Among Women

“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.

St. Patrick Church–Bridge apse windows, from left: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Patrick, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome. Altar sculpture: St. Patrick, top; St. Peter, left; St. Paul, right. Melchizedek, Abram and Co., bottom.

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.

The first Mass was said in the Whitman Avenue church during the 1853 Christmas season, and the building wasn’t totally abandoned until the Bridge Avenue church was adequately finished in the winter of 1881. Cleveland Memory Project

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.

The small Dee plot at Calvary Cemetery includes only one stone, and that bears only the names and dates of the parents. But according to records, four of their children—John Jr., Joseph, Anna and David—are also buried here.

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.

There’s a legend about St. Augustine:

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.

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