Belmount Catholic school where the author studied for two years, ages 14 & 15
When about five years old I went to school, about a mile away from home, near the Catholic church. Sisters of Mercy taught all grades in a small building with a small playground for recreation periods. Here I was able to play with Catholic boys my age. Discipline was strict but good. Some nuns were very good, and devoted to their teaching jobs. Others were not. I learned to read and spell; not arithmetic. Once I was sent to the blackboard, also called a chalk-board, to work out a problem. I did not know how to do it, nor did this particular teacher know either! I stood before the class like a dummy until the bell rang for changing classes! At home my father could not help me with these simple arithmetic problems. In school he had learned only how to read and write, and that poorly. The phenomenon of the uneducated nun, I later learned, came about as follows: In the Northern states the Catholic schools were said to be very good. When they found an incompetent teacher, what did they do? She was sent to a Southern school. Charlotte received its share of incompetent teachers. Competence was not a requirement for taking the veil. Devotion to the "Holy Mother, the Church," piety, absence from sin (sex), daily prayer, and discipline were some of the requirements in those days. Later, some with intellectual ability, went beyond these, attended colleges and universities, and obtained degrees in higher learning. Some nuns became nurses, hospital administrators; some devoted their lives to charity work. Marvelous, selfless, human beings!
The parish priest was Father Francis Meyer, a good intelligent man and was well liked. However, he had a serious heart condition and had to give up his parish. Doubtless he returned to his family before he passed away. The next priest was Father Joseph Mueller. More about him later.
My father and mother were still having problems. Mother went to the priest to find out if there was some way she could stop having more children. No way. No divorce. Celibacy--living in the home, room and bed with my father—was impossible. Death alone was the only solution. Could she destroy herself and leave the six children she already had? They were too young. She had to postpone this one possible decision. My father was doubtless pleased with Father Joseph's ruling.
Next, my mother surreptitiously paid a visit to a Protestant medical doctor. I do not know what medical advice she received, but when my father heard about the medical fee, he hit the ceiling. Going outside the Church was the last straw! This non-Catholic medic may have given my mother advice on how to overcome conception in circumvention of the past edicts of the Church.
About this time I observed a rubber bag and tube in our small bathroom. Later in life I learned that this device was used to be inserted into a woman's vagina. With water from the elevated rubber bag the uterus could be cleansed. For sanitary purposes this was doubtless agreeable to the Church authorities. However, if it should remove an ovum, or human egg, resulting from a sexual intercourse, then Church theologians, leading a life of celibacy in those days, would have to ponder this question of right or wrong at great length. My father appeared to tolerate the existence of this rubber contraption. My sister Mary, was quite disturbed that I was aware of this douche bag but there was no way it could be concealed from me. It proved ineffective. My mother still bore three more children after this event; Keenan, Genevieve, and Frederick, before her death in 1808, at 44, one month after giving birth to her last child. Note 6
We did not have or need a telephone. News, rumor, and gossip traveled fast--over the back fence, down the sidewalk, but mostly by visiting aunts and uncles. I recall Mrs. Parks, left penniless (and childless) on the death of her husband, would make the rounds. Of course she would accept a cup of tea and a biscuit. In return for this bit of nourishment she would broadcast all of the news of the community.
One week-end when my father returned from his salesman's trip out of town he got wind of a story. He then hired an old crony (stupid fellow) to hold my mother while he applied the switch. It was not jealousy. Alienation between husband and wife had long since eliminated that cause. It was the good reputation of the family, of which he was the head. However, when news of the wife whipping was broadcast my father's reputation took a nosedive. Even his own brother's (Charles) wife, Kate, made this remark out loud for all to hear, "If he had done that to me, he would now be in his grave and I would be doing time in jail." After that statement got back to him, my father avoided seeing and speaking to his brother's wife.
My brother's (Robert) death, in 1902 was traumatic. He had just passed his teens. Although our living room was small, his coffin was brought into this room. My mother was in hysteria. I saw her reach into the coffin and kiss his face, as if by her great love she could bring him back to life! A relative gently led my mother from the coffin. My father knew the rules applicable in those days, that an adult must sit-up all night long in the coffin room. My Uncle George spent half the night and my father the other half. Funeral services were the next morning, with Mass followed by burial services. Pall bearers wore white gloves. When the box containing the body was lowered into the grave, the grave digger shoveled dirt and gravel onto the box making a loud noise. I understood why the gravel made such a noise, but I could not understand why clean white gloves, six pairs of them, should be thrown into the grave also.
