Current Events, The Catholic Church, and My Books

TRIGGER WARNING: This post will reference child abuse, sexual abuse, and the Catholic Church. Nothing too graphic on this page, but the link is graphic. Please use caution.

Last week I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I scrolled past this article. I kept scrolling. Current events are a struggle for me. I want to keep up but the constant barrage of what feels like raw sewage from a fire hose pointed at my face gets exhausting. News had just broken regarding the Catholic Church and Child Abuses. Again. I thought it was just another article. But something made me scroll back. Did I read that headline correctly?

We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Orphanage

This was new. Anyone even remotely aware would know that previous allegations were limited to male priests so anything against the nuns would be ground-breaking.

I clicked the link.

It took me two days to read the full article. First, because it’s long, and second because … it made me sick and I had to step away. I’m a fast reader. Always have been. But this? It turned my stomach to the point that I had to keep stepping away.

I went back to Twitter when I finished, desperate to not feel alone after having read about the full-on depravity detailed in the article.

I’ve mulled it over for days.

Like most people, I think the question I’m left with is this: How could a group of adults, who should ostensibly know better, conspire in such a way as to damage and hurt children left to their care?

Please don’t read that and think that I doubt, even for a minute, the testimony of the victims. I don’t. Some details may be wrong or missing and everyone’s perception may be different. But that kind of trauma leaves marks and these victims were traumatized. By adults. Representing an institution that put itself in a position to be trusted.

And the harrowing thing is that I’ll probably never get an answer to my question other than the tired refrain when similar things like this happen:

In order to inflict their actions on their victims, the perpetrators had to see the victims as less than human and deserving of their treatment. 

I found it telling that nobody reported the abusers telling them that any of the treatment was atonement or penitence. They told those kids they deserved what they were getting because they were “bad.”

It breaks my heart.

But it also caused a different kind of chill to run down my spine.

In The Star of Fire, Phoebe travels to 1871 Chicago. And she stays with the nuns that are running the newly opened St. Patrick’s Girls School. I used the nuns real names. I’ve looked all over, but there’s just very little to be found about them. They arrive from St. Louis, pay witness to one of the biggest disasters on record, aid in the recovery for a bit, and disappear into the sunset, reassigned to a new location and a new area of service.

Their thoughts, feelings, opinions, dreams, hopes, and in this case, treatment of their charges is left to history*. I chose to write them positively, primarily because I saw no reason not to. There are no classroom scenes, so no reason to talk about rulers across palms or knuckles. The story isn’t centered on the nuns. They’re secondary characters.

And then, in a crazy turn, when I started researching and writing The Star of Storms, I found at the very center of that disaster yet another set of Sisters, serving in the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum. These nuns didn’t fare so well. They get even less of a role that the Chicago Sisters did.

But what about the article? How does that even apply?

The fact remains that the article states that the treatment of children in orphanages was pretty terrible across the board. That would have to include Galveston.

Was the treatment in schools any better? Did those kids fare better because they had actively engaged (as much as they could) parents?

Was St. Joseph’s an anomaly? Or was Galveston just as bad? How do I portray it without evidence either way? It’s such a bit player in this book, does it even bear mentioning at all?

There were 94 children at St. Mary’s the day the storm rolled in and 10 nuns. That’s an insane child to adult ratio anyway but add to it the emotional baggage the kids would have from being orphaned or given up or removed from their parents care and you’d see a lot of acting out. And the women left in charge were from another country, young, and untrained – in child-rearing and in dealing with childhood psychological trauma. Add to that the possibility of being overseen by a priest who himself was using the church to gain access to children (as was the case at St. Joseph’s) and you have a recipe for disaster.

How could it have hoped to be any different?

It’s certainly an angle that I hadn’t considered before, and an angle that I have to consider now.

Sun Baked Second City

1871 Chicago had to be a fascinating place. A cross between the wild west and high society New York.

Railroads brought new people, livestock, and goods in constantly. The stockyards were full of cattle, pigs, chickens. The smell had to be ferocious, especially in the summer, when high temperatures were in the 90s, cooking manure and waste, trash and people. New arrivals were warned – handbooks in various languages passed around – to avoid scams and con artists. Undoubtedly many still fell prey.

