Keeper of the Family

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Emily Anne Phelan

Emily 2009

The summer of 1941 after Gene died, Dad took Mother for a little R & R.  They went to Albuquerque, Dad’s birthplace, and a large city, where they could more safely invest the little compensation resulting from the accident. Dad got to show  Mother the city he had known as a boy.  He wanted to introduce Mom to the Sisters who had taught him in Bernalillo, a suburb to Albuquerque.

From the bus, he thought he recognized some familiar places; thinking he had found one they got off and knocked at the door of St. Vincent Academy.  To his great surprise, a Sister of Charity, rather than a Sister of St. Joseph, met them at the door.  Dad had gone to school in Bernalillo and knew that group of Sisters.  This turned out to be a strange turn of events.  Early in the visit, the Sisters were introduced to their “gang” as Dad showed off pictures the seven.

The Sisters inquired about where the children were going to school and in time invited Mom and Dad to send their daughters to the Academy.  In reality, this was economically out of the question.  However, in a most unexpected and most unusual response, Mom said:  “Yes, Dad, maybe the Nuns can make ladies of them.”  (Dad’s amazement must have been something for Mom to not take time to discuss this with him AND for Mom to be so willing to send her daughters to a Catholic School!)

They returned to Winslow with bolts of material for Mom to make uniforms for us.  In September Ruth, Pat and I entered St. Vincent Academy. It was my Senior year and only time in a Catholic School.  Getting used to the routine and very different life of a border, being concerned for Mom and Dad still grieving, and missing my brothers was only part of my unsettled and less than happy time as a Senior.  About mid year, Dad was transferred to Albuquerque and we home with the family.  We girls finished the year as day students at the Academy and I graduated with a class of 15 girls – much different from the usual more than a hundred coed classes I had been accustomed to.

I was attracted to some of the work done by Sisters, especially teaching the poor and Hispanic children. During my senior year I applied to the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati, thinking this would be something I would do in the future.  For years, we girls knew that if we wanted to go to College we could live with Aunt Grace Reed in Wichita and go to the Friends University.

In July of ’42 I went to Wichita, got a job in a Tea Room and enrolled in Friends University.  (Aunt Grace lived across the street from Friends and had been an associate Professor from time to time over the years so was well known by the faculty.)   About a month into my first year, I wrote to the Mount to let them know I was enrolled at Friends and expected to complete my work in three years and would be back in touch.  I received a letter offering me a scholarship to Mount St. Joseph College.  I accepted that offer, terminated at Friends, took a bus to Cincinnati and eventually to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity.  I entered the convent and became a freshman at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Ohio.

This move was one of practicality, not planned nor discussed with Mom and Dad.  I had just enough money to afford the bus trip and trusted I would be able to work to pay for college, etc.  I wrote Mom and Dad to explain what and why I was going; packed my clothes into a small box to send to them; wrote a note to Aunt Grace, giving her a brief explanation and  the postage to send to the box home for me.

Explanation for my manner of thinking and acting:

In a talk with Mom about why I thought I might like to go to the convent, I learned of her very strong opposition.  I also knew she wanted and encouraged each of us to do and to be whatever we chose in life.  I had also talked with Dad and had a beautiful letter from him in which he stated in part:  “Remember, to be a good Mother of Nun or Old Maid you need the grace of God.  I pray for each of you daily that you will make good choices and be happy.”

I knew our family did not have the way to finance a college education for any of us.  Part of my reason for going to Wichita was to work in an airplane factory to get money to help Mom and Dad buy a home of their own.  The rest I would use for my education.

Mount Saint Joseph is a Convent where many Sisters lived and a College.  It is located on the West side of greater Cincinnati.  It was built around 1880 or 90.  To me it looked like an ancient castle.  It was awesome to behold for this gal who was comfortably small town bred.

As I grew acquainted with the life of the Sisters of Charity, I also continued as a freshman in college.  For the first years in the convent we make no commitment, learn prayer and about dedicating ourselves to God.  As we learn and grow in our decision process, so the superiors are making their assessments and decisions about us.  The process is gradual, giving both candidate and community time for appropriate evaluation and decision.

In 1943 I was accepted to make Vows.  Dad and Ruth came to be with me for this occasion.  There was another reason for their trip, namely, for Dad to bring me home.  Mother was still very strong in her opposition to this life form for me.

Very early in the morning Dad and Ruth arrived at the Mount, met with the Sisters and told them about taking me home.  (I feel very sure Dad was not feeling good about him mission.)  I did not know they had come and surely did not expect any of my family to come for this occasion.  I was called down to the parlor where Dad and Ruth were with the Mother General and some other Sisters who held positions of authority.  The situation was explained to me, I was given a little time to talk with Dad, then taken to another room to be questioned and given opportunity to say what I truly believed I wanted to do at this time.

