Friday, June 15, 2007

Miss Catherine Long

I wish I had a picture of her. Speaking of supposed superstition and of eccentric, pious, old ladies, on another blog, brought her inexorably to mind. Miss Catherine was an Irish Catholic southern belle spinster, a fascinating and frightening combination of fervor, exuberance, petulance, charm and sheer insanity. When she was well into her late nineties and becoming quite demented, I was called upon by the Visitation nuns in Frederick, Maryland to help them care for Miss Catherine. Her sister had been a Visitation sister. Catherine had never entered the order, claiming acute claustrophobia, but she used her extensive wealth to help the monastery all of her adult life. Therefore, in her advanced dotage, the nuns took her in.

Miss Catherine was lodged in a small room which had once been part of the infirmary; it opened upon the choir loft of the Visitation Academy chapel. She would lose track of time and forget that Mass had started. In the middle of Mass, then, she would come out of her apartment and call out, "Why are the lights on?" One of my jobs was to make sure that she got to Mass.

She would greet me with the words: "Heigh-ho and a way we go!" and called me her "little Carmelite girl." Then she would insist on going home to her mama, forgetting that her mama had been dead for over half a century. When I would tell her that she could not go home she would get very upset. "Oh, go say your morning and evening prayers!" she said to me when annoyed. But she would quickly recover herself, launching into epic tales of her life and of the history of the Visitation, the same stories over and over and over again. She told the legend of the secret passage under the Academy, "but I never found it!" She told of how the Union forces occupied the Academy during the Civil War and how the boarding students from the Deep South, who could not get home due to the hostilities, lived in the cloister with the nuns for four years. They drove each other crazy, and the Yankees, too.

Miss Catherine often described her beloved nurse, Jackie, who accompanied her everywhere.There were many black Catholics in Southern Maryland in the early twentieth century and the Church found work for them with devout families. I was horrified to learn that even in our Catholic Church, those of African descent had to sit in the very back of the church, in the days of segregation. All except Jackie, who marched to the front of the church with her little charges in hand. "Jackie went where we went. She was part of our family," Miss Catherine explained. Those were very different times.

Catherine told of how as a small girl she almost killed a little boy with a croquet ball when he cheated at the game, and she hid in one of the vast rooms of one of the grand hotels her parents owned. She was extremely temperamental and feisty, qualities which increased as her mental acuity faded. Her sister Margaret was the exact opposite, sweet, serene, docile and a great beauty. Margaret entered the cloister at the age of seventeen. Young Catherine was about fifteen, and hoped that Margaret would be given the religious name of "Agnes" or "Cecilia." At the clothing ceremony, however, a Jesuit priest celebrated the Mass and the nuns had given him the honor of bestowing the new name upon the novice. During the Mass, he announced; "Miss Margaret Long will henceforth be known as 'Sr. Mary Ignatius.'" Upon hearing the name of "Ignatius" rather than "Agnes," Catherine bolted to her feet and shouted to the priest "No!" "Sit down!" he ordered, and he proceeded with the Mass.

Miss Long never married. She became an artist, living her entire life in Frederick, Maryland, in a federal house next to the Visitation. In her old age she was a familiar and eccentric character about town, especially in the parish church of St John's, where she would sit in the very back of the church and rattle her rosary. Miss Catherine's rosary was infamous,with almost as many medals dangling from it as there were beads; it made her sound like Marley's ghost. When senility set in, she would say her private prayers out loud during Mass. During the elevation of the Host everyone in the Church could hear her saying: "God bless Mama, Papa, Auntie Annie, Margaret etc, etc." She did not like to be disturbed during her devotions, although she was totally unconscious that she was distracting half the congregation.

Miss Catherine eventually became bedridden and one day she died, very peacefully. She was buried in the nuns' cemetery. When I asked permission to visit her grave, I was warned by the nuns not to be surprised. Sr Mary Joseph, who had a marvelous sense of humor, said: "You've heard of the 'Little Flower?' Well, we call Catherine the 'Little Weed.' Either she was very bad or very good...." I was amazed that while all the other graves were covered with grass and clover, even the new ones, Miss Catherine's grave had foot high weeds all over it.

The Little Weed. What a character. Share


Anonymous said...

A memorable character! Because of her earliler generosity God provided her with caring people until the end.

elena maria vidal said...

That is so true. She took care of others and so God took care of her!