Sister Frances Joseph
East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Sister Frances Joseph, Sisters of the Assumption at Ravenhill Academy
Interviewers: Ellen Sheehan
Transcribers: Frances Jueds, Wendy Moody
Date of Interview: May 22, 2008
Second Interview: Jan. 26, 2008 by Charles Scarpello, Sister Frances Joseph’s nephew
Note: This transcript is a compilation of both interviews.
ES: This is Ellen Sheehan recording for the East Falls Historical Society, an interview with Sister Frances Joseph, religious of the Assumption at Ravenhill Academy. The date is May 22, 2008.
ES: Tell us about your family – your parents and grandparents.
SFJ: Well, I was born Rachel Scarpello. I was baptized with that name and I was named for my maternal grandmother who was born in Germany. I was baptized in the seminary – Vincentian Seminary Chapel on Chelten Avenue because we didn’t have a parish church at the time. We used their crypt, underneath, for a while. Underneath their seminary.
My mother was Mary; my father was Augustan, and I had a younger brother Charlie. I went to parochial school – Holy Rosary School. By the time I was ready to go to school, we did have our own parish church on Haines Street and Baynton – on the corner there. It’s now a Baptist church – a black Baptist church – I’ve gone