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History of the Irish in Pittsburgh

This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of The Ceilier, the newsletter of the Pittsburgh Ceili Club.

Early Irish Immigration

The first Irish in Pennsylvania were small numbers of servants, trappers and traders in the eastern part of the state.

In the late eighteenth century, they started coming in larger numbers. In the first U.S. census in 1790, the population of Pittsburgh was already 19% Irish. Over 250,000 came from Ulster alone in the eighteenth century. Both Presbyterians and Catholics, they sought economic opportunity and escape from British Anglican religious tyranny. Until the 1840s, they were mostly Protestants and tended to be skilled craftsmen, shopkeepers, soldiers and landed gentry. Many laborers on the National Road and the Pennsylvania Canal were Irish. Others were among the early settlers who pushed the Pennsylvania frontier west to Pittsburgh. The Irishman George Croghan established trading posts north of the Ohio River by the 1740s.

And, of course, they brought their music. The dances of the western Pennsylvania frontier in the early nineteenth century were the same reels, jigs, hornpipes and country dances that were found in Ireland. The roots of Appalachian music lie in Ireland and Scotland.

The Potato Famine and Nineteenth Century Immigration

The potato famine of 1845-6 impacted both the character and the volume of Irish immigration. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, most of the immigrants were Catholics. A million and a half Irish migrated to the U.S in 1845-6. Between 1851 and 1921, 3.7 million more came. By 1900, there were more Irish in the U.S. in Ireland.

Even after the famine, people had many reasons to migrate. The linen trade in Ireland was in decline. Rents kept going up. Only oldest sons could inherit a family cabin and land in Ireland, so younger sons tended to look elsewhere for opportunities. Many women left because they didn’t have dowries to offer, and therefore their marriage prospects were poor at home.

The men took work as unskilled laborers, digging ditches or toiling in iron and steel mills. Similar to immigrants today, they often died doing dangerous work that the native-born Americans didn’t want to do. They dug canals, laid railroad track, poured molten steel. Girls were domestic servants. Women saved their money to gain independence and to send money home to family in Ireland. More single Irish women migrated to the U.S. than any other ethnic group.

Hardship and Discrimination

Sometimes called “America’s first ethnic group,” the Irish pretty much invented what we today call “chain migration.” Many of them sent money back home to fund the migration of relatives. 

Also like many of today’s immigrants, the early Irish imiigrants faced discrimination. Female domestics were disparagingly called “Bridgets,” the equivalent of calling a Black female servant “Mammy.” Native-born Protestants suspected the Irish of being more loyal to the Pope than to their new country. When jobs were posted, the signs often read “Colored and Irish need not apply.”

In Pittsburgh, the Irish settled in in shantytowns in the Hill District, Lawrenceville, Homewood, Hazelwood. They were also found in a South Side neighborhood called Limerick, the current location of Station Square. The Point neighborhood in downtown Pittsburgh housed so many Irish that it was called “Little Ireland”. In his book Pittsburgh Irish, Gerard O’Neil tells a lovely little story of an Irish woman named Sibby Powers who ran a small store out of her apartment – which happened to be on the first floor of the old Fort Pitt blockhouse. She sold mostly candy and little cakes, along with a few small necessities like needles and thread. She placed her wares on shelves in her window, so that customers could see what was on offer. Mayor David Lawrence remembered buying candy from her when he was a child.

Coming mostly from rural areas, the immigrants to these close-packed slums were exposed for the first time to cholera and smallpox. Separated from their loved ones and facing hardship and discrimination, they also suffered from alcoholism and other mental illnesses. Naïve new immigrants were often fleeced of what little money they had by unscrupulous land agents or bogus employment agencies. Industrial accidents, crowded housing and lack of sanitation led to high rates of mortality. Many widowed young mothers had to take in laundry or do piecework at home. The Irish tended to have many children, born close together – hence the phrase “Irish twins.” But the child mortality rate was high. Large numbers of children died from premature birth, respiratory disorders, diarrhea, poor nutrition, smallpox, measles and diphtheria. Civic groups like the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, Knights of Equity, Christian Mothers and Sacred Heart Society arose to help.

Rising to the Challenges

The Catholic Diocese also paid a large role in helping the new Irish-Americans to survive. Saint Patrick’s Church in Strip was the first Pittsburgh parish, founded in 1808. The first bishop was Michael O’Connor (1820-1872). Born in Cobh in County Cork in 1820, he was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1843. He brought with him eight seminarians and seven Sisters of Mercy. During term as Bishop, the number of Catholic churches and clergy steadily increased. He founded the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper, St. Michael’s seminary, a hospital, a girls’ academy and an orphanage. The Sisters of Mercy founded Mercy Hospital in 1847, the first hospital in downtown Pittsburgh. They treated all patients in need, even if they couldn’t pay, during outbreaks of smallpox, cholera and typhus.

As the numbers of Irish swelled, over time most Irish who came here started out living with relatives already here, which helped both parties.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish in Pittsburgh were thriving. In the nineteenth century, child labor had often been a necessity for Irish families. By the twentieth, most children could be kept in school.

Irish women no longer confined themselves primarily to domestic work. Now, they found work as nurses and teachers. The men were railroad workers, skilled laborers, clerks, and owners of small businesses. In 1906, George Clinton Murphy founded G C Murphy stores, headquartered in McKeesport. Eventually, he had five hundred stores in twenty-six states. Many Irish also served as police officers or firefighters or held government positions.

The Irish were key figures in the labor movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Irish priests like Charles Owen Rice (1908-2005) and labor leaders like Philip Murray (1886-1952) fought for worker’s rights. Murray had been a coal miner. His family was evicted from their company housing for inspiring a strike. Later, he became the president of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and the United Steelworkers of American and president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Pittsburgh Irish in the Twentieth Century

As the Irish in Pittsburgh strove and succeeded, they also entered politics. Pittsburgh has had several Irish mayors, including Pete Flaherty, Tom Murphy and Bill O’Connor.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century, many Irish people were so prosperous that they travelled back to Ireland to visit relatives, or brought relatives here to visit with them. This was also the era of resurgence of interest in Irish Heritage. In Pittsburgh, the second half of the twentieth century saw the creation of the Irish Centre, the Ireland Institute, the American Ireland Fund and the Irish Festival. The Echoes of Erin ratio program started during this era, as well as the Irish Rowing Club, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, the All-Ireland Athletic Club, the Gaelic Arts Society, and the Pittsburgh Ceili Club. Irish stores, and Irish pubs like Mullaney’s Harp & Fiddle, sprung up.

The Irish are rightly proud of our heritage in the United States. And our forebears’ story is the story of America. The story of brave, desperate people who leave behind everything familiar to make a better life for their families. People who demand to make their contribution, in spite of hardship and discrimination. It’s still happening today. And it’s part of what makes our country great.

Sources

McElligott, Patricia. Irish Pittsburgh. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013.

O’Neil, Gerard. Pittsburgh Irish: Erin on the Three Rivers. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015.    

My five-star reads for 2024

2023 was a really good reading year for me. Many intellectually rich 5-star reads, and a few lighter, more fun ones.

Wendell Berry: Essays, 1993-2017

This would not be a 5-star read for everyone. Berry’s writing style is very accessible, but also idea-dense. He’s an agrarian philosopher. So, he supports a very localized sort of economic organization, in which a community could subsist on its own agricultural production and where processing – such as sawmills, meat-packing, and grain processing – are also local. He also writes thoughtfully on other topics, such as the Gospels, abortion, and the intellectual errors of atheism. His focus is on real lives, lived by real human beings. He doesn’t care for abstract religion, abstract global theories, reductionism of any kind, or – especially – big, untested ideas that we are assured will pay off in the future. I didn’t read every single essay in this collection, and it still took me a long time to read because it is so rich in ideas. If you’re looking for a bit of an intellectual challenge, I highly recommend this book.

