The following story was written by Carl McQueary, Mission leader responsible for heritage, outreach and Mission communications. It is based on actual events and takes many details from early patient logbooks, firsthand accounts and other archival sources including letters written by the Daughters of Charity missioned in Austin and sent to the Motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Maryland. This narrative provides a touching glimpse of Ascension Seton at a specific moment in time during the dark days of World War ll. Although much has changed, the spirit of giving from the heart to those we serve remains the same.
“God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve. God bless us all and keep us strong in our faith that we may fight for a better day for human kind — here and everywhere.” The President’s words spilled forth from the speaker of the Philco radio, its small dial glowing like amber, softly illuminating the faces of the Ascension Seton Sisters gathered in their small community room on the third floor of the hospital.
The sound of his voice faded and music filled the space. Just as Bing Crosby began crooning about dreaming of a white Christmas, Sister Alphonsa, Ascension Seton administrator, rose quickly and switched off the set with an abrupt “click.” The wind whistled icily against the windows as Sister spoke. “President Roosevelt sounded stronger this evening,” she said solemnly. The health of the President was a frequent topic of conversation among the Sisters. “Let us pray that he continues to improve.” A murmur of agreement spread among those gathered. “Goodnight,” she continued, “May God grant us a peaceful rest on this holiest of evenings.”
Nightly, after dinner and evening prayer was finished, the Sisters drew their chairs around the radio to listen for news of the situation in Europe and the Pacific. It had been a little more than a year since the President had addressed the nation, opening with the words: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy….” Ascension Seton Sisters and the citizens of the United States would never forget that speech. From that moment, it seemed, everything had changed.
When the war began, several male staff members rushed to enlist, including José, one of the hospital’s most dedicated and treasured orderlies. Barely 19, José was among the first to join the army, leaving just a few weeks after war was declared. Although information was spotty and slow to arrive, word was that he was now stationed somewhere near the front lines in Europe, exactly where, no one seemed to know. Hundreds of young men and many women from Austin and throughout Central Texas were also absent; off to basic training and foreign destinations far, far away. The Sisters remembered these brave young people in their nightly prayers, asking earnestly for their safe return. José was always at the top of their list.
As the Sisters began to disperse that Christmas Eve, some to bed, some to begin a long night at bedside in the wards, Sister Philomena, younger than the others, thin as a rail and ramrod straight, headed to the hospital kitchen two floors below to check on the bread for the coming day. As head of Dietary, she smiled inwardly, knowing how beautiful the Christmas day meal for the patients and staff would be. Several local businessmen and families had donated a dozen chickens, five turkeys and several enormous homecured hams in honor of the occasion.
As she pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen, she reached into the darkness and grabbed her apron off the hook, just as she had done every day for more than a decade. The yeasty smell of 20 dozen unbaked dinner rolls and five dozen loaves of bread tickled her nose.
After pulling a chain to illuminate the single bulb over a long table in the center of the space, Sister bent slightly and gently lifted the damp dishtowels, one by one, on each of the trays to see how the rolls were rising. The only sounds breaking the silence in the vast kitchen came from the wind against the windows, an unseen dripping faucet, and the low rumbling of the enormous gas stove that dominated the south end of the room. Sister busied herself with all the final details of the coming day. Before she knew it, an hour had passed. She was just setting a pot of coffee on to perk when there came a frantic banging at the kitchen back door.
“Lands sake,” she said to no one, “Who on earth could that be at this hour?” Pulling the enormous key chain out of the deep left pocket of her habit, she unlocked the door and was nearly blown over by the rush of cold air that blustered into the room. In the darkness, a small voice called out, “Oh Sister, how glad I am to see you.” It was George Martinez, the youngest brother of José the orderly. ”You’ve got to come right away,” he continued. “Grandmother has taken to her bed and is calling for you.”
Sister Philomena took the boy’s arm and guided him to a chair by the stove. “You sit here for a bit and get warmed up. You are frozen half to death!,” Sister Philomena said kindly, realizing the poor boy must have run the five miles from his grandmother’s house to the hospital. George implored anxiously, “Grandmother says she must see you. She had a bad spell this evening.”
Young George’s grandmother, Guadalupe Martinez or “Lupe” for short, was a good friend to Sister Philomena and the other Ascension Seton Sisters. She had worked in the Ascension Seton hospital kitchen for almost 30 years before her health forced her to slow down. Now at 82, her diabetes and edema had worsened in recent months. She had been the only parent José and George had really ever known and José’s enlistment had affected her deeply. She spent her evenings sitting by the radio waiting for news. With no telephone, her life centered on the daily radio broadcasts.
Sister Philomena thought for a moment, then, quickly taking off her apron, she told the worried boy that she would get her coat and be right with him. Taking the back stairs two at a time, she headed for the front office. Sam, the night watchman was there and greeted Sister warmly. “Happy Christmas Sister! Full house tonight! Sure has come up a blue norther out there,” he said pleasantly. Sister Philomena replied, “Yes Sam, Merry Christmas to you as well. I need your help,” she continued. “Can you bring the truck around back right away?” Sam, sensing her urgency, was on his feet and practically out the door before she had even finished speaking.
Sister headed immediately for the community room, and although it was very late, she found Sister Mary Irene and Sister Agatha excitedly wrapping small presents for the children who would be at the noon Christmas meal the following day. “I need one of you to come with me,” Sister Philomena explained simply, “Lupe’s George has come to the kitchen in quite a state. His grandmother has taken to her bed and needs us to come.”
