Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fergus and Frank: Part 3, Kingston

The photo above is Dr. Fergus Joseph O’Connor in 1964 at age eighty-five with four of his great grandchildren. (On the left are cousin Ted Kaiser and my brother Padraic. Baby cousin Kevin Kaiser is in great grandfather's arms and I am the small girl on the end.)I am grateful for the few memories I have of this wonderful man, a true patriarch. I recall how approachable he was, how kindly and gentle with small children. A Kingston newspaper article described him in his nineties as being “still active and spry…his eyes twinkling….with short quick steps“ and that is exactly as he appears in my memory.

In 19
18, Dr and Mrs. Fergus O’Connor, my great-grandparents, moved to 193 Earl Street in Kingston, Ontario, with seven of their soon-to-be eight children. A white rose bush from the original that old Daniel had brought over from Ireland was planted outside the front door. It was an elegant brick row house around the corner from Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where Fergus and Frank had been married eleven years earlier, and where several of their children and even some of their grandchildren would eventually be wed. “One ninety-three,” as the house is still referred to among my relatives, although it passed out of the family in 1988, seemed like a palace to me as a child, with it’s high ceilings, beautifully carved furniture, and three stories of rooms. It was not a palace though, or even a mansion, just a grand old house.

Fergus slowly built up a new practice. He taught medicine at Queen’s University, and continued on the faculty for forty years. His close friend, Monsignor J.G. Hanley said of him:

His concern for his students was not limited to their professional development. Working in an area fraught with deep moral implications, he instilled in future obstetricians sound ethical principles to guide them in making crucial decisions which would crucially affect the lives of their patients. Moreover, he was not merely a professor to his students; they all regarded him as a personal friend, and so he was.

By the late 1930’s he was delivering one third of all the babies in Kingston. He had many poor patients who could not pay, but to Fergus being a doctor was a vocation, not a career. However, he would gratefully accept an offering such as a bag of potatoes in the place of money, so that he could feed his family. He eventually became Chief of Obstetrics at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston and remained so for almost half a century. He delivered his last baby at age eighty-four.

Fergus was also active in the community and the church. He was on the Separate School Board for many years, as well as being a city alderman. He belonged to the Knights of Columbus and in 1945 founded the Queen’s chapter of the Newman Club.

During those years, Frank was devoted to raising the family. She was a conscientious mother, and as my grandmother told me, “She never spoiled a child.” Frank was a bit shocked by the cultural changes of the twenties, but she was not a prude. On her At Home days, when other ladies would stop by for tea, she would ask my grandmother to dance the Charleston for the guests. She was active in the church and the Catholic Women’s League. She had many charities, especially during the Depression, when a pot of soup was kept on the stove to feed any beggars who came to the kitchen door. She diligently prepared her children for their first Holy Communion, not trusting anyone else to do it properly. She insisted upon them all wearing a scapular, although she preferred the scapular medals to the cloth ones.

In the late 1920’s, when my grandmother Norah was in college, she told me that her mother, Frances, became ill, took to her bed, and lived secluded for a couple of years. Norah, the oldest daughter, ran the house. Whether it was depression, or change of life, or some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction to having so many family deaths as a young girl, or a combination of the three, I do not know. Whatever it was, she got over it, and became again an active and beloved participant in family and church activities.

Their children grew up and all but the three youngest daughters married. Both sons became physicians. The two youngest daughters, Pat and Sheila, became nurses and served in Europe during World War II. The hardships of the war took a toll on Pat’s health and she died, of cancer, in 1949, at the age of thirty. It was by no means the first tragedy the family had to face; in 1943, a darling little grandson died in a terrible accident. Frances herself died in 1956, to be followed by her oldest son Maurice in 1963. Around that time, Fergus retired, although he still had a few patients who persisted in coming to see him. A relative told me that many people felt better just after talking to Dr. O’Connor; he had a gift for healing that went beyond medical knowledge.

In March of 1966, Dr. Fergus O’Connor received the medal of the Holy Cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” from Pope Paul VI, in recognition of his contributions to medicine for over sixty years. The papal nuncio came to the house at 193 Earl Street to bestow the medal, due to the advanced age of the recipient, celebrating Mass there as well. My great grandfather died on April 21, 1971. I saw him not long before he passed away. He was already ill and we children were brought upstairs to visit him; I kissed his cheek. As their son wrote of Fergus and Frances O’Connor:

We were always encouraged to aim high—accomplish as much as possible, accepting the results. We were all given as much freedom as possible to live our lives, with parental guidance that was not too directed and with a family attitude of loving, direct example and a family history shown by Mother and Dad. (from Because You Asked For It by Dr. Fergus James O’Connor.)

Rest in peace, my dear great grandparents!

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2 comments:

Sally T. said...

Beautiful! What a beautiful story of dear gentle folks who knew how to live. We have lost so much in our so called modern times. We are more robotic than body and soul especially the soul part. Keep writing such beautiful stories. We need them. sst

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Miss Sally. I am blessed to have spent a lot of time with my grandmother, listening.