Marmee

This book retells Little Women from Marmee’s perspective, in the form of her journals from 1862 to 1868. I generally don’t like books told in the form of either journals or letters, but I loved this one.

Marmee uses her journals in exactly the way I use my own. She describes what is happening in her life – and in the nation, during an important historical era – but she also uses her journals to examine herself and build her own character.

We get a more fleshed-out Marmee in this telling than in Little Women, and some back story on the family’s poverty. I absolutely loved Marmee as a character. She is constantly trying to improve herself, she loves her family fiercely, and she never stops trying to make the world a better place. I especially love the way she showed respect for the destitute Mrs. Hummel, whose cause she adopts but whom she never condescends to.

Lady Audley’s Secret

Funny story about why I read this book. As a child, I was a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy books. In the fourth book in the series, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the girls get in trouble for borrowing Lady Audley’s Secret from Betsy’s mother’s hired girl. The girls’ parents think the book is salacious.

I always thought the name of the book was made up. As soon as I found out it was a real book, I had to read it.

I don’t usually love nineteenth-century literature. I generally find it melodramatic and verbose. But this book really drew me in. Most readers will figure out Lady Audley’s secret within the first two chapters. But there is a surprising twist at the very end. And the fun of the book is watching her second husband’s nephew figure it out and then play cat-and-mouse with the deceptive lady.

Magnificent Rebels

A friend lent me this book. Another intellectually-dense one, but the writing is brisk and sprightly, doesn’t go into too much tedious detail, and is written like a novel, even though it is non-fiction.

Wulf takes as her subject the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century, bringing these philosophers and writers to life as characters. She especially focuses on Caroline-Bohmer-Schlegel-Schelling, a female intellectual who managed to determine her own destiny. We also meet the Schlegel brothers: dutiful diligent Auguste Wilhelm and impetuous Friedrich. And many others, including Goethe, the only guy who managed to stay friends with all of them.

These characters all met in the small German town of Jena in the 1790s. Inspired by the French Revolution and dreams of democracy, they thought and wrote and argued. They were friends, enemies and frenemies. Their story was fascinating, and their influence of how we see ourselves today was profound.

Act of Oblivion

The year is 1660 and the Royalists have returned to power in England Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe, colonels in Cromwell’s army, must now escape to North America.

This novel reminded me a little of Les Miserables. All of the events flow from the English Civil War, just as all events in Les Miz flow from the Napoleonic Wars. And the Royalist detective Naylor is Javert-like in his determination to track down Whalley and Goffe.

Over the course of many years in exile, Whalley and Goffe stay on the run, moving from one safe house to another and often living in the wild. Naylor is always just a few steps behind them. Meanwhile, Whalley’s daughter and Goffe’s wife, Frances, struggles to raise her children alone and in poverty back in England.

Interesting characters, clear conflict, historical veracity and unflagging action make this book a ripping yarn.

Driving Miss Norma

This book was the selection of my church book club in May. It’s not something I’d have chosen myself and I wasn’t expecting much. I thought it would be kind of silly and sappy. A feisty old lady having late-life adventures isn’t news any more; it’s kind of cliche. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Norma’s true story.

Norma received a cancer diagnosis not long after losing her husband and her daughter in pretty quick succession, and her doctors recommended a course of treatment that sounded brutal. Her son and daughter-in-law, who spent most of their years travelling around in their Airstream camper, offered her an alternative: Come along and travel with us. Make your last months about fun instead of about treatment.

Norma doesn’t just have adventures. She, and her son and daughter-in-law, become closer and experience personal growth through their experiences. Tim and Ramie are careful to always leave choices in Norma’s hands. A beautiful and sensitive story, well told.

Jane Eyre

My favorite book of all time. I first read it when I was 11, and loved it so much that when I finished it I immediately went back to the beginning and read it again! I have read it four times since then as an adult.

Reading the book as a mature woman, I admire Jane as much as ever. But I am appalled by Rochester. He has all the power in the relationship. And yet he plays coy with Jane, trying to manipulate her into self-disclosure while guarding his own secrets.

But Bronte does this amazing thing for a 19th-century woman: she insists, absolutely insists, that Jane must be allowed to make her choice. Her readers and fervent fans such as myself may feel that it is a poor choice. But Bronte insists that we respect Jane’s autonomy. And she delivers subtle messages about abstract morality versus lived morality.

I still love this book, in spite of Bronte’s wordy, flowery 19th-century style. Any book that can speak truth to an 11-year-old child, a middle-aged moralistic parent, and a mature woman expecting to meet her God in the not-too-distant future, is surely a moral, religious and literary treasure. 5 stars in 1967, 5 stars in the 1990s and 2000s, 5 stars in 2023, 5 stars forever. BEST. BOOK. EVER.

Gilead

This was another re-read. 76-year-old Congregationalist Reverend John Ames is dying of heart disease in 1956, leaving behind a much younger wife, and 8-year-old son, and no estate to speak of. As a legacy, he decides to leave behind a memoir for the boy. He starts with his family history, including his Civil War firebrand grandfather and pacifist father. Ames writes movingly of the late-19th-century world of his boyhood, when the wounds of the Civil War were still bright red and painful.

Ames’ memoir-writing is disrupted when Jack Boughten returns to town. Jack is the son of Ames’ best friend. But he was troubled as a child and young man and committed an act so abhorrent that he left town and never returned until now. Ames must wrestle with his strong dislike of this returned prodigal son, and his suspicion that Jack is way to interested in charming his own wife and son.

I loved Ames’ gentle, powerful, moving voice in this book. And it was so full of spiritual insight that I did the same thing on this reading that I did with my first reading of Jane Eyre: I went back to the beginning and immediately read the whole book again!

King: A Life

This biography of Martin Luther King Jr begins with his paternal grandparents. I liked that. I have an interest in family history, and I’m always interested in how our families form us.

Eig does a great job of showing how MLK became the right man in the right place at the right time in American history. He follows his subject through his early life and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Eig documents the movement in detail, writing it like the epic that it was. He gives credit to others where it is due, but he also focuses on the importance of Dr. King’s moral character, personal magnetism and prophetic vision. I also liked how he brought out the way that the movement continued to form King’s character, which was equally important. He doesn’t gloss over the occasional plagiarism, nor King’s sexual infidelity. He gives us the man in full, a man who was a great leader in spite of his flaws.

The Vaster Wilds

The heroine of this story is an indentured servant. She has no name, but the family she serves call her Zed. Early in the seventeenth century, while still in her early teens, the family brought Zed from England to the wilds of the Massachusetts colony.

The novel begins when Zed is escaping the colony. We don’t learn the exact reason for her flight until later in the story. But the little fortified settlement where Zed lives is failing from plague and famine. On a cold night in March, Zed flees, wearing a pair of stolen boots and carrying with her the tools she will need to survive in the wilderness.

The story of her attempts to survive is told beautifully and brutally. This brave, resourceful girl endures, cold, hunger, and attempted attacks by beasts, both human and non-human. The reader gets a stark sense of what it took for anyone to survive at a starving time of year and utterly alone. The descriptions of the wilderness and the sheer physical work of living in it are magnificent.

Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity

I wish I had read this book ten years ago. My husband and I had begun to feel out of synch with the increasingly conservative positions of the church that we’d belonged to for over twenty years. I still felt like a Christian, but I couldn’t take the Bible literally, and a lot of traditional Christian theology had ceased to make sense to me.

Ultimately, I became comfortable with both loving Jesus and doubting a lot of Christian theology. I became comfortable with not knowing, with living the questions. I came to see faith as a process. My husband and I also found a church that was more hospitable to our evolving version of faith.

All of that would have been so much easier if I’d had this book when I started my journey. It is a great primer on progressive Christianity, an approach almost identical to how I now understand God. But it also goes a lot deeper than I had gone on my own, and gave me some new food for thought.

