Month: March 2022

2021 Border Mission: Pod 23A

Sisters Constance and Jeannette in San Antonio, TX, May 2021

When two thousand anxious immigrant children were separated from their families at the U.S. southern border in early 2021, Catholic Charities summoned its unique superpower — nuns from orders across the country – to help in the crisis. Among those IHM sisters who answered the call, were several familiar names: Sister Kathy Benham of the IHM Ctr for Literacy, who worked with families in CA; and Sisters Constance and Jeannette, formerly of SFDS School. Snippets from Sister Jeannette’s San Antonio TX diary hint at the size of the task there:

This morning we reported at 6:45, police, security everywhere….Covid test…Dept Homeland Security lanyard and ID, then… Catholic Charities…took pix, got ID there…gave us Catholic Charities vests and gave us instructions…We were given total charge of a pod ourselves!! 23A.   The place took our breath away. A Huge coliseum with maybe 1,000 cots in it!!!!!  And 1,000 boys to match the cots…They gave us a map and a list of names and information and told to go watch them, that the overnight person had just left…23A was Only 21 boys ages 13 to 17… We couldn’t see the end of our cots and the beginning of the cots on the pods around us…Some were sitting on their cots and a few tried to talk to us…They were scheduled for ‘indoor activity’…Our pod is scheduled to go outside to a small yard tomorrow. Around lunch time we were told to line up our pod for lunch. They are really good at getting in line and waiting to be told when to go…It’s amazing Totally organized…We picked up boxes on the way in and ate with them: sausage, beans and salsa, potatoes and a roll. It was hot and good. The minute you’re finished they move your pod out and more are coming in all the time. After lunch they are supposed to ‘rest’ and they did. Lots were reading paperback Bibles in Spanish, of course, or playing UNO. But Most of All, they were using pieces of yarn and had beads and they were making beautiful bracelets.  They were so earnest about this…The boys are so gentle and thoughtful…Three different times there was clapping, whistling, cheering and it meant that a boy from some pod was being taken out because they were reuniting him with his family…they were happy for the lucky boy and really showed it…”

Day 2 was exciting:the boys “each got to make a telephone call!!… They were arranged in a line according to bed #, then seated in chairs….The boys were called to the tables and the volunteer called the number on the paper and asked for the person to verify the info. Then they gave the cell phone to the boy and he talked. We heard one to a mother and another to a priest. They talked for 12 minutes (there was a stopwatch), then they came over to us and the next boys were called to the table. It’s like musical chairs here….”

As days went by, some boys were released to relatives, and the rest waited patiently for their turn. Indoors, “along the side aisles there were soccer ball games going on all over. It reminded me of the schoolyard (small) at St. Francis de Sales…” The sisters bought craft supplies and games at Walmart. The boys studied basic English phrases and looked at a map to see the states where they would someday live. They had haircuts and figured out how to make elaborate folded paper swans. “The shrine on the table to Our Lady of Guadeloupe has been cleaned, straightened and added to. It looks very nice.  A picture of St. Martin de Porres has been placed there, also.”

The Sisters ound out that “All the boys here are from Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua…The US is allowing these in as a safe haven” because “their lives are in danger. If they stayed in their countries “they would be forced into gangs for drug running or sex or killed for refusing.”

At the end of their two exhausting weeks, Sister Constance called together the remaining boys in their Pod 23A “family” to tell them “this will be our last day.  We are going back to our school…” (St. Matthew’s). Explanation was important so the boys wouldn’t feel abandoned: “We learned that lesson… at De Sales. When Sisters were changed, the kids often thought that they didn’t like…them and that’s why they went away…Because we can’t touch them, we fist-bumped each one. It brought tears to us and them. They presented each of us with a RECUERDOS bracelet – remember, regards, memories.”

The View from the Belltower

SFDS Belltower

One afternoon a few weeks ago, the perilous hatch up into the belfry creaked open and the pigeons were astonished by a rare human visitor. Who was it? Not Quasimodo the Hunchback, but Tim Verdin, President of the Verdin Company of Cincinnati OH – the sixth-generation family-owned company that inherited the mantle – and the records — of the Old Meneely Bell Foundry of West Troy, NY, which made our bells back in 1916 (not to be confused with the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, NY – a different family branch and a separate competing company. Verdin notes that the Meneely vs Meneely trademark case of 1875 actually set a precedent, establishing “the legal right to use one’s surname commercially, even if a business using the same name already existed”).

In any case, Verdin, who was in town to work on the 58-bell Meneely carillon at Valley Forge (one of the world’s largest carillons), was especially interested in seeing our bells because he knew that there was something special about them: “Starting just before 1900, Meneely began experimenting with tuning their bells. What they do is cast the bells slightly thicker than they thought they should be and then they would remove metal from the outside of the bell to flatten the tone. Meneely is the only bell company to have tuned their bells on the outside; in Europe at the time all bell foundries tuned their bells by removing metal from the inside of the bell. Meneely would put the bell on a large metal lathe and then use a cutting tool to remove the appropriate bronze.” Eventually, the firm developed a new method of tuning to all “five different partials or frequencies that make up the note the bell is perceived to be” rather than just the middle three, and bell shaving became obsolete.