I definitely knew I wanted to make Vows and remain a Sister, knowing that even though it would be difficult for Dad to return with this message, Mother would at some time be at peace with me and my choice.  I made Vows that day and have never regretted.  In time, Mother understood that the choice was a good one and she was very dear about letting go of any past pain.

During my 66 years as a Sister of Charity, I have been able to do many things that have been challenging and rewarding.  I taught all eight grades of elementary, and was principal in three schools.  Teaching held many opportunities to work with needy children (not necessarily financially poor). Being able to make available new opportunities for discovering  happiness, success and a desire to move ahead, are memories that warm me even now.

After 22 years teaching, I went to the Mount to help prepare young women to be Sisters.  In the five years, ’63 –’68, I worked with 295 young women who entered at Mount St. Joseph.  This was the period of the last Vatican Council, during which there was much work being done by all communities to make changes to modify and up-date their life styles and all that pertained to Religious Life.  I was very active in this change process, not only in community studies, but with the opportunities this opened for me as I worked with and taught the young women.  Sometimes, I was looked upon by a segment of our community as a ‘rabble rouser’, not a title that usually fit me.

In 1970 I was asked to go to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, OH to develop a department of Spiritual Care for the Patients.  I had no preparation for this work, not any desire to work in a hospital.  However, I did go and worked four years during which time I developed a department with a staff that was able to minister effectively to patients, their families and the Staff.  I left there to begin training to be a Chaplain. (To learn what I had been trying to do for the past 4 years!)

I trained in Dayton for a summer, then moved to Sacramento, CA to train under three very fine Supervisors at three centers: Sutter, The CA Youth Authority, and UC Davis Hospital.  This provided varied, challenging and excellent training.  While I was in Sacramento, Dad and Mother came to visit me.  While there, Dad had a Cerebral Hemorrhage that left him with very limited use of his limbs and unable to speak.  He was hospitalized for several weeks, then in a nursing home.

In October, six months after the event, we moved him back to Escondido and into a nursing home there.  Bob and Pat were very helpful arranging for the trip home and the nursing home.  This was a very painful and taxing time for Mom as well as for Dad.  For me it was a time of pain, great tiredness, and real life education in caring for parents.  I returned to Dayton for a few months in early 1975 after completing CPE training and entering preparation to be a CPE Supervisor.

Dad’s condition deteriorated and I was asked to come home in April ’75.  He recovered somewhat and I stayed to help Mother care for him and to care for her when she underwent surgery for an aneurysm on the Femoral Artery.

 

September of ’75 I started Supervisory Training at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA.  I completed training in ’76 and I worked at St. Joseph until June of 1982.

 

Dad died in September ’76.  Being in California during that time was a very special time for me.  I was close to Mom and Dad, Bill, Pat, Bob, Ruth and their families. Having been far away with very few family visits over the course of 30 plus years, this was truly a gifted time of getting to know family, enjoy times together as well as be present with them in our times of pain and grief.

While working at St. Joseph in Orange, I was asked by our Community to come to Pueblo, CO to develop a Spiritual Care Department at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital.  In my mind and heart I was saying “Oh no! I don’t want to leave here now while I am doing so many things I enjoy –teaching, ministering to patients, and enjoying a variety of educational opportunities as well as professional experiences.  I also know that hospital has been in trouble for some time and is probably going to close.”  This stayed in my spirit for over two years before I finally decided I should at least go find out more about the position and have a job interview.  That I did in early 1982, took the position and moved to Pueblo to work at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital for the next 12 years. I retired July 1994 to a very rewarding life of volunteering.

It is now 2009 and I still volunteer:  one day a month I visit four men at the Super Max in Florence, CO; one day a month as intake clerk for a Senior Wellness Clinic; three half days a week at St. Mary-Corwin Hospital, serve on the Selection Committee for Habitat for Humanity; and am a Spiritual Companion for a couple of people. 

How good life is and I am truly grateful!!

 

 

Remembering her Father

Eugene Francis Phelan, as told by Emily his oldest daughter, was born in Albuquerque, NM. He went to school in Belen, now, a suburb to Albuquerque to the Sisters of Charity of Loretta, commonly known as the Lorettas. I do not know how old he was when his family moved to Needles, CA. His father owned and operated a meat market in Needles. His family also lived in Flagstaff, AZ. As a young man, Dad worked at the Grand Canyon, taking tours into the Canyon via mule train. He also worked at the College in Flagstaff, called the Normal School at that time. It was during this period of his life that he met Mother. She told a cute little story about Dad. He picked Mother her friend Ruth Duncan up one evening as they were leaving the Post Office and took them back to the College. At a later date he asked Mother if she would like to go for a ride to the mountains to see the “Teddy Bears”. Mother had some second thoughts at this point because she knew “teddy bears” only as a type of women’s underwear. However, I believe this little ride was probably close to the beginning of their dating time.