Such Kindness

Tom Lowe is really, really down and out. After falling from a roof and breaking his hip, he lost his building business, his house, and his marriage. As the story opens, he’s living in subsidized housing, recently recovered from opioid addiction, and spends most of his days lying on a couch made out of wood planks, his hips in agony. His car has been impounded for unpaid fines.

Two events – realizing that he’s hit bottom by contemplating credit card fraud, and the devastation of losing his last link to his previous life as a builder – cause the beginning of a change in Tom. Determined to make contact with his estranged son, he embarks on a journey that will see him walking miles along highways on his burning hips, riding along with a friend on a bank caper, and spending a weekend in jail.

Along his way, he will be awed by the small kindnesses he receives from strangers (and from people with reason to hate him) and begin to glimpse a path back to usefulness for himself.

I loved this book. Tom felt very real. His circumstances are dire, but he manages to complete an inner journey that all of us face as we age: acceptance of what is as opposed to what we hoped for, and how to remain useful and find meaning in life as we age and decline.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

This is a different kind of time-management book. It starts with the premise that we will never accomplish everything that we need to do. And then it uncovers the fallacies behind most time-management approaches.

In the end, you’re still going to have a to-do list. And Burkeman does give some old-fashioned time-management advice (like, try not to be juggling too many projects at once). But this book is refreshing, because it starts with Heidegger (yes, really!) and then moves on to the central lessons that we have to accept where we are in each moment and we have to accept that our time on earth is limited and we are always making choices.

On Shepherds and Amazement

Something a little different for this blog entry: shepherds. Our associate rector invited me to write third-week devotions for our church’s advent booklet. I used my imagination a bit, and I got so much joy out of writing these devotions that I wanted to share them more broadly.

These seven devotions loosely form a single story. You can read them day by day or all at once. I hope they add some small blessing to your Advent season.

Day One

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth.” (1 Samuel 17: 34-35)

Before Mary and Joseph, before the prophets, even before the great temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant, there was a shepherd.

David was the youngest of eight sons, and so his father gave him the humblest job: guarding the family’s flock of sheep. Imagine this teenage boy, described in the Bible as ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes. He has an overabundance of energy and daydreams of doing great things.

The sheep are his only companions. He can tell one from another by a nicked ear or a lame leg, or by wool that is fuller or curlier or grayer or whiter or more yellow than the others. He’s named them. He talks to them. He loves to sing, so he sings to them, made-up songs of overlooked boys who win both epic battles and the hearts of beautiful girls. He runs randomly through the thin grass and the poppies under the baking sun, exciting the sheep to chase. He practices with his slingshot, aiming at a jasmine bush or an olive tree. He gets really good with that slingshot, good enough to fend off the kinds of ravenous creatures that prey on sheep.

Good enough to slay a giant.

David will become a king, father to an even greater king, and ancestor to the King of Kings. He will write songs that we still sing three thousand years later. He will embarrass his wife by dancing before God. He will send one of his best and most loyal officers to certain death in battle, out of lust for that man’s wife. His favorite son will break his heart and die in battle against him. His life will be epic.

But, first, he was a shepherd boy, caring for his sheep and practicing with his slingshot, waiting for his real life to begin.

Day Two

“In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

Have you ever had the experience of thinking it was an ordinary day, not knowing that something huge was about to break on you?

Everyone remembers that September 11, 2001, was such a lovely, ordinary September morning. But as we woke and got ready to go to work or school, the planes were already taking off, heading toward their cataclysmic moment.

On the day my mother died, I woke early and started making coffee and thinking about the day ahead. At 6:30, just as I was taking my first sip of coffee, I got the call that mom had died in her sleep.

But surprising news that turns your day upside down isn’t always bad. Luke 2:8 is the shepherds’ Advent moment. Although they don’t know it, they are awaiting astoundingly good news.

Shepherds works hard. They have to make sure that their sheep find enough water and good grass. Sheep are notoriously stupid, and have to be convinced not to wander off, step in a hole, or trip over a large rock. If a sheep does get hurt, the shepherd has to be enough of a veterinarian to doctor it: set the broken leg, pull the thorn out of the hoof, clean the infected ear.

The shepherds in Luke were probably the best of the best. Some of their lambs were most likely destined to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The law required that animals for temple sacrifice be born within five miles of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is about five miles from Jerusalem.

So, these sheep required special devotion. The temple lambs had to be less than a year old, male, and flawless. Imagine the pride these men must have taken in their sheep, and the care that they provided.

See them, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock, just like any night. The stars are bright in a cold sapphire sky. The sheep sleep, occasionally grunting or chuffing, or crying a grumbly, muted bleat. Some shepherds walk their rounds of the perimeter, alert for thieves or predators. Others sit close to their little fires, warming their hands, fending off sleepiness, telling each other stories or keeping counsel with their own thoughts. Maybe some of the older men good-naturedly tease the younger ones about pretty girls or about dumb things they’ve done. There is soft laughter. Their ears are vigilant for the howl of a wolf or the low growl of a stalking lion.

Something amazing is about to happen.

Day Three

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:9)

Before the angel appeared, the shepherds may not have known that they were living in the first Advent. But they had been waiting for the Messiah all their lives. In a way, everything since King David had been Advent. 

But they surely wouldn’t have expected to be the first to hear of the Messiah’s coming.

Although shepherding was important work, it was low-status labor, relegated most often to youngest sons (like David) or to young girls. It was dirty, exhausting, dangerous work, done outdoors in all weather. And there was that night shift that probably nobody wanted.

In our modern world, many people still do hard, low-status work. Workers in factory farms, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants come to mind as the most direct descendants of our shepherds. I think also of the people who pick up our garbage or clean our offices. But I think especially of the aides in nursing homes. Often, they are not native-born and speak heavily-accented English. They work long hours, on all different shifts, for low pay. While my mother was slowly dying of dementia in a nursing home, I learned to be both deeply grateful and deeply awed by their patient, respectful treatment of the helpless elders in their care. Many of them were as tender and vigilant as the shepherds with their sheep.

It is to humble, little-recognized workers like these that the angel appears. Something amazing truly has happened. The Messiah has come, heralded by an angel. Even more amazing: these humble shepherds are the first to know. They are given an importance and dignity that they would never have expected.

As they used to say on late-night TV: But wait! There’s more!

Day Four

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

It is incredible enough that lowly shepherds are the first to hear the news that the Messiah has come. In four short words, the angel announces an even greater revolution: this news is for all the people. It’s not just for high priests, not just for kings and princes. It’s not just for devout Jews. It’s not just for the rich. And it’s not just for the poor. It’s not some bottom-rail-on-top revolution, where the mighty are brought down and the humble are raised up. It’s for all the people.

We know the next chapters of the story. Jesus will grow to manhood, teach and preach and heal. He will suffer and die. But this is still “good news of great joy.” Because we believe the part of the story where he then rises. The angels don’t say that he does that for a few elect, for people who follow the right rules, or perform the right rituals in the exact right way, or adhere to the right theology. That would be a very small god indeed. Our God is not small. He is not exclusive. This Messiah is big and inclusive. He is for all the people.

Day Five

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place and that the Lord has made known to us.’” (Luke 2:15)

Last year, I joined in an Ignatian Way study group with Jill Gordon, Ann Caffaro, Jan Littrell and Eileen Sharbaugh. I learned the technique of imaginative prayer: putting yourself in the place of a character in the Bible verse that you’re studying. In Week 9, we reached the verses in Luke about the shepherds. I tried to put myself in their place when they made their decision to go to Bethlehem. They couldn’t all have gone. Wouldn’t some of them have had to stay back with the sheep? How did they decide who should go and who should stay? Even after the angel show, some of them might have felt safer on their familiar grassy hill than wandering around town looking for a baby, asking for directions from strangers. I ended up writing from the perspective of a young shepherd who decided to stay back with the sheep.