 Verdin observed that “Meneely cast some of the finest bells of any of the early American bell founders.” Our “chime consists of a total of (11) bronze bells..The largest bell weighs about 2,300 Lbs. and rings the note E1 in the middle octave. All of the bells except the largest are stationary which means they hang from the wooden frame…and don’t move.” Verdin notes that   they are “cast of bronze which is a mixture of approx. 80% copper and 20% tin. They are showing a nice greenish/blue patina which is perfectly normal for this age of bell in the environment they are in…These bells were not tuned before they were installed, but sound very nice. This is very typical of early American bell founders…The largest bell which sit on top of the wooden frame is designed to be a swinging bell, although it looks like it’s been a long time since it actually did swing.” He further notes that “The chime is a wonderful example of preserved history. It is still very much original and is basically using all of the same components as it did one the first day it was installed 104 years ago,.” which is, apparently, unusual!

Verdin located the original 1916 records for our bells in his archive. In addition to the technical specifications, labor costs, and stated fifteen-year warranty(!), there is an historic notation that “the bells to be arranged for blessing ceremonies after which they are to be placed in chiming order in the tower…Less allowance towards installation concert programs. Mr. C. to receive gratis about 250 copies.” That’s a lot of copies of our 1916 Parish Bell-Blessing ceremony program potentially floating around. What was the first music played on our bells? Can we dare hope that one of those programs may someday turn up in somebody’s attic?!

Incidentally…

Tim Verdin commented: “My Great-Great-Great Grandfather was Francis de Sales Verdin. He and several of his brothers are the ones that brought their families to America, from Marlenhiem, France, in the early 1830’s (and started the company). I am unsure…how he came to be named Francis de Sales. We actually have a Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati which I always thought was kind of cool because of his name. in fact, the Francis de Sales Catholic Church here in Cincinnati has the largest bell that has ever been cast in America in the tower. The bell was cast right here in Cincinnati in 1896 by the Buckeye Bell Foundry. It weighs almost 35,000 Lbs. and is called ‘Big Joe.’

Here is a picture of my Great-Great-Great Grandfather Francis de Sales Verdin; and here’s ‘Big Joe’ – Largest bell ever cast in America.

In Search of the Grail on Chester Ave.

Philadelphia Grail Center at 4520 Chester Avenue in 1955. (Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia, PA)

 Aileen McGovern, widow of Nativity artist Bob McGovern, inspired an interesting quest when she mentioned that Bob’s first wife Beverly (d. 1970) had been a “Grail Girl” before marriage. It sounded so medieval!  What could it mean?

                Research led to 4520 Chester Avenue (The Gables B&B, today), once used by Carmelite nuns as a retirement home. Purchased by The Grail in 1954, it underwent “an orgy of renovating,” in which volunteers joined in “removing varnish, sanding floors, plastering, painting, and repairing,” before the twenty-room house opened as “The Grail Center,” “a new type of resident Adult Education, designed to help young women develop themselves more fully in Catholic life…

What was the Grail? The international organization was the 1921 vision of a Dutch Jesuit priest, who “felt that many new possibilities were opening up for women and that a group of lay women, unconfined by convent walls and rules, could make an immense contribution to the transformation of the world.” By 1939, thousands of women belonged to the Grail in the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany.Marian Ronan then notes that two Dutch Grail members “brought the Grail to the U.S. in 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.” Its first U.S. home was Chicago, IL; then, it moved to a farm called Grailville outside Cincinnati, OH, with a mission “deeply connected to the Catholic ‘Back to the Land’ movement.” As it expanded, the Grail also supported a social mission. The Philadelphia Grail, approved in 1952 by Archbishop O’Hara (who had an SFDS connection), and headed by Anna McGarry, “a pioneer in Catholic interracial work,” had a special hope: “to discover potential leaders among black women” and nurture their talents.

How did it all work? The NCWC News Service reported that girls would live at The Grail for a three-month course covering “everything from Scripture to social action,” and “those with special interests will be offered courses in arts and crafts, writing, music and the recreation home arts in their relation to the lay apostolate.” Many girls stayed on or came back to enjoy the “Open House on Saturday nights for Mass preparation, Sunday breakfasts after Mass devoted to discussions on women’s apostolate, an evening a week for a choir and another on family service. An art and bookstore was soon set up in a large room on the first floor.”

                Parishioner Maureen Tate, active since the 1980s, learned that in the 1960s, “Many of the women who lived and worked at the Grail Center came from a year-long training experience at GrailvilleMen and women participated in lecture series and prayer experiences at the Grail Center. Many women met their husbands at these programs and many later settled in Mt. Airy with their families…The Grail was active in Civil Right marches and anti-racism efforts locally. They sponsored, and were active in ecumenical programs…

How did the Grail connect with our Parish? The Catholic Standard and Times reported that “Participation in the Mass is the high, point of the day—the girls must rise early…but this is training for a lifetime of conviction that it’s the Mass that matters.”  Grail member Maclovia Rodriguez who ran the Grail Bookshop in 1958-59, recalls daily Mass was at SFDS. So were the marriages! Bob and Beverly McGovern were married at SFDS in 1963.

There were also other neighborhood interactions: parishioner Jerry McHugh recalls his mother taking him to a “different” store when he was about six – the Grail Bookstore – where they bought his first Advent Calendar! He also remembers the bread made in the Grail bakery. His relatives recall the Grail Family Service, “through which Grail members would come into the homes of women after childbirth, to provide assistance.”

                After Jerry’s Dad, realtor Gerald McHugh, helped sell 4520 Chester to the Jesuits in 1966, The Grail Center was in Wynnefield until 2003, then met at various city locations. Today, as an ecumenical women’s spiritual organization with centers in OH and NY, https://www.grail-us.org/  “envisions a world of peace, justice and renewal of the earth, brought about by women working together as catalysts for change.”