Sister Agatha, a nurse, had helped Lupe manage her illness for more than seven years replied, “Let me get my things and I will meet you in the kitchen.” Sister Philomena grabbed her coat from her room and rushed down stairs. Back in the kitchen, she took a large wicker basket from the pantry and began putting in food and bags of flour and sugar.
A moment later, Sister Agatha entered and after Sister Philomena handed the large basket to George, the three set off. Ascension Seton Hospital truck was idling at the curb, its billowing exhaust formed a sort of wintery cloud that swirled and eddied in the wind. Sam hopped out when he saw the Sisters approaching and opened the door for them. The large basket was safely stowed in the pickup bed and everyone squeezed together on the broad front seat. Sam released the brake, put the old vehicle in gear, and they were off.
After a short journey to the far eastern side of the city, they arrived in front of the small frame house. Sam opened the door of the truck and watched as the two Sisters, almost in unison, reached up and removed the clothes pins holding the outer tips of their cornettes together. Like wings of a goose, the large gossamer panels glided down into their usual position. Sam always marveled at the large headpieces the Sisters wore and never figured out how they were able to pin the flaps up and out of the way, seemingly in the blink of an eye.
George rushed ahead with the basket and swinging the front door open began shouting “Gramma! Gramma! They are here! Sister Philomena and Sister Agatha. They are here! They came!” From the back of the four-room house, Lupe’s weak voice rang out, “I’m in here.” The Sisters headed back to the small bedroom and found Lupe in bed. She looked drawn and very pale. “Oh Philly, Agatha, thank Mary you came.”
Sister Philomena spoke, “We came the minute we heard from George that you needed us. How can we help?” Sister Agatha opened her medical bag and began to take Lupe’s vital signs. She then pulled back the coverlet on the bed and began examining Lupe’s legs. “We need to tend to those wrappings,” she said looking at Sister Philomena knowingly, and started to unwrap the long, binding bandages from around two very swollen calves. As the Sisters did what they could for the elderly woman, she lay back on her pillow and closed her eyes.
“José is dead,” she said quietly.
The two Sisters stopped abruptly and looked at one another. “What? How?,” asked Sister Philomena,” What has happened?” The old woman looked up at the Sisters and paused, as though fortifying herself for what she was about to say. “I got a telegram from the Government today,” she said. Turning slightly and slowly reaching under her pillow, Lupe offered a crumpled envelope to Sister Philomena.
Sister took it, examined it and upon trying to open it, found it still sealed.
“But Lupe, this telegram hasn’t been opened,” Sister Philomena said gently.
Lupe’s tender brown eyes began to glisten and her lower lip trembled. “I didn’t need to open it,” she explained slowly. “It is the same as Mrs. Gonzalez and Mrs. O’Hara down the street got when their sons died in France. I know what it says.”
Sister Philomena and Sister Agatha exchanged worried glances and the room was silent for several moments. Lupe spoke, “Please open it for me, Philly. I cannot.” Sister Philomena paused, took her friend’s small hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We will open it together,” she said, and reaching down into her habit pocket, produced a small blue pen knife. Slitting open the flap of the envelope, the paper crackled loudly.
The three women held their breath as Sister Philomena unfolded the telegram. The ancient clock on the wall ticked loudly, each swing of the pendulum thudding like a heartbeat. As Sister Philomena’s eyes darted back and forth over the words, she slowly sat down on the edge of the bed.
“What? What is it? What does it say?!,” Lupe and Sister Agatha implored. “What is it?!”
Sister Philomena jumped up, her happiness spilling out like sunlight. “It’s about José. It’s José!,” she exclaimed giddily. Barely able to control her excitement, she continued, “He’s not dead! No! No! It says he was very sick, but now he’s better and they are sending him home on leave! He will arrive by train on the 27th. That’s just two days from now!”
The small bedroom exploded in conversation as the three women talked over one another in a joyous, tangled stream of English and Spanish. The commotion was so loud that Sam and George rushed in to see what was happening.
Sister Philomena started to hurriedly explain what had just transpired to the two puzzled faces in the doorway, but halfway through the story she started to laugh, triggering laughter from everyone else in the room. Tears of happiness and relief flowed as the clock on the wall struck 12 times. In the silence that followed, Lupe began saying a prayer of thanksgiving to the Blessed Mother, “Oh, Virgen Inmaculada! Bendice a nuestras familias,” she said. “Gracias por las Hijas de la Caridad. Gracias Santísima Madre por enviar a mi nieto José con seguridad a la casa.” Young George smiled at his grandmother and tugging on Sister Philomena’s long blue skirt, said excitedly, “Sister! Sister! It’s Christmas day! ¡Que Dios nos bendiga!”
The rest of the story:
Sister Philomena Feltz (1910 – 1999), saw Jesus in the eyes of Austin’s poor. Serving in the Ascension Seton kitchens for most of her six decades in Austin, Sister made a tremendous difference in the lives she touched. “We were taught to see Christ in people,” she is remembered as saying, “And, if you do that, you treat them as you would Christ.”
Merry Christmas, happy holidays and blessings to you and those you cherish this holy season. Thank you for all your do for all of those who depend upon your labors. May God bless and protect those brave young men and women who have served and who are serving in our armed forces at home and abroad.