Sisters and Lost Worlds

My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the

Janet and Adele 1945 Rockaway
Janet and Adele Mongan;  Rockaway Beach, NY 1945

only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.

We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.

But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me.  “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”

I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.

But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.

Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies.  We finished high school and went away to college.

During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.

YWCA at 53rd
53rd St. YWCA

At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.

Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.

We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Dorothy Day and the nuns of today

In recent weeks there have been several news stories about the ongoing tensions between the Vatican and American nuns. After the nuns had been criticized by the Vatican for paying too much attention to social issues and too little to doctrinal concerns, a group of nuns traveled to Rome to speak to leaders about what they felt were injustices in the report. According to the New York Times, “The group’s president, Sister Pat Farrell, said in a statement that during an “open meeting” the group’s representatives “were able to directly express” their concerns. The nuns said they would report back to the group’s board in the United States and determine a course of action to respond to the Vatican.” Americans of all religious persuasions, or none at all will be waiting to hear what the nuns’ course of action will be.

For many people the confrontation between the nuns and the bishops will recall memories of Dorothy Day, a social activist who had no difficulty speaking up to bishops. Dorothy Day was not a nun, but she was an ardent Catholic and a founder of the Catholic Worker movement. A convert to Catholicism, Day decided in the late 1920s to give up secular journalism and start a newspaper devoted to social issues. Working with Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker paper, which started appearing at about the same time that the United States entered the Great Depression. The newspaper soon attracted not only a core of readers, but also a community of people bound by the ideals of social justice and peace.

For several decades the Catholic Worker was a center of ideas and activism for many Catholics. The original house was in New York City and Dorothy’s work was always centered there. The workers were strongly pacifist all through the Second World War, which was an unpopular stance with many Catholics, both laypeople and clergy. After the war they demonstrated against the development of nuclear weapons and refused to participate in civil defense drills and other aspects of the 1950s.

Dorothy Day and the Workers also strongly supported unions, which led to perhaps her most visible struggle with the Catholic hierarchy. When the gravediggers went on strike for higher wages, Cardinal Spellman, representing the Catholic Church that owned the cemeteries strongly opposed them. Dorothy Day and many of her supporters picketed with the strikers, who eventually lost the strike. At one point in this period, Dorothy Day was asked to go to the chancery office where a Monsignor told her she must change the name of the newspaper The Catholic Worker because it was not an official publication of the church. Dorothy discussed the matter with her colleagues and they did not comply with the request. Nothing ever came of the refusal and the Workers and the Cardinal continued in wary co-existence with one another for many years.

Dorothy Day was always a faithful Catholic, but she did not find it necessary to bow to the will of every clergyman. She is quoted in Robert Coles’s excellent book Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion as saying:

[Cardinal Spellman] is our chief priest and confessor; he is our spiritual leader—of all of us who live here in New York. But he is not our ruler. He is not someone whose very word all Catholics must heed, whose every deed we must copy.

As we watch watch the nuns today and their struggles with the way they practice their religious duties, we can hope that today’s Catholic women can also draw the line between following their faith and blindly obeying all the criticisms of the clergy.