard, after he had scaled the fence to retrieve a ball.
No sooner had the shock of John Jr.’s passing worn down to a throb than John Sr., a conductor for the Big Four, stepped off his train as it pulled into Galion and walked straight into the path of a speeding switch engine. Mary buried her 54-year-old husband next to—or possibly above—her son in Calvary Cemetery and figured out how to get on with life.
I don’t know what qualities the maturing Catherine might have inherited from Mary Tompkins Dee, but I imagine thrift might have been among them. Mary found the money to acquire more property nearby after Mechanics Street became West 38th, and by so doing she kept her family close. When they lost another member suddenly—Kattie’s older brother Joseph died on Independence Day in 1918 at the age of 33—he was still living in the family home.
There are many other things I don’t know. The most frustrating of these, because of the ease with which such details are often clarified, is the question of whether St. Augustine cast his glassy, inscrutable gaze upon Mary’s own funeral in 1923, or whether he was a later addition. The fenestration of St. Patrick’s has followed the same sort of herky-jerky path as its spiritual construction. For months there were just openings in the wall, unglazed and decorated only by the sky. Then came jerry-rigged windows with store-bought, rough-framed sashes when financial panic and winter arrived simultaneously. Then Fr. O’Leary, with his great love of the gorgeous, upgraded them to vitrified glass until, finally, the neo-Gothic palette of Chartres poured across the uplifted faces of the faithful this “dim religious light,” as John Milton would say. So I don’t know whether Mary lived to see her name above the high altar, or whether friends or family placed it there in her memory.
I also wonder about David, the baby of the family who, at the age of 47, could still pitch a ball at the respectable speed of 60 miles per hour, as clocked at the West Side YMCA. Why does a 1951 wedding announcement describe the “daughter of Mrs. Philomene Dee” of West 38th Street, when the bride’s father was still living until 1963? Why was Philomene laid to rest in San Diego, while her husband reposed among his parents and unmarried siblings on Miles Avenue? What I do know is that every family has sorrows and separations, even the quasi-historical spiritual ancestors that I conjure in my head whenever I go looking for the support of the community of saints.
Kattie died in the summer of 1967—a year after the Hough Riots and a year before the Glenville Shootout. All around her, the aging white working class population was riddled with resentment, fear, bigotry, and hostility. Maybe Kattie felt those things too. She’s dead, and I never knew her, and I will offer her the benefit of the doubt by believing that she made it through the trying times sustained by prayer rather than bitterness.
Her brother James was left to bury her alone. After her funeral Mass at St. Pat’s, he placed her not among the Dees—by that time, the plot was already over capacity—but with his own wife’s people, the Grady family. Although his name was added to the rear of the family stone after his own death three years later, there is no marker for Catherine.
Baffled by the mystery of the Holy Trinity, he went walking on the seashore. There he found a boy scooping sea water with a shell and pouring it into a hole that he had dug in the sand. “What are you doing, my boy?” Augustine inquired. “I am emptying the sea into this hole,” the little fellow responded. The Doctor of the Church scoffed a little: “But you’ll never do that! The shell’s too small! The hole’s too porous! The sea’s too large!” “Well,” said the boy, “I will sooner fit the sea in this hole than you will fit the Holy Trinity into your head!”
Somehow, I can’t picture this. The precocious and omniscient boy, the bishop’s regalia as beach attire. Implausible.
There are lots of times over the course of a lifetime’s faith journey when it’s worth stopping alongside the road to excavate the foundations of more humble dwellings. In sifting the potsherds, turning them this way and that as we hold them to the light, sometimes we can make out an image that is clearer, closer and far more easy to replicate than Augustine, Ambrose, Patrick or Jerome, even with the setting sun shining with full force behind them.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Timesarticle. 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.
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 keywords—cure, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.