The river had just been turned to flow south into the canal. An engineering marvel. The hope was that it would carry the sewage away from Lake Michigan – the main source of the city’s drinking water. Cholera and other water-borne disease had been a real problem, as you can probably imagine. Hospitals couldn’t handle the sick, the youngest bearing the brunt of fatalities.

The gap between the wealthy and poor ever expanding. The upper crust lived on Prairie Avenue and the Gold Coast (which was just gaining a foothold). Their street was lit with well-maintained gas lamps. Their houses were surrounded by gardens and fences. They had carriage houses and staff. Parties and nights at the opera. They worried about fashion – gray and violet were the colors of the season along with the ever fashionable black. Their homes and businesses heavily insured against disaster.

The poor lived to the north. They lived in little wooden houses packed tightly against each other. Multiple buildings on each lot. Piles of wood and trash in the yard, animals in a barn if you could afford them. Wash hanging out in the open. Nobody cared about the color of their clothes, they were worried about their next meal. Insurance a foreign concept.

The whole city was slowly rising from the mud. Seriously. The city decided that the flooding in winter and spring was unacceptable, so they raised street level about three feet. This required large buildings to be raised on jacks and new basement areas to be built. The Chicago Underground? It’s a real thing that exists because of this raising of the city. St. Patrick’s Church basement was being constructed when the fire broke out, the church on jacks and stone being stacked beneath the building.

All the hustle and bustle. Kids going to school, men off to the stockyards or to the downtown area to work in groceries, dry goods stores, and other shops. Heading to the roundhouse, to the factories. Women heading to work, too. Cleaning, teaching, volunteering, nursing.

Saloons didn’t quite outnumber the churches, but they were plentiful. They dotted the streets in vice districts – Hell’s Half-Acre, Gambler’s Row, Hairtrigger Block. And the brothels? Abundant. Lou Harper’s Mansion, Carrie Watson’s, the infamous Under the Willow (just shut down upon the proprietor’s retirement to the country where he lived as an upstanding citizen aided certainly by his fortune).

The wooden streets where wagons and horses rumbled by. The sidewalks, also wooden, host to crowds of pedestrians. The river, dirty and undrinkable. Ships forcing the bridges to stay open longer than they should, making it near impossible to get across the river. The crowds and traffic, bucking against the delay. They built a tunnel to alleviate congestion, but who knows how effective it really was. The wooden buildings, packed together – houses and warehouses, factories and tenements, all together. Zoning wasn’t a thing.

Children roamed the streets in packs like dogs. They learned to pickpocket and survive. Some were organized by the less caring adults who saw an opportunity. Others were put in orphanages where their lot may not have been much better.

All of this. All the people and animals and houses and buildings and streets and sidewalks baking and baking under an unforgiving sun with no rain in sight.

The fire department was understaffed and underequipped. Some of the wagons had been in service since the dawn of the department – 10 years. Worn hoses, old wagons, not enough men and horses and a record number of fires in the last year. $3.5 million in damages. They asked for more money, better equipment, more fire watchers. The city was low on funds. Not enough in the budget, the city replied. So they patched their hoses. Kept the wagons working. Bought a few more horses. But the city expanded. And the fire department spread even thinner.

Still, the sun baked the city.

October rolls around and it should get cooler, but it doesn’t. The sweat and the stink and the heat and still no sign of rain. Every bit of moisture has been wrung from the city. Fires are a constant threat. Carelessness is the leading cause, but arson is a problem, too. A warehouse here, a house there. The fire watch is expanded. The first shift used to start at 9:30. Now it starts at sundown. They search the horizon for any sign and send crews to fight the blazes that erupt.

A regular Saturday night, until fire dots the sky on the west side of the river. The fire department races into action, wagons, horses, and men working together to bring the destruction under control. Hours roll by. Crowds gather in the streets to watch the spectacle. Saturday night entertainment. Daniel Quirk owns the saloon across the street. He passes out free liquor in exchange for onlookers wetting down his building. The home across the street burns, its occupant perishing, refusing to leave their lives fortune. The city holds its breath, wondering if the brave firefighters can beat the raging beast back this time. It is noon on Sunday before the fire is out. Exhausted firefighters drag wasted hoses and beaten wagons back to stations for repair and rest. Quirk’s saloon is saved.