On Sundays we went to church as a family and occupied our pew. On entering the church we each, in turn, dipped the right hand forefingers into the pedestalled marble bowl containing "holy water" and touched the forehead, breast, left shoulder and right, making the sign of the cross. Before entering the family pew we each in turn made a genuflection, down on one knee, up again. In the pew we used the kneeling rail to pray. The wealthy families had cushions but most of us knelt on hard wooden rails. My knees hurt but I finally got used to it. Mass was in Latin which no one in the congregation understood. We rose and knelt, in turn, as the priest executed the various phases of the Mass at the altar, with the assistance of several altar boys. If it was a High Mass, we could be seated during the brief sermon in English.
Later I became an altar boy. Just before the service began we had to light the candles on the altar and before the nearby statue of the Virgin Mary. During Mass we had to assist the priest in the various movements, with the book and the chalice from various positions at the altar. During communion we assisted the priest in serving the bread, symbolic of the body of Christ, to qualified members of the Church who came up and knelt at the communion rail. The bread, a thin wafer, was placed by the priest directly on the outstretched tongue of the person receiving communion. To be qualified, the communicant must have made a confession of his sins and done the assigned penitence the day before receiving communion. Also he/she could not have taken any food or drink. The priest alone drank from the chalice cup containing wine, symbolic of the "blood of Christ."; Altar boys also received communion. Because of my stomach condition, as previously stated, I always drank water before breakfast. Not on this day of communion! One Sunday I fainted (dehydration) and had to be replaced by another altar boy. No water in the church. Not until I reached home, an hour or two later, could water revive me.
The author is in the front row, last right (1906)
It was not hard to get domestic help from the nearby black neighborhood. I well remember old "Aunt Rose",--a Negro woman who came to our house to help when my mother was a-bed. She would help in the housework; wash, clean, and even feed the small children. Once she even kissed me on the back of the neck--just like I was one of her own children! She was helping my mother in time of great need. Her pay must have been very little, but at night she did take home some food to feed her own "young-uns." All during life I was never able to be prejudiced against blacks because of the care given me as a small child by old Aunt Rose.
My first confession. The Confessional was a small enclosure with a screen separating the priest and the person making the confession. The voice identified one another. What was I to confess? Much too young to have a sex-sin. In Sunday school I had been taught the seven "cardinal sins"; Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth. None of these. Why was I there if not to confess? In desperation "I told a fib." Father Joseph, a wise priest, suspected something. What was it? I had never told a fib. Now I had told a real lie to the priest. Sensing my embarrassment, he said, "Say three Hail Mary's." He then made the sign of the cross. I was now absolved from my sin!
St. Peter's Catholic Church in Charlotte allowed Negroes to enter and observe Mass. Two pews on the left side, near the front, for all to see. White were not allowed to occupy these reserved pews. This differed from white Protestant churches where Negroes were not admitted at all. Of course they had their own black Protestant churches, so there was "no excuse" for them trying to worship with whites.
One day my father taught me how to chop wood. Wood was needed not only for cooking but also for heating the house; in cold weather, 20 degrees F was not uncommon. I was about eight. After showing me how to strike the log I was handed the axe. Suddenly there was a weapon in my hands. When he turned his back, for some reason the instant thought struck me. Split his head! This was insanity. Of course I did not. Never since have I had a similar emotional urge to kill someone. There may be a gene of insanity somewhere in my family lineage.
When old Dr. Dennis O'Donahue passed on he left funds for a building, now known as O'Donahue Hall, not far from the church on Tryon Street. This became the Catholic school house and a big recreation hall upstairs large enough for congregational family parties. Also the Knights of Columbus held their meetings there. This was a fraternal men's group. Catholic men were forbidden by one of the past Popes to join the Masons, a much larger men's fraternal order. The Masons were very strong in Charlotte at that time, both in numbers and influence.
When about eleven my father said he wanted me to go to a school at Belmont (N.C.) Abbey College, about twelve miles west of Charlotte. It was a boy's school conducted by the Benedictine Order. I was pleased because there the teachers were educated priests. I could learn more than was possible at the local parochial school; could be with boys my own age, and athletics was a big part of the school program. He also said from there I could even (later) study to be a priest. That was for future consideration--not yet.
