Constance O’Hara’s 1955 biography Heaven was Not Enough, chronicled a personal crisis of faith in an eerily relatable setting.
Born near Rittenhouse Square in 1905, Constance came from a well-connected, well-to-do Philadelphia Irish Catholic family in an “age of immense security and serenity.” Her father was the physician for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and local convents; her great uncle was the first Bishop of Scranton. Her family were also linked, in some way, with Eleanor Donnelly – the “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church” who contributed our Blessed Mother altar.
That solid world began to turn hollow in May 1914, when Constance made her First Holy Communion — two months before the start of World War I. Her father, rejected by every branch of the military due to his fragile health, then exhausted himself tending patients through the Influenza epidemic of 1918. Inspired by Blessed Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” who would be canonized in 1925, he quietly carried her relic and “offered up” his sufferings as his health slowly deteriorated.
Our neighborhood enters the story at this point: Constance writes that “my mother, with the realities of life swamping her, returned to the precepts of her ancestors – a belief in bricks and mortar. We bought a vast house on Baltimore Avenue (number 4331 per parish records), its front windows flooded with sunshine, its back rooms dark and damp. It faced Clark Park which seemed like the wilds of the country. The oak paneling was solid and magnificent, as my mother pointed out; the furnaces consumed tons of coal and we were never warm. Over this uneasy home was suspended a mortgage bearing a staggering interest rate...”
“I still went to Sunday Mass with my father, often to the ornate Church of St. Francis de Sales where Bishop Michael Crane met us at the door, saying in a booming cheerful voice that maddened me: “It’s time you got a nice Irish Catholic boy to marry that one. I’ve just the lad in mind. I’ll send him over tonight...”
Constance was not receptive. She notes that the years after WWI and during Prohibition were “an ugly period in which to be young.…” Cynical youth like herself “were going to be honest about everything, and as the old moral values were based on hypocrisy we would dispense with them” and “just get as much pleasure from money and our senses as possible before it all ended in the final defeat of death…” while an off-kilter world careened towards the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII.
After an unfortunate visit to an unnamed confessor at SFDS when her father died in 1926 – she wanted comfort, but was scolded, instead, for “indulging in self-pity” — Constance rejected the Church for many years. Nonetheless, one day in 1933, when “the sun poured in the windows of my room, and the tall trees in Clark Park had never seemed so beautiful...” she wrote a “profoundly Catholic play” called The Years of the Locusts, about an enclosed convent of Irish Benedictine nuns surviving in occupied Belgium during the First World War, based on real diaries. The play was performed locally at Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Tree and was picked up for a run in London, but the beginning of World War II derailed those expansive plans.
A long period of small achievement followed, punctuated with illness and depression, before Constance reconciled with the Church in the early 1950s. This was due, in part, to Reverend William Flatley, recently returned to SFDS from service in WWII, who gently encouraged her to offer up her personal suffering for American soldiers then fighting in Korea – and she wrote her healing memoir. She died in 1985, but her story remains like a leaded-glass window to another age, offering odd glimpses of a familiar, unfamiliar landscape though its diamond panes.