Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Religion in a Family's History, a repost

Emily Suzanne Clark

My parents are getting ready to sell their house and downsize. This
means going through and packing lots of stuff. Some finds have been
funny – including "books" I wrote when I was 7. Every piece has a story.
We found my great-grandfather's framed certificate acknowledging his
promotion to 32nd degree mason in the Scottish Rite from the late 1920s.
My mother's pre-Vatican II missal from her childhood shows the wear of a
book used lovingly, dutifully, and devoutly for years. It was full of
holy cards for her grandparents, JFK, Pope John XXIII, a friend who died
in Vietnam. Two of those holy cards were for my great-grandmother
Stella, which reminded me of a story I shared on this blog a couple years ago. I've re-posted it below. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

A secret infant baptism orchestrated by a “formerly” Catholic wife who
renounced her faith when she married into an anti-Catholic family sounds
like a plotline to an early twentieth century soap opera. And it makes
me think of my family. My family may not be Italian, but my
great-grandmother Stella Foster Myer was a sort of German version of
the“immigrants’ daughters” that Robert Orsi’s earlier work focuses upon, because Stella too was caught between early twentieth century tensions of family and religion.

Foster was born in 1898 to a very Catholic, very German immigrant
family on a Midwest farm. As she grew up, she considered becoming a nun –
an idea further enforced by remaining single for as long as she did. In
1922 she married my great-grandfather Paul Myer, a 25 year old son of
German immigrants who were Lutheran and anti-Catholic. (The picture is
of the renovated barn at the farm where Stella and Paul raised their
family, circa now). When my mother first told me this story, my
immediate question for her and her older sister was: how on earth did
Stella and Paul meet, let alone engage in a courtship? The simple answer
is that they were neighbors. The Foster family lived on a farm south of
Topeka, Kansas down the county road from one of the Myer family’s
farms. Stella and Paul’s marriage may have been a bit of one of
convenience at its outset – they married “old” for the small-town early
1920s – but my aunt in particular remembers seeing her grandparents
engage in light-hearted teasing indicative of a strong bond.

The marriage of these two families was not without conflict. In addition
to religious differences, class and education divided the families upon
arrival in the US. The Catholic Fosters were from a rural, mountainous
region of Germany, without much education, and with little financial
stability. The Myers were their opposite in class and education, and
they were also Lutheran and anti-Catholic. Stella certainly married up
the social ladder and not without notice. The Myer family required
Stella to give up being a practicing Catholic, and for a woman who had
danced with the idea of convent life, this decision could not have been

Shortly after Stella and Paul’s eldest child, their daughter Roberta (my
grandmother), was born, Stella and her Irish, Catholic sister-in-law
Ellen Foster decided to have her baptized … secretly. On one Sunday
afternoon before Roberta’s first birthday, Stella casually went into
town with her to meet up with Ellen while Paul stayed home. Stella and
Ellen took Roberta to a Topeka Catholic Church and had her baptized.

Afterwards, Ellen and Stella told no one. Roberta had no idea she was
baptized and would later describe to my mother that she was raised in a
non-church going but Bible-reading family. Upon her engagement to a
Catholic, Roberta began classes to join the Catholic faith and would
only now learn of her baptism. Unfortunately for my historical
curiosity, neither my mother nor her siblings know how Paul felt about
Roberta’s secret baptism. Nor are they sure if Roberta’s younger
siblings were baptized, as neither married Catholics. So it’s quite
possible that Stella only baptized her first child.

This story makes me think about the lived experiences of immigrant
Catholics. In addition to Catholicism, Stella’s story engages issues of
immigration, class, intolerance, practice in private and public spheres,
and even married life. If American Catholics created their own Catholic
“cocoon” in the wake of 19th century anti-Catholicism, the Americanist
Controversy, and the “brick-and-mortar” Catholicism that followed it as Martin Marty has argued,
Stella’s story touches upon the experience of leaving that cocoon
publically but remaining tied to it privately at least on one ordinary
Sunday afternoon.

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