Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice

In March of 1966
, my great grandfather 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 in Kingston, Ontario to bestow the medal, due to the advanced age of the recipient, celebrating Mass there as well. In March of 2008, when my late Aunt Mary's belongings were being distributed among the relatives, I happened to come across the certificate that accompanied the medal from the pope. (See photo above.) According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
The medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice was instituted by Pope Leo XIII (17 July, 1888, "Quod Singulari") in memory of his golden sacerdotal jubilee, and bestowed on those women and men who had merited well by aiding and promoting, and by other excellent ways and means assisted in making the jubilee and the Vatican Exposition successful. This decoration was made a permanent distinction only in October, 1898 (Giobbio, see below). Its object is to reward those who in a general way deserve well of the pope on account of services done for the Church and its head. The medal is of gold, silver or bronze. The decoration is not subject to chancery fees. The medal is a cross made octangular in form by fleurs-de-lis fixed in the angles of the cross in a special manner. The extremities of the cross are of a slightly patonce form. In the centre of the cross is a small medal with an image of its founder, and encircling the image are the words LEO XIII P. M. ANNO X (tenth year of his pontificate). On the obverse side are the papal emblems in the centre, and in the circle surrounding the emblems the motto PRO DEO ET PONTIFICE is stamped. On the obverse surface of the branches of the cross are comets — which with the fleurs-de-lis form the coat of arms of the Pecci family. On the reverse side are stamped the words, PRIDIE (left branch); KAL. (top branch); JANUAR. (right branch); 1888 (at the foot). The ribbon is purple, with delicate lines of white and yellow on each border. The decoration is worn on the right side of breast.
Fergus Joseph O'Connor was the son of Charles and Emily O'Connor of Long Point Farm, born on April 1, 1879, Easter Sunday. As Fergus' second son and namesake wrote of him: "It's hard to describe a man with such integrity of character. He was the perfect son to his parents -- the brother to his only sister and complete support to his family." (Dr. Fergus James O'Connor, Because You asked For It)

Fergus loved horses and wanted to become a jockey, for which he was suited due to his stocky stature. His mother, however, encouraged him to seek as much education as possible. He went to high school in Athens, Ontario, and then went to the “Normal School” for teachers' training in Ottawa. It was around that time that he decided to study medicine. His father had wanted Fergus to help him maintain the homestead, but accepted his decision to become a doctor. He taught school to earn his tuition for medical school at Queen's University in Kingston. In his third year, he missed classes the first term because his funds had run out and he had to teach school again to make more money, but his roommate took notes for him, so he was able to pass anyway. He did not have much recreation, and only went to one football game all the time he was at Queen's.

In the summer of 1902, when Fergus first registered at Queen’s he rode his bicycle the 32 miles into Kingston. After finishing his business at the university, he became lost. He drove past three young ladies playing croquet on the front lawn and asked them for directions. One of them was Frances Keating. Frances Margaret Keating was of Norman-Irish stock on her father’s side; her mother was an O’Neill.
Fergus and Frank were married at the dawn Mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Kingston on September 3, 1907. The Mass was followed by a simple wedding breakfast. The new Dr. and Mrs. O’Connor moved to Gananoque in the Thousand Islands area where Fergus set up a practice and built a house.

Fergus' practice involved house calls, as was the custom in those days. He was often called out at night to deliver a baby, and often had to travel unlit roads into remote areas. It was vital for a country doctor to have a reliable horse so as to get him to his patients; my great grandfather had many stories about horse traders. After tending to a patient in the countryside, he could doze in the buggy or sleigh, since the horse knew the way home.

In December of 1916, Fergus was elected mayor of Gananoque. His election was a tribute to the respect generated by his professional dedication and personal integrity. It was remarkable given the local history of conflict between the few Irish Catholics settlers and the Protestant majority, especially the Irish Protestants, called “Orangeman.” Fergus, without compromising any of his beliefs and principles, was able to overcome a great deal of anti-Catholic prejudice, and became the popular “little mayor.”

In 1918, my great-grandparents moved to 193 Earl Street in Kingston, Ontario, with seven of their soon-to-be eight children. They decided to move into Kingston so that their children could go to the Catholic schools available there. A white rose bush from the original that old Daniel had brought over from Ireland was planted outside the front door. 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 o
n the Separate School Board for many year
s, 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.

Fergus died on April 21, 1971. 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. One of the main characters in The Paradise Tree is based upon him.


Kimberly said...

What a lovely bit of history! Thank you so much for sharing this bit of your heritage...truly fascinating!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Kimberly! I am wondering what became of the medal itself.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Uh, Wow! What an honor to have rhw Pope pray the Mass in the family home! Your great-grandfather sounds like an amazing man.

Ann Murray said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece of your family history, Elena. It would be great if the medal turned up. I suppose that might be too much to hope for but at least your family can treasure the certificate.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful man he was! So fun to read about your family, thanks for sharing the story with us.!

love and prayers,

Alexandra said...

Interesting! What a wonderful person he was, and it's a blessing you have some memories of him. My grandmother was a doctor(U.of Penn. Medical School for Women) as well. Unusual in it's day.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks to you all! It is amazing how one fine man can be a blessing not only to his immediate family but to his descendants as well.

julygirl said...

An extraordinary man, a live well lived. Hopefully he is looking down from heaven and giving his blessing to your book, The Paradise Tree.