Mom and Dad were married on New Years Day,1924, in the rectory parlor because Mom was non-Catholic and they were not allowed to hold mixed marriages in the Church. I think this was a painful point for Mom, judging by the manner in which she talked about when telling me. Dad became a Deputy Sheriff in Flagstaff. I do not know when he took this job but held it until he moved the family to Phoenix after Gene was born. As a Sheriff, he frequently visited the men held in jail. He liked to take Ruth and me with him, believing that it was good for the men to see little children. I can remember getting dressed up and waiting for Dad to come home to get us and I remember a bit about going along past the bars where men reached out to touch us. Some of them would put coins in the pockets of our dresses. We moved to Phoenix because Mother needed to be in a lower altitude. She was very sick after giving birth to Gene. Grandma Phelan came down and helped to take care of the three of us while Mother was in the hospital. While in Phoenix, dad was an undertaker at the Whitney Undertaker Establishment. At that time there were many tubercular patients in the Phoenix area. Dad had some interesting events with tubercular patients. One of his stories: A patient died and was brought to the Funeral home. Dad met the hurse at the entrance and saw the man looking around. Dad explained that they were just taking him back to the sanitarium after a medical exam. Later in the day the same man was returned to the funeral home. Another situation came up when Dad was preparing to embalm the man and his assistant went into prepare the body. The assistant came moving through the room where Dad was exclaiming: “My God, Gene, that man’s alive!” Dad went in to see the gentleman sitting up on the slab rubbing his head and looking perplexed. Dad soothingly let him know he was in for a little exam and that he would be going back to his sanitarium, as he helped him to stretch out and get more comfortable. I loved getting Dad’s stories and asked a lot of questions.

After Mother was stronger, we moved to Winslow where Dad went to work for the Santa Fe. Robert Francis was born in Winslow. Dad was transferred to Seligman with the Santa Fe. The twins were born the year we moved to Seligman. Bill was born five years later. All of us children went to the Seligman elementary school. I graduated from the eighth grade in 1938, at about the time that Dad was laid off from the rail road because he was the youngest man in seniority and the company was cutting back as a result of the great depression.  We moved to Flagstaff where Dad expected to get work with his brother Claude. This happened for a short time then Dad got work as a Game Warden during hunting season.

In our young days when I was 8 and younger: when we misbehaved during the day (to the point Mother deemed it serious) we were banished to a chair beside the back door to await Dad’s return from work. To add insult to injury we couldn’t go to meet Dad. Our usual practice was to walk to the Depot to meet Dad and walk home with him. Quite a picture that was! Ruth and Emily on either side, Gene and Bob holding close to his legs and Pat and Tom held in his arms, Bill was yet to come. When Dad came in the door he would take off his hat, give Mom a kiss, and look at the culprit on the chair with a greeting like: is this my Pard (for each of the boys) or my Mickey for Ruth, or Pinky for Pat, with a look that made you feel pretty sorry you had not behaved as you knew you should. Following that, Dad put his gun on the top shelf of his closet, washed his hands took his place in his chair and sent one of the kids to tell the person on the chair Dad wanted to see him/her. When the guilty one got to Dad he would bring them up close to the chair and sometimes put his arm about their waist, and ask: Do you want to tell me about it?” That would bring about a confession of the days misbehavior beyond what Mom knew! His response was to ask “How does your Mother feel about this?” And a make up with Mother followed.

When we talked about someone in a negative manner, Dad who had already educated us with the Golden Rule would begin: “Remember, there is so much --- and we were to finish with : good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” That usually cut off complaining. However, both Mom and Dad always heard us out if we had a genuine complaint we needed to talk about. In the interim after his stint as game warden, Dad bid for a night watchman job to be back with the Santa Fe. He got the position at the Grand Canyon and moved his gang there. This was a time for Dad to get his family acquainted with the beauty and the wonders of nature from the Grand Canyon through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. As a young man, Dad had worked in these areas and knew a lot about the territory. Living at the Canyon was a wonderful time for us kids. Winter there was awesome with time for sledding and much fun in the snow. Ruth graduated from the eighth grade there as valedictorian (A class of two). The Canyon school was a typical country school with more than one or two grades to a room. At the Canyon, a Priest used to come once in a while to say Mass and minister to the people in that little community. He used the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel for his chapel. The altar and materials for Mass were stored in a room reserved for the Priest. Before Mass, he used to sit behind the Altar, put his hand to the side of his face, and listen to Confessions. Dad took the eldest of us with him on these mornings (about 6 am) to Mass.