I pictured him looking a lot like my teenage grandson: tall, skinny and long-haired, all uncertainty and awkward, coltish limbs. I imagined him thinking, “I wish I’d gone. I wish I could see for myself. But I was afraid. I don’t like the big city. And what if it was some kind of trick? What if we got in trouble? It felt safer to stay here with the sheep. But now I feel lonely and disappointed in myself.”

We all disappoint ourselves sometimes. We all feel afraid sometimes. Most of us are backstage when the world’s big events occur. But the angels remind us, again, that our doubts and fears and regrets do not exclude us, that Jesus is for all the people.

Day Six

“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:16-18)

The braver, more curious shepherds went to Bethlehem. There, they somehow found the right place and saw an exhausted mother, a relieved father, and a baby.

Did the baby radiate light or wear a halo, as often depicted? Was he fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked, already plump and cooing? When the shepherds saw the newborn child, what were they seeing?

They were seeing a newborn human child, almost certainly not fair-skinned, and more likely to be howling than cooing. A helpless, hungry little being, with unfocused eyes and flailing limbs. Our God entered our world not fully formed and powerful, but as a needy, vulnerable child.

They were seeing a shepherd, a loving, patient teacher, a friend and guide.

They were seeing a lamb, a sacrifice for all the people.

They were seeing a Messiah completely unlike the one they thought they were waiting for.

They were seeing a miracle, a finite human creature and yet a limitless God.

They were seeing a mystery to be explored in prayer and contemplation over many centuries.

They were seeing love personified.

Day Seven

“There was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2:13-14)

For Christmas of 1995, Al made a stable for the Holy Family figures that my mother had passed on to me. He built a frame, and crafted individual bricks by hand. Over the following years, each Christmas he bought a new figure to add to the manger scene.

The shepherds are there, of course, along with the Wise Men, a little drummer boy, and several fictional characters invented for the purpose of selling expensive figures. We’ve also added quirky things here and there, like a fish our daughter made out of clay one year, and a Lego Christmas tree contributed by our son. It is my absolute favorite Christmas gift that Al ever gave me. Each year, we set it up on the day after Thanksgiving, and leave it out until at least Epiphany.

On at least one quiet evening during Advent, I like to turn off all the lights in the house except the little bulb inside the stable, and sit and just contemplate the scene. Last year, as I sat in contemplation, I noticed the arm position of almost every figure. Their arms are flung open in positions of awe and/or welcome. Even the angel stands with her arms her arms open sedately, as she calmly heralds the presence of a history’s greatest miracle.

Awe is a given in the presence of such a miracle. Welcome is a given. What really struck me was the openness.

I think openness is as much a feature of Advent as waiting. When we are waiting, we might think we know exactly what we’re waiting for. Often, what arrives is not what we expected. The Israelites were waiting for a warrior king, who would lead them back to the glory days of King David. Instead, they got both a shepherd and a lamb. They got both a miracle and a fathomless mystery.

We can be astonished at what a seemingly-typical day brings. A shepherd boy can become a king, or be amazed to receive great news from angels. Stay awake. Stay open. We never really know what we’re waiting for, because our God is epic, endless, astounding, and for all the people.

Old Economy and Al’s Family History

Al and I spent a delightful Saturday last week at Old Economy Village, for Erntedank Fest, a German Thanksgiving harvest festival. We enjoyed the beautiful gardens, the German food, and the high-quality vendor booths. We ended up spending a lot more money than we usually do at craft fairs!

But this was far from our first trip to Old Economy. We got married in the garden forty years ago, and Al’s family has roots there, through his paternal grandmother’s line.

Christian and Amy Loeffler

Christian Loeffler emigrated to the United States from Stuttgart, Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, along with his mother, Margaret. He married Amy Hazen and initially settled on property in Beaver County that belonged to her family. Christian was a stonecutter who did work for the Fort Wayne Railroad and for the Harmonist Society at Old Economy. He and Amy had six children before he died in a work accident in 1862.

Christian and Amy had been living with Margaret at the time of his accident. Apparently, the young widow became more interested in finding new male companionship than in caring for her children. Margaret struggled to care for them while working at the tavern that she owned. And she worried about how her grandchildren would fare if she died. She had connections with the Harmonist Society through relatives, and so she placed the children in their care. The six children were Joseph, Franklin, Christian, Benjamin, Rosina and Charles.

Franklin Pierce Loeffler and His Descendants

Franklin was Al’s great-grandfather. A harmonist family raised him, and he received schooling through the sixth grade. He then served apprenticeships in both shoemaking and cabinet-making. He also learned music and played in the first Economy Band and later the Beaver Falls Coronet Band.

As they became adults, the six Loeffler children all married and left the celibate Harmonist sect. Family lore says that the Harmonists loved the children, and sent them on their way with enough household goods to start their lives. In a published autobiography one of the Harmonists, John Duss, he mentions the children. He wrote, “The Loefflers were all above average in intelligence and ability, all good-looking.”

More than a century later, Al’s father, volunteered at Old Economy for many years in the cabinet shop, doing repairs and teaching cabinet-making. Al’s sister worked as a docent there for several years. The docents that we met on Saturday were delighted to meet a Harmonist descendant. Some of them fondly remembered Al’s father.

Al and Kathy Bashaar (that’s us!)

For us, of course, our afternoon at Old Economy brought back happy memories of our wedding day. In a future blog post, I will write more about the Harmonist Society and Old Economy. But I wanted to tell this more personal history first.

Like the Loeffler children, I lost my father at a young age. Revisiting this old family story made me think a lot about the differences between my experience and the Loefflers’. First, I had a mother who did put her children first and had zero interest in new male companionship.

But I also want to emphasize here that my mother had better choices than poor Amy Loeffler did. Mom received about $6000 a month (in 2023 dollar, about $800 in the early 1970s) in Social Security Survivors Benefits. Combined with her salary from a secretarial job, that allowed her to keep us fed and hang on to the family home. She didn’t face the painful choice of living with her mother-in-law or finding a new man willing to take on her children. You will never hear me complain about government social spending, because I know what it can mean to a family.

And how about Margaret just handing those kids off to the Harmonists? Imagine trying to do that today! Amy would be all over her mother-in-law with lawsuits! But I don’t blame Margaret, either. I can imagine her exhaustion, trying to run her tavern and care for six grandchildren, all while grieving her son. And she knew she wouldn’t live forever. In fact, she did die about four years after Christian. She did what she thought would be good for the children in the long run. It must have been very hard. I hope she visited them when she could, or heard of their health and progress via letters. I hope she’d be glad to know that her descendants remained devoted to the Society that took in her grandchildren.

Sources

Only one source for this post. I am indebted to my late mother-in-law, Katherine Schuring Bashaar, for the thorough family history that she wrote of both sides of Al’s family. And she did it back in the 1970s and 80s, when there was no such thing as the internet. She did it the old fashioned way: lots of trips to cemeteries and poring through dusty old records. Hats off to you, Muni!

Mad Anthony Wayne

Was Mad Anthony Wayne truly mad? Not really. He just had a fiery temper. But legend has it that his ghost still haunts the state of Pennsylvania, where he was born, died, and became the father of the professional U.S. Army.

Wayne had pretty ordinary beginnings. Born in Paoli, PA, on January 1, 1745, he had only two years of education at an uncle’s academy in Philadelphia. In 1765, he worked for a year in Nova Scotia as a surveyor and agent for a land company. When the American Revolution broke out, he was working as a tanner and serving part-time in the Pennsylvania state legislature.

The American Revolution

In January of 1776, barely aged 21, Wayne assembled a militia and received an appointment as a colonel in the Fourth Pennsylvania Battalion of the Continental Army. He participated in the Army’s unsuccessful invasion of Canada later that year, successfully executing a rear-guard action at the Battle of Trois-Rivieres. Wayne also saw action at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. He protected Washington’s right flank in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, and endured the brutal winter at Valley Forge. In the Battle of Monmouth, Wayne’s forces held out against a larger British force after General Charles Lee abandoned them.