There were lots of boys there from the Eastern states; we lived in a dormitory--large open room, thirty or more cots in two rows. There was a large dining room where we had three meals a day served to us by one of the monks. Meals were in silence, and strict discipline. Usually at lunch and dinner a priest would read from a popular or religious book for the relief of the imposed silence. The monks were a level below priests. They did all the labor. They farmed the land surrounding the school buildings and church, harvested the crops, stored the food year-round, and cooked and served it. They lived in self-imposed poverty, celibates, and willingly acted as servants to the educated priests, and the Abbot, Leo Haid, who later became Bishop. He came to Belmont from Pittsburgh, and had studied in Germany where most of the priests and monks originated; even one student, I recall, spoke only German. Nearby was the Catawba River, always muddy, yet we went there to wade.
Within a mile or so was the Sisters of Mercy College, where young ladies, including some of my first cousins from Charlotte, were students. It was under the general supervision of Bishop Haid, who assigned a priest to go there to hear confession; communion and Mass were served. Other than these religious arrangements there were no social or other contacts between the two colleges. It was considered very important to separate the sexes. This eliminated any inter-sex problems. However, these did develop a homo-sex problem at the abbey which will be described later.
JFW, age 17 with friend Stephen Weber in 1911
Stephen Weber and my cousin Joseph Williams were two of my classmates and of my age. Other classmates I liked also, except the German boy who wanted to fight often--his fist could blacken your eye over trivia, but I escaped their hazard. In class we had English, Rhetoric, Latin, Penmanship, History (church), Geography, and Music. Athletics were very good, both outdoor and indoor (Gymnastics). with good food and exercise I gained in body and mind. Never made the boy's choir, to sing at Sunday High Mass. My voice was not good enough. Our geography teacher was Father W., a little fat, roly-poly German priest who was very sensitive. One day before he arrived in the classroom, one student took a wall map and turned it around so that the geographical map for our lesson did not show. When he entered the room we all stood as was customary out of respect for the teacher. When he saw the turned-over map, he left his desk and room and did not return. No replacement. He was the only teacher in this subject available so we learned nothing on this subject.
We were all thus punished by the action of one student! My Latin teacher, Father Aloysius, was a great man, and named after the saint (1568-1598) by the same name. He was like a father to me. I learned Latin easily under his teaching. our dormitory room was quite large with rows of cots for the boys. A priest was assigned to our dormitory as a disciplinarian. Young teen-age boys, as all parents and other adults well know, are a major problem--playing "tricks" on one another is an almost universal trait. Without discipline there would be chaos. We had good discipline under Father Raphael. Quiet, lights out at 10 pm. Punishment was sure if we made any noise or attracted the attention of any other student. Father Raphael had his bed at the far end of the large dormitory room, with a screen separating his place from the students. He could hear any sound made by any student.
During the next summer recess, in Charlotte, Stephen Weber told me had had been with Father Raphael at night behind the screen several times. It must have been very quiet. Other students were asleep. I could not understand what he was talking about. Sex to me meant male with female. Later in life I learned of the existence of oral sex, but as a teenager I could not believe it. Even if he was telling the truth I wanted nothing to do with this kind of sin. If sex between males and females was bad--this was far worse! I felt sorry for Stephen and never mentioned it to others. More about Stephen shortly. How fortunate I was not to have been sex assaulted by Father Raphael!
Before the second year was over my father asked me if I wanted to stay on at Belmont and study for the priesthood. Much as I wanted education and to continue studies at Belmont, I did not want to be a priest. He understood, but said, "Well, if you are not going to be a priest, you do not need any more education to make a living." So at the end of my second year at Belmont, 1908-1909, I came home and got a job. During my stay at Belmont my father had been sending $11 each month to cover my board, lodging, and education. Some wealthy students had to pay more.
A few weeks after entering Belmont Abbey for my second year, there was a message that reached me to come home at once. So I boarded the railroad train in Belmont and came to Charlotte. Tragedy. My mother was dead. My sisters, Mary, Clare, and Genevieve were crying, but I could not cry. My father made a whining noise but it did not fool me. It was a pretend cry, pure and simple. He was relieved by the death of my mother! A thorn in his side had been removed.