The fire is all anyone can talk about. They feel as though they dodged a bullet. If the firefighters hadn’t gotten it under control, why, the entire western side of the city might have been destroyed. People meet to worship and take their Sabbath day of rest. They pray for their city. They pray for rain.

It’s nine hours later. The city winds down (most of it anyway, some of it was surely just getting started). Tomorrow is a work day. A school day. Gas lanterns are lit on Prairie Avenue. Children are tucked into bed. Women finish their chores. Men smoke a pipe, a cigar, a hand-rolled cigarette. On a little-cared-about street in a little-cared-about neighborhood, history remembers a cow kicking over a lantern. Or so the story goes.

 

Chicago | The Star of Fire

I first visited Chicago in 2001. It was December, and it was cold. I was working for an event planning group and we had a show the early part of that month. I was also 5 months pregnant.

If you don’t know, McCormick Place is huge! Our show was there and it was tiny in comparison to some of the major shows that McCormick hosts. We did a lot of walking (and running) and the show went pretty well – but that’s a story for … uhhhh … never. I will say this: Chicago was the first and last place I ever got yelled at for putting a hook on a grid wall. Apparently, there’s a picture hanging union in Chicago and I had overstepped. I apologized and all was forgiven, but man, it was eye-opening for me, coming from a place where unions aren’t as big a part of life.

I digress. After the show, I stayed in town for a couple of days with my work friend and we were able to see the sights. We’d had an event at the Field Museum (in the atrium, and Sue was right there!), so I’d gotten to see that and we’d had another event at the Adler Planetarium, so I’d been there, but what we really wanted to see was the van Gogh exhibit at the Art Institute.

We got up bright and early to get to the Institute and worked our way through the exhibit, which culminated in a tiny room where The Starry Night was the only item on display (I think). We got in the room along with what felt like 200 of our closest friends and suddenly the temperature felt like it had climbed to about a million degrees. I worked my way to the back of the room trying to find cooler air (remember – 5 months pregnant) and suddenly my vision started to go dark. I think I may have called out my friends name, but it gets a little fuzzy. The next thing I really remember is sitting on a bench in one of the main exhibits with my head between my knees.

I joke now that The Starry Night was so amazing it made me pass out. Interesting sidenote: the child I was pregnant with is now almost 16 and my most artistic child. Coincidence?

The point is that I fell in love with Chicago on this trip. The history, the art, the architecture, the vibrancy of the city. I am a self-professed country girl, but Chicago is the one city that I would visit over and over. I put Chicago over New York. Every time.

I was really captured, like I think so many people are, by the mystery and tragedy of the Great Chicago Fire. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later and multiple visits to Chicago, that I decided to make that event the backdrop to book two of The Star of Time Series – The Star of Fire.

The Star of Fire | Progress Report

I booked a spot with the editor for The Star of Fire in March. It’s about half ready to go now, I think. That gives me the month of February to complete my edit and then I’ll send it over to him so he can rip it to shreds.

I did a read through in October, I think, so it’s been a while since I’ve touched it, which isn’t ideal, but no choice but to press onward. Got a tentative release date at the end of March, and will update here as we get closer.

 

The Star of Time | Cover Reveal

covere

When seventeen-year-old Phoebe Harris wakes up in a dark alley she thinks she’s been abandoned and immediately starts trying to figure out how to get home. It’s only after she’s helped by a mysterious man in a tricorne hat that she realizes home may be farther away than she thought.

Trapped in the past, Phoebe learns that the necklace that connects her to her family contains a stone known as the Star of Time. It’s one of seven stones that can control the major elements created by the Greek gods. The Star of Time will allow Phoebe to travel through time if she unites the other six Star stones, but she’s not the only one who wants them. ​

Mistaken for a spy, hunted by a killer who wants the stones for his own gain, and battling her own emotions, can Phoebe survive the 18th century long enough to go home?