Wayne’s finest hour as a commander was probably the Battle of Stony Point. He personally led a nighttime bayonet attack, and his columns stormed and captured the British fortification. Although the victory was more a morale boost than a strategic triumph, the Continental Congress awarded Wayne a medal for his courage and leadership.

Even after the British surrender at Yorktown, Wayne continued to serve his country. He helped disband the British alliance with Indian tribes in Georgia, and negotiated peace treaties with native tribes. After the war, he received a belated promotion to Major General and retired to a plantation in Georgia, seized from a loyalist and awarded to him for his service.

The Legion of the United States

This is the site of Legionville, near Baden, about a quarter mile from the Ohio River. Logstown, the Indian town that once stood here, burned in 1754. An Indian burial ground lies nearby.

In 1791, Washington called Wayne back into service. After Arthur St. Clair’s disastrous rout in Ohio, the President realized that he needed a general who could build a disciplined army, and Wayne had earned a reputation for both strict discipline and for seeing to the comfort and well-being of his troops. Wayne established a training camp at Legionville, near present day Baden and Ambridge, and spent the winter of 1791-2 turning a few thousand remnants of the Continental Army and some recruits from Pittsburgh into a formidable fighting force: the Legion of the United States.  

Modern historians rightly point out that Wayne’s subsequent successful campaign in the West was one of many steps in the European genocide of the natives of North America. And that he owned slaves. As it happens, he was a less successful slavedriver than general. He went into debt buying enslaved people to work his Georgia plantation, and ended up bankrupt.

Weirdest Death Ever

Here’s Mad Anthony’s gravesite. Well, one of them . . .

But his death is the strangest part of Wayne’s colorful life story. Wayne’s rival for the position of General of the Legion, James Wilkinson, did not accept defeat gracefully. Wilkinson went out of his way to undermine Wayne and spread gossip about him. When Wayne received intelligence that Wilkinson was being paid as a spy for Spain, he began proceedings to court-martial him. But the court martial never happened. Wayne died on December 15, 1796. Some sources say he died of gout, others say a stomach ulcer. Rumors abounded at the time that Wilkinson had had him murdered. Wilkinson’s career as a spy wasn’t confirmed until 1854, almost forty years after his death.

But the story of Wayne’s death gets even weirder than that. After his death, Wayne was buried at Fort Presque Isle, near present-day Erie, PA. In 1809, his son, Isaac Wayne decided to disinter the body and move it nearer the family home in Wayne, PA. Imagine his surprise when he found the thirteen-year-old corpse in an astonishingly good state of preservation. A local doctor, James Wallace suggested boiling the body to separate the flesh from the bone, and then transporting the bones. Wayne’s flesh and clothing were reburied at Presque Isle, and the bones taken on the 400-mile journey to Wayne, PA.

Oh, wait, though, the weirdness isn’t even finished. When he arrived home, Isaac realized that he was missing some bones. They had apparently fallen out of the wagon along the way. So, Wayne is buried not in one grave, nor in two, but in a 400-mile trail of a grave.

Unsurprisingly, given the bizarre circumstances, legends abound that General Mad Anthony Wayne’s ghost haunts the state of Pennsylvania to this day, rising every New Year’s morning to ride the roads between St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, PA, all the way to Erie, searching for his lost bones.

Coda

As I guess befits a man who is both a ghost and a war hero, and also has a problematic history as a perpetrator of both slavery and genocide, Wayne has several taverns named after him. There’s Mad Anthony Wayne Café, in Wayne, PA, General Wayne Inn in Merion, Pa, and Mad Anthony’s Taproom & Restaurant in Waynesville, NC. There are Mad Anthony Brewing Company locations in Fort Wayne, Auburn and Warsaw, IN. From 1950 until the 1990s, there was a Mad Anthony’s Bier Stube at 1233 Merchant St., in Ambridge, PA, a sniper’s bullet away from where he trained the Legion of the United States 230 years ago.

Sources:

https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/wayne.htm

https://www.eriehistory.org/blog/a-halloween-story-the-death-of-anthony-wayne

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Wayne

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wilkinson

The National World War Two Museum

Al lost a 101-year-old friend during Covid. I didn’t even know the guy and I cried during his remote memorial service. He was a veteran of both the CCC and World War Two, a member of what we call the Greatest Generation. If you don’t know how they got that name, I recommend a visit to the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans.

I usually confine my blog posts to books and local history. But Al and I spent a few days in New Orleans recently and were just blown away by the WWII museum there.

Entering the Museum

Before you even enter the museum, it tugs at your heartstrings. Near the entrance stands a statue of Anne Frank, to remind you of the kind of evil the Greatest Generation had to confront. Near the Frank statue is a statuary tableau of a group of pilots preparing for a bombing run.

They look so young, and yet seasoned and tough in a way that nobody under thirty should ever look. The average WWII fighter pilot was only twenty-two years old. Fewer than half of them lived to see the end of the war.

The massive museum consists of five buildings. You could see the highlights in half a day, although you need a full day to really do it justice. And Al is such a history fanatic that we could have spent a second day there.  I recommend buying both the general admission ticket and the extra-cost ticket for the Beyond All Boundaries 4D Experience.

Beyond All Boundaries

Beyond All Boundaries is not to be missed. As advertised, it is an immersive experience of not only sound and visuals, but 3D features and sensory effects as well. For example, when bombs are exploding on the screen, your seat will shake as if you are right in the middle of the bombing. The show provides the background of the war and the events leading to it. It frankly discusses initial American reluctance to join the fight, even after Germany invaded Poland and France and began bombing Great Britain. It then gives and overview of the war itself, including the importance of the home front.

The tone of Beyond All Boundaries is unabashedly patriotic. It portrays the war as a battle of democracies versus autocracies, America as the savior of the free world, and our WWII generation as legendary heroes and heroines. The exhibits in the rest of the museum touch lightly on some of the more complex moral aspects of the war. But the overall approach of the museum is to portray inspiring heroism. Honestly, I really liked that.

Other Museum Highlights

Like most modern museums, the WWII strives to be interactive. After you purchase your ticket, you board a train where you receive a dog tag card. Your card is coded with the name of a WWII participant. You can tap it on many exhibits in the museum, to find out whether your participant was part of the exhibit’s subject, and what he or she was doing. I got Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Gaudalcanal and was killed at Iwo Jima after additional acts of superhuman courage.

The whole story of the war is told in multi-media exhibits that allow the visitor to take in as much or as little detail as desired. Many artifacts are on display. There are also video exhibits from the war era, and built environments that let you wander through reproductions of some of the war’s scenes. I especially liked the Battle of the Bulge winter forest.

Planes, Planes, Planes

The museum owns and displays acres of decommissioned military vehicles, particularly aircraft. Al loves that stuff, so he was in heaven. Me, not so much. I get pretty bored just looking at airplanes. They all look the same to me.

My favorite part was in building five, the Freedom Pavilion. There, I found an interactive display that presents the visitor with real moral dilemmas from the war. For example, you are the commander of Allied forces planning for D-Day. If you bomb railyards as well as rail lines and bridges, you increase your chances of a successful invasion, but you will cause more civilian casualties. What would you do? What did previous visitors say they’d do? And what did the real decision-maker do? I could have played that game all day. But the museum was getting ready to close, and Al had already taken about a hundred pictures of airplanes, so it was time to go.

Definitely don’t miss this museum if you are in New Orleans. And don’t worry if you’re with someone who will spend the whole day there. They have a cafeteria called the American Sector, which provides good food, alcoholic refreshment, and period music.

For more information about the museum, check out their website.

Henry VIII’s Wives Ranked

Henry VIII feels, in many ways, like the Donald Trump of his time. In his youth, he was a rich, handsome, carefree young man about town who discarded wives as frequently as he changed his doublet.