Author's mother, Annie Keenan Williams in 1903
Before death my mother told her oldest child, "Mary, look after my children." She did. Not only did she look after the now motherless family, but looked after her father until his death in 1939 at the age of 80. She denied herself in doing so. She had at least three excellent chances to marry some outstanding men: Mr. Shields, and Mr. Robbins, who built and flew his own aeroplane just outside of Charlotte. The city would not permit him to fly his contraption within the city limits. Too dangerous. Frank Graham, son of Dr. Alexander Graham, was her constant suitor. Frank, even after he became President of North Carolina University, Chapel Hill, U.S. Senator, and Special Representative of the United Nations, kept in touch with her.
Mary gave up these opportunities because she wanted to carry out her mother's death-bed wish. It was a case of self-sacrifice. If nuns could deny themselves, Mary felt she could also, without putting on the veil. Frank continued his interest in Mary until her death in 1966, age 78. Although from a strict Presbyterian family, he showed no prejudice toward Catholics, nor even against blacks. At Chapel Hill one day he was visited by a member of the Board of Trustees of the University who questioned his retaining a member on the faculty who had been observed having dinner with a black man. Frank was quick in response. "If he is not allowed to sit at a meal with another human being, then you had better fire the President of this university before you fire the professor".
My mother's death in 1908 was tragic for her children, but doubtless a blessing for her. She could take pain and punishment without crying out. Observe the bulge on her forehead in the photo. It was not an accident! She had been pushed against a door-jam. I was in the adjoining room. In spite of the terrific pain she came into the kitchen and gave us our breakfast. What a mother! What a great woman! I was nine or ten when she received this head injury.
As previously stated, I was at the Belmont school when she passed away. The autopsy report? I was told it read, "Death following childbirth." Her last child was born August 30, 1908. She died October 3, 1908. I was told she was in a coma a day or two before death. On the day of her death, my younger sister told me she had vomited. It was black! What meaning this has I leave to the medical profession.
Previous to my birth in 1894, the story goes, my mother left Charlotte and went to visit her adopted family, the Keenans in Greenville, S.C. The story continues that she was in teen-age love with Robert Keenan, the oldest son. He died before 1894, quite young. Was this a visit or a run-away? All I remember is that when about five or six, Hugh Keenan (Robert's younger brother) came to Charlotte to visit us. He brought me a bunch of grapes, and he and my mother had a long talk. When my father came home from work, Hugh's visit was cut short for no good reason. I hoped he would return. He never did. The Cox family, Joseph, John, and Genevieve Cox, related in some way to the Keenan family, also visited us, and we them, but there were no problems during our visits. I liked the Cox family.
Back to boys. Several Catholic boys in Charlotte were friends. Willie Alexander and I rode bikes to the Catawba River and went in swimming. The river current caught me and was taking me away from shore. I cried out, went under, and took the muddy river into my lungs. Willie, at the risk of his own life (neither of us had ever taken a swimming lesson) came out, grabbed my left arm, and brought me to shore. With difficulty I pedaled the bicycle ten miles back to Charlotte. At dinner my sister asked why I was so pale. I could not explain what happened because my father had not given me permission to go so far from home. All my life I've wanted to give Willie something for saving my life. Our lives never crossed in adulthood, so I could not repay him. Sorry about that, Willie. Ralph Kidd, another friend, went on to study law at the North Carolina University and after two years study passed the bar. The Phelan boys also were friends, but older than I. Stephen Weber came from a good Catholic family. He lost his father quite early in life. They lived in the northern part of Charlotte and we lived in the southern part. The church was roughly half-way in between our homes. So we always met after Mass on Sundays. After we both got jobs we would meet in town and walk together, talk, etc.
One day he reintroduced the subject of the assault made upon him by Father Raphael while we were at Belmont. In confidence he told me he had an uncontrollable seminal flow from his penis. This was physically damaging to him. I surmised he had been psychologically damaged also. My suggestion was that he seek legal help. Mr. Parker was a well-known lawyer in Charlotte, but he, at first, wanted nothing to do with a case like this. Also Stephen was a minor and would need the backing of his family or guardian. Almost two years after the offense, legal proceedings were started, but without publicity. Had this been made public, in the Charlotte news media, what a blow this case would have been to Belmont Abbey's good reputation! Finally, at long last, Bishop Leo Haid took action. Father Raphael was sent far away (where, no one was told) and a quick settlement was made with Stephen's family--several thousand in cash. All was done without any publicity to my knowledge. Why the good bishop had not exercised some supervision over his priests I'll never know. How many other young teen boys had been assaulted by Father Raphael?