Back to Seligman days for a moment:

During the Depression many men from across the country found their way out west to seek work. Most caught rides on freight trains rolling from Chicago to Los Angeles. Dads work included keeping the trains free of hobo riders, yet Dad knew these men were fine people for the most part and needed whatever help they could find. At the hobo camp, just outside the town, met shared information with each other about where they could get help, a meal, a place to clean themselves, etc. We children were instructed that if a man came to the front door we were not to open the door to him. If he came to the back door and asked if he could do some work for a bit of food we were to call Mother. She always could offer them some form of work as chopping wood for the kitchen stove, raking the yard and clearing out weeds. While the man was working Mother fixed a porcelain baby bathtub with hot sudsy water to be carried to the woodshed. A clean pair of sox, set of underwear, shirt and overalls were set beside the tub along with a towel and washcloth. The man was invited to clean up before coming to get the food. They also were invited to leave their dirty clothes so she could get them ready for the next man who came. This seemed to be very acceptable to the men and I used to be so surprised at how clean and improved the man seemed when he appeared at the back door for his meal. Usually, Mom brought them in to sit at the kitchen table and gave them whatever she could provide. With so many children to feed the meal was meager but nourishing. Word went through the Camp that our house was a good place to come. They must have included some information about how they were expected to behave because there never was any problem that I can remember and I was around most of that time.

 It was in Seligman that Mother learned to drive. That was a big moment for me. All six of us were in the back seat of the little Ford and Mom behind the wheel. Dad was the coach in the front seat. He selected a dirt road out of town that led to a cow trail. Mom was doing fine until time to turn around. Dad coached her to stop. She became desperate calling out: “Gene, I can’t make this thing stop”as she pulled very hard on the steering wheel. Much laughter from some in the back seat (mostly because we saw the look on Dad’s face) She did learn and became a very fine driver – good into her last year of life at 85.

The only time I remember hearing Dad sing was when we were driving in the country, usually following trails that he wanted to explore. As he drove sometimes he sang to Mother Let Me Call You Sweetheart and/or When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. This was very special to me because of the loving comfort I took from it. 

                                                                          

Dad loved to explore places in the mountains, usually saying: “wonder where this trail leads?” We found such beautiful spots and often stayed long enough for a picnic. On picnics, when there was meat to cook, Dad did the cooking.  (He also cooked when Mother was in bed after childbirth. He taught me to cook oatmeal so it would not get gooey and sticky.) Dad became Special Officer on the Santa Fe at Winslow and moved his family there in time to begin the school year. It was in Winslow that Gene Scott was hit by a car on Friday, June 13, 1941 and died Sunday, June 15, Father’s Day. This was a major tragedy and we all have/had a variety of memories about the event and the summer that followed. As a consequence of the accident that took Gene’s life, there was compensation paid to Mom and Dad. To invest the money, Dad took Mom and went to Albuquerque, a larger place and one somewhat familiar to Dad. While there, Dad wanted to show Mom the place where he went to School with the Loretta Sisters. While riding the bus on their way to Bernallio, Dad saw a place that he thought looked familiar so they got off the bus and went to the door, rang the bell and were surprised to find a Sister who had a different habit than the one Dad remembered. It was indeed, a surprise to learn he had not even left the city yet and had come to the Academy where the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati taught 1 through 12 grades. In the course of their visit here at the Academy, they showed off pictures of their ‘gang’ and told the story about Gene. A Sister asked if the children were in a Catholic school and invited Mom and Dad to send the girls to the Academy. Now, in a very unusual response, Mom said: “Yes, maybe the Nuns can make ladies of them!” The usual procedure would have been for them to discuss the pros and cons of this decision and make it together. The most unusual part was for Mom to have such a mind set!!! So Mom and Dad came home from that little trip with yards of materials to make uniforms for the three girls and in the Fall all three of us went off to Albuquerque to school. Later that year, Dad got transferred to Albuquerque and moved the family with him. For me, this was not the best year of my school life! However, God seemed to have capitalized on it.

 

With many other ideas in my head, I applied to the Sisters of Charity. This is another chapter! Wherever Dad lived, he learned a lot about the area and took much pride in telling history of the area, and showing places of interest.

On my visits to California he would let me go with him to do an inspection. Along the way he taught me much about the Pacific Coast, the places of beauty and history along the Santa Fe Road and of course, bits about how he helped the migrants or others whom he found out about with his work or on his travels. Almost nightly, Dad would go out on the porch of into the yard to view the moon and stars. He loved the beauties of nature and took special interest in the sky. One of the last opportunities he had to appreciate the sunset was the night before he had his cerebral hemorrhage Mom and I were shopping and he chose to stay by the car to enjoy the sky and sunset.

 

 

Emily and Ruth