In old age, he grew moody and cruel, yet still saw himself as a charming, attractive rogue. Everyone around him had to indulge him if they hoped to keep their heads on their shoulders.

He divorced two wives, beheaded two more, and another died giving birth to his only son. Only two wives outlived him. Of his six wives, some shine brighter than others. As an avid reader of historical fiction, I have some pretty strong – and admittedly only partially informed – opinions about that. And so, for entertainment purposes only, I give you Henry VIII’s Wives Ranked.

Worst: Anne Boleyn (Wife #2)

Since I am an Episcopalian, I suppose I should thank her. Henry founded the Church of England just so he could marry her.

The Boleyns were an ambitious family. Anne’s sister, Mary, was Henry’s mistress first – while married to a minor noble at his court. Anne came to court later and caused a sensation with her regal carriage, graceful dancing and fashionable French clothes. Contemporaries also noted her as intelligent and charming.

When Anne came to court in 1526, Henry had been married for seventeen years to Catherine of Aragon, and she had produced only one living child, a daughter. Henry had one acknowledged illegitimate son, and probably several others. But he needed a legitimate son to take the throne after him, and Catherine was getting past childbearing age.

Anne, an acknowledged master of the arts of seduction, saw her opportunity. She charmed and teased Henry sexually, while refusing consummation without a wedding ring. When it became clear that the Catholic Church would refuse to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, Anne also became very interested in Protestantism.

Did I mention that she was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting and supposed friend?

Henry and Anne married in a secret ceremony on November 14, 1532, even before the official annulment of Henry’s Marriage to Catherine. Anne soon became pregnant. But, like Mary, she produced only a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. Later, she had at least one miscarriage.

Anne was vain and a spendthrift, and her marriage to Henry looked like a Jerry Springer episode, a seesaw of bliss alternating with temper tantrums. As she continued to fail at producing an heir, Henry’s eye turned towards her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Rumors of Anne’s infidelity to Henry have followed her through the centuries. They may be untrue. Henry and his advisors certainly had an incentive to cook up an excuse to behead her.

But we know for sure that she broke up Henry’s marriage. And, I don’t care what church you belong to or what era you come from, it’s just wrong to steal another woman’s husband. When Henry had her beheaded so that he could marry Jane Seymour, Anne found out that “what goes around comes around.”

Second Worst: Catherine Howard (Wife #5)

Pretty little Kitty. Someone recently described her as “poor ditzy Kitty,” and that’s about right.

Like both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, she apprenticed for the job of wife to Henry VIII by serving as lady-in-waiting to his current wife (Anne of Cleves at that time). She was also a cousin to both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.

Contemporaries described Kitty as pretty, frivolous and giddy. She loved both dancing and flirting, like any pretty teenage girl. She also showed the poor judgment often associated with pretty teenage girls.

In her mid-teens, she had an affair with a much older man, which may have been abusive. A few years later, she had another affair, with Francis Dereham, and may have exchanged betrothal vows with him.

The aging Henry became besotted with Kitty almost as soon as he laid eyes on her. As soon as he could dump Anne of Cleves, the two married. And almost as soon as they were married, Kitty apparently started a love affair with one of Henry’s courtiers, Thomas Culpepper.

By this time, Henry was fifty years old. First, he had no business marrying Kitty, who was about eighteen. Second, there’s nothing more fragile than the ego of an aging Lothario. In rage, Henry had his marriage to Kitty annulled on the basis that she had been betrothed to Dereham. He also had both Dereham and Culpepper executed, on the well-known principle that One Does Not Cuckold an Aging and Egotistical Autocrat.

Finally, on February 10, 1542, poor, ditzy Kitty also lost her head on basically the same principle.

History hasn’t treated Kitty kindly. One historian described her as a “juvenile delinquent,” another as “a stupid and oversexed adolescent.” The poor little thing probably was brainless and selfish, but she was also a child, so I feel a little sorry for her.

Reluctant Homewrecker: Jane Seymour (Wife #3)

Like both Anne and Kitty, Jane caught Henry’s eye when she served as lady-in-waiting to his current wife. But, unlike them, Jane was a reluctant homewrecker. Jane apparently didn’t make a play for Henry.  Even as he began to pursue her, she maintained her chastity until marriage. But her family had great interest in the political advantages of her relationship with Henry, and did what they could behind the scenes to get Boleyn out of the way.

Contemporaries described Jane as meek and gentle, and very skilled at needlework. She treated her step-daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, with kindness and played an especially significant role in reconciling Henry with young Mary.

Jane came from a big family, so Henry had reason to believe she would be fertile. And, on October 12, 1537 – after a labor lasting two days and three nights – Jane gave birth to a baby boy, the future King Edward VI. Twelve days later, she died.

Having given him his only legitimate son, Jane ranked as Henry’s favorite wife. When Henry died, he requested to be buried next to her.

Kept Her Head: Anne of Cleves (Wife #4)

Everyone knows that a king needs not just an heir, but also a spare. Although Henry apparently grieved Jane Seymour, negotiations for his next wife began almost immediately. This time, Henry allowed himself to be persuaded by political considerations rather than by his penis. His advisors wanted an alliance with William of Cleves, a Protestant leader in western Germany, and William had an eligible sister in Anne.

Like Jane Seymour, Anne was described as gentle and skilled at needlework. She could speak a little English, but could read and write only in German.

Henry and Anne had only seen portraits of each other before she arrived in England in December 1539. Their first meeting did not go well.

The aging Henry, still seeing himself as a charming young rogue, had come up with a “meet cute” scheme. He would, in disguise, approach his bride in her chamber with an embrace, a kiss and a “token.” Naturally startled, Anne did not react well to Henry’s little surprise. And, like the petulant overgrown boy that he was, Henry felt insulted.

The two married on January 6, 1540, but never consummated their union. Henry claimed that Anne wasn’t as pretty as her portrait made her look, and it seems that she was also naïve about sexual relations. Possibly, Henry suffered from intermittent impotence by this time.

Anne agreed to an annulment in July 1540, on the grounds of non-consummation. And she came out of the marriage in much better shape than any of her predecessors. Mainly, she still had her head. Henry allowed her to keep her dower lands, and gave her a generous settlement, including at least three homes. She remained friendly with Henry and with her two step-daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. A contemporary chronicler described her as “a ladie of right commendable regards, courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper and verie bountifull to her servants.”

Second Best: Catherine of Aragon (Wife #1)

Catherine’s parents were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Columbus’s 1492 journey to the Americas. As a descendant of both of the first two wives of John of Gaunt, she herself had a distant claim to the English throne. Thus, her marriage into the upstart Tudor family strengthened their legitimacy.

She first married Henry’s older brother Arthur, but he died shortly after their wedding. Henry’s desire to marry his brother’s widow was complicated by a Church ban on such a marriage.

The marriage went forward in 1509 after Catherine swore -probably falsely – that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. Henry was only eighteen. Catherine was twenty-four.

By most accounts, Henry adored Catherine, and trusted her completely. He appointed her regent when he went on military campaigns. In one of the wars with Scotland, she rode north in armor – and several months pregnant! – to encourage troops in the Midlands.

One thing that the redoubtable Catherine could not do: provide a male heir. She had at least three stillbirths between 1510 and 1514. One son, Henry, may have lived for a few hours. She produced a daughter, the future Queen Mary, in 1516. Another pregnancy ended in a stillbirth in 1518. Catherine was only 33 at the time, but she had no further known pregnancies. By 1525, Henry’s eye had turned to Anne Boleyn.

I like Catherine because she fought for her marriage and for what she believed was right. “God never called me to a nunnery,” she said, “I am the King’s true and legitimate wife.” After Henry set her aside, he held her daughter basically hostage. Catherine and Mary longed for each other’s company, but Henry had banished them both from court to separate locations. He offered to allow them to reunite only if they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the true queen of England. They both refused.

Catherine’s final letter to Henry, as she knew she was dying in late 1535, is poignant:

” My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.

For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.”

Best and Last: Katherine Parr

Henry loved his Katherines; Parr was the third. And, in my opinion, she was Henry’s best wife.

By the time Katherine married Henry, he was well into his fifties. He was fat, suffered from both diabetes and gout, and had stinking sores on his leg from an old wound. He was cranky, mercurial, and hard to live with. Katherine didn’t want to marry him. She’d had two husbands already, and was probably already in love with her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. But, if Henry wanted to marry you, you married him or you died.

Katherine spoke French, Latin, Italian and Spanish, in addition to English. She was a committed Protestant at a time when the country was still bitterly divided and Henry himself wavered back and forth. She wrote three books. Not some trashy memoir like you’d probably see today, but books of prayers and meditations. Her “Prayer for the King” is still in the English Book of Common Prayer. She may also have translated the Gospels into English.

Like Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, Katherine maintained loving relations with her step-daughters, the future Queens Mary and Elizabeth.

For her erudition, her kindness to her step-children and her endurance of Henry at his absolute worst, Katherine stands out to me as Henry’s most admirable wife.

Katherine Parr and Anne of Cleves were the only two wives to outlive Henry. Henry died on January 28, 1547, of complications of gout. Katherine died in childbirth on September 5, 1548. Anne died on July 16, 1557, probably of cancer.

Sources

Most of the historical facts in this post came from Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wives_of_Henry_VIII

But the stories of these fascinating queens are best brought to life in fiction. I especially enjoy Philippa Gregory’s series of books on the Tudor queens:

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Boleyn Inheritance

The Constant Princess

The Taming of the Queen

My Five-Star Reads of 2022

I had only a few five star reads this year, including an old childhood favorite, some unreliable narrators and, oddly, lots of orphans.

A Lantern in Her Hand

I started the year with a childhood favorite. I first read A Lantern in Her Hand in sixth grade, when I bought it from the TAB book catalog at school. I loved it so much that I re-read it every couple of years until I was about thirty, and it finally fell apart and had to be thrown away.

It is the story of Abbie Mackenzie Deal, who goes west with her new husband in the early 1870s, to claim a farmstead in Nebraska. Abbie loves to paint and sing, and dreamed of life as a painter or singer. She had a wealthy beau who could have provided her with the luxury of painting and singing lessons had she married him. But she fell in love with Will Deal and thereby chose a different life.

Aldrich wrote this book in 1928 for young people. Therefore, it presents that era’s romanticized view of the prairie pioneers. But I still loved it as much at age 66 as I did at 12. Abbie is such a strong female character. And I like the values that the book presents: loyalty to family, friends and community, hard work, sacrifice for the next generation. Those values are timeless.

Haven

Haven was five-star read for me, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Don’t pick it up if you like a lot of action. The story builds very slowly and quietly, and there’s lots of description of things like building a hut and hunting birds.

In seventh-century Ireland, a passionate scholar-priest, Artt, turns up at the monastery where young Trian and old Cormac are monks. Soon after his arrival, Artt has a dream in which he founds a monastery with Trian and Cormac. The monastery is to be located on an island previously innocent of human footprints. There, Artt and his two monks will make copies of the Bible and live ascetically.

The two monks feel honored to be chosen. But only the bare minimum of supplies will fit in their boat when they set off down the River Shannon towards the sea. They land on what what we today call Skellig Michael and begin their work. But Trian has a secret. And both Trian and Cormac begin to have doubts about Artt, to whom they have vowed perpetual obedience.

Donoghue does a great job of conveying the claustrophobic feeling of living on a small island. She also builds tension slowly and expertly, and vividly portrays the natural beauty and the desolation of the island and the hardships the three monks endure to make it habitable.

To me, this book was about the issue that finally prompted me to switch churches about a year ago. It’s about the tension between an abstract faith that scorns our life of flesh and a living faith that honors both the body and the soul. Donoghue doesn’t preach or extemporize at all in her novel. She simply tells a story that illustrates the logical consequences of a faith that scorns this earth and deems body and soul incompatible. Magnificent.

You Have a Friend in 10A

Short story collections are hit-or-miss for me. Usually I only like a few of the stories. But I liked every single story in this collection, and loved several of them.

Shipstead is great at coming up with interesting situations for a short story. Unrequited love lasting for years on an isolated Montana ranch. A young man who believes he is the son of his mother’s employer. A French colony on a small island which loses contact with the rest of the world during WWI, leading to horrifying consequences. These stories really keep the reader turning pages.

And her use of language is both economical and gorgeous, a hard feat to pull off. In just one example, she describes a man who “resembled a petrified log in both body and spirit.” From those few words, can’t you just imagine him perfectly?

My favorite story was “Acknowledgements,” in which a young aspiring writer takes a unique revenge on a female classmate in his MFA program. But, rather than exposing her, he exposes himself and has to face flaws in both his character and his writing.

The only bad thing I can say about this collection is that it made me feel like “Oh. I’m not a real writer. Real writers produce stories like THESE.”

Trust

Trust tells the life story of fictional financier Andrew Bevel from four different perspectives.

The first section is a novel based on the lives of Bevel and his wife Mildred, fictionalizing them as Benjamin and Helen Rask. The Rasks are both portrayed as intellectually and socially rather unusual.  In this version, Rask is a financial manipulator, and the cause of both the 1929 stock market crash and his own wife’s death.

The second section is Bevel’s unfinished and self-serving autobiography.

In the third section, the young woman Bevel hired to write his autobiography, Ida Partenza, tells her story. We see her first as a naïve young woman, desperate for a job. Later, we meet her as a mature writer who goes back and tries to learn the truth about Andrew and Mildred Bevel.

The fourth section consists of Mildred’s journals, hidden for decades and finally uncovered by Ida.

I don’t want to say much more, because I want to allow future readers the delight of uncovering the truth bit by bit.

Demon Copperhead

As Demon Copperhead opens, Damon (nicknamed Demon) is a little boy growing up in a trailer in rural southwestern Virginia. His father died before he was born, and his mom is a recovering (ish) addict raising Demon herself on her wages as a stock clerk in Wal Mart. They rent the trailer from the kindly Peggott family, who live nearby, and Demon’s best friend is “Maggot” (Matthew) Peggott, their grandson. Times are hard, Demon longs for a father, and he has to be preternaturally mature to keep his loving-but-disorganized mother on track. He is also secretly in love with both Maggot’s Aunt June and cousin Emmy.

Demon’s life gets a lot worse when mom finds “love” with a man named Stoner. Before very long, Demon finds himself in the foster-care system. He bounces from family to family, none of them anything like nurturing. He develops even more toughness and resilience in circumstances that are heartbreaking to read. Then he gets what looks like a break, but turns into the beginning of a downhill slide.

This book is very affecting and hard to put down. Kingsolver’s portrayal of rural life in Appalachia is poignant, both in its warmth and beauty and in its poverty and despair. Demon’s voice is authentic and engaging. And Aunt June is an absolutely wonderful character, one of those women whose tough love can sometimes change the world. Demon also finds allies in a foster sister, a coach, two dedicated teachers and one friend who manages to keep his soul through brutal years in foster care. But his journey is far from easy.

This Tender Land

Albert and Odie are orphaned brothers, the only white boys living in an Indian School in Minnesota in 1932. The school is run by the pitiless Thelma Brickman and her equally odious husband. Their rules are enforced by the vicious, predatory Mr. DiMarco.

The boys’ lives are made bearable by their loyalty to each other. Albert, the older, is a rule follower. Odie’s rebellious, trouble-making nature exasperates Albert, but the brothers always have each other’s backs. And they have friends in the mute Indian Mose, the kindly school handyman and caretaker Mr. Volz, and their teacher Cora Frost and her sweet little girl Emmy.

In the summer of 1932, tragedy claims Mrs. Frost, Odie feels he is the cause of a horrifying accident, and dark secrets emerge about the Brickmans. This combination of events causes Albert, Odie, Mose and little Emmy to flee the school together. Thus begins a river odyssey that will take the children from northwestern Minnesota all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. Albert and Odie hope to find relatives in St. Louis.

The joy of This Tender Land isn’t just the very sympathetic characters of the four children. It’s also the beautifully-rendered portrayal of Depression-era America. Along their way, the children meet a half-crazed farmer about to lose his land, an Indian who may or may not be their protector, and a travelling faith healer. They land for a while in a camp of displaced workers and farmers where Odie falls in love for the first time. The Brickmans have reason to want them dead or at least silenced, and pursue them at every stage. The boys will feud, protect Emmy, protect each other, and grow up fast.

Parts of this book are so brutal that they are hard to read. But the story, and the rendering of the landscape of the Mississippi River watershed, were beautiful enough to make this a 5-star read for me.

Books I Will Never Read

Everybody who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. I enjoy spiritual, sociological, political or scientific non-fiction. My real passion, though, is fiction, especially literary or historical fiction. But there are some fiction genres that I have learned to avoid. What follows is completely personal. Some readers may absolutely love a genre that I detest, and to that I say: Enjoy! But here are some types of fiction that I absolutely will not read and some others that I read very seldom

Top of my Never-Never-Never List

At the top of my list is any book about magical creatures. Vampires, witches, werewolves, zombies, zombie werewolves. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I’ll grant that it takes a lot of imagination to write these books, so nothing against authors who write them. I just don’t want to read them. When I read fiction, I’m interested in human dilemmas. As soon as the main character is super-human in any way, you’ve lost me. All too often, too, authors take ridiculous liberties and the story doesn’t even have an internal logic. Or the author seems to think that as long as their book has a magical creature in it, it’s ipso facto interesting, and the writing is boring.

Case in point: A Discovery of Witches. Everybody I know assured me that I would love A Discovery of Witches, even though I usually hate books about witches. I got 100 pages into A Discovery of Witches and only discovered that it is very boring to read about a character who borrows from the library a book that she realizes is enchanted and returns it to the library anyway! Then she has a very lengthily-described and boring dinner with a vampire or something. Boring, boring, boring.

Next on my No-thanks List

I went through a phase twenty years ago or so of loving to read books about Amish people or people who lived in quaint little towns where nothing really interesting ever happens. These books are nice escapes for someone who enjoys very light reading. But I got bored with them very quickly. The characters are usually not very deep, and the problems are too easily solved. I think these books were an escape for me when I was working a very demanding job while still raising children. They were little fantasy worlds where I could imagine myself living simply and peacefully.

For me, this genre also includes “cozy mysteries,” usually featuring a charmingly eccentric little old lady and lots of tea.

Also No Thanks

Romance novels. I guess I’m just too old.

No Thanks With Exceptions

I went through a Christian fiction phase, too, but this genre features the worst of both supernatural fiction and cozy fiction. The characters in Christian fiction often have a dark side that needs healing by Christ. But they are generally otherwise very shallow. And their problems are generally solved by getting right with God, which is a good thing in real life, but a form of magic in fiction. The point of fiction is for people to solve their own problems.

I will note some exceptions in this category, though. One of the best books I ever read was Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. I also recommend the Shiloh Legacy series (and its sequel Shiloh Autumn) by Bodie Thoene. These books feature well-developed characters of faith who work hard to solve the problems that face them. Redeeming Love is based on the Book of Hosea. And the Shiloh series contains some interesting social commentary.

Nope for a While: Science Fiction and Fantasy

I was a big science fiction fan in my teens and twenties. I remember devouring the Lord of the Rings and Dragonriders of Pern series, one right after the other. That was in the 1970s and I liked how women were allowed to be warriors in the Dragonriders series. One of the great things about science fiction is that it imagines worlds different from ours, yet the problems and their solutions are still human.

I got turned off on sci fi and fantasy because it started to seem to me that it was mostly about world-building and not so much about character and plot.

But, more recently, I’ve started to reconsider. I read the Scythe series a few years ago with my grandson, and recently I’ve read and enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land, Sea of Tranqulity and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. So, I guess I just needed to find literary sci fi. If anyone has any recommendations of good literary sci fi or fantasy, I’m definitely open to that.

If anyone disagrees with my gripes, that’s fine; feel free to comment. And feel free to enjoy your favored genre without any criticism from me. I love all my fellow readers, even if I don’t love all books.

Why I am Still Patriotic

For the past couple of years, I’ve chosen a word to summarize my focus for that year. In 2021, it was Patience. And, boy, did I need it that year, between lingering Covid and Al having some pretty serious surgery that involved a very long recovery.

This year, my theme is Hope. And, again, I find that I set myself an appropriate challenge. We have an important mid-term election coming up, and it seems that many people feel despair that our country can ever overcome the terrible divisiveness of the past five years. I admit that I’m not especially optimistic, at least over the short term. I don’t necessarily feel hopeful. But, similar to faith, I believe that hope is a verb more than a feeling. I believe that hope is in what we do. So, I will be canvassing for my preferred candidates every Saturday between now and the election.

Do I love doing that? No, I do not. The weather isn’t always agreeable, and people aren’t always happy to see you. But I will make myself do it because, in spite of the rancor of the past five years, I still love my country. One of my five-star books for 2021 was about the topic of patriotism, and I’m republishing my review here because I don’t have any better words to explain why I’m still patriotic, and why I’ll be out there canvassing regardless of weather, and regardless of slammed doors and argumentative rightists. God bless America!

My Review of Reclaiming Patriotism

My heart broke on November 8, 2016. I have always been patriotic, but I have struggled since 11/8/2016 to maintain my faith and pride in my country. 1/6/2021 didn’t help.

This book was like an elixir. Smith is a professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Yale, and his writing reflects that. He doesn’t just expound his own opinions at the reader. Referencing sources from Aristotle to the Federalist papers, he relies especially on Lincoln’s speeches and writings, in his defense of patriotism.

He defines patriotism as loyalty to one’s home country in the first chapter. Then he contrasts patriotism with both nationalism and cosmopolitanism. And, finally, in the last two chapters he describes what enlightened patriotism looks like and discusses the values and character of the United States, the things that we can love and take pride in.

This book took me a couple of weeks to read. It was both intellectually and emotionally dense for me. I had to read a little, and then ponder what I’d read before reading more. But it was well worth it.

In a nutshell, Smith’s argument is that you can recognize that your nation is flawed and still love it. You can respect that other people love their own countries, too, and still love you own. It isn’t even necessary to think, as many Americans do, that you live in the best country in the world. You can still love America because it is your own. Your home.

I thought about how the people of America gave me an education. I thought about how my family would have lost our home after my dad died, if the American people hadn’t sent us Social Security survivor’s benefits every month. My country has given me so much. This is my home. I enjoy French culture and language, but I don’t love France. I didn’t grow up in Paris or on the wide plains of the French countryside. Instead, I grew up in the hills and valleys of Appalachia, and there lies my heart.

But those affinities – “habits of the heart” as Smith calls them – aren’t the only reasons to love America. Smith mounts a full-throated defense of all that is good about our country, all that is worth loving. First and foremost, our dedication to the notion of the “equal moral dignity” of every human being. Have we always fully lived that principle? Obviously not. But, to an extent that no other nation can match, it is our creed. Smith also calls out our Constitution, which has managed to maintain rule of law for almost 250 years. He also points to our cultural, artistic, economic and scientific achievements. And I would add that we have also defeated tyranny twice in the past century. That’s a record to be proud of.

You can weep for our country’s flaws and errors. I certainly do. But this book reminded me that nations are like human beings: tragically flawed and gloriously noble both at the same time. It reminded me that I am not free to give up on our country any more that I am free to give up on the people I love. It gave me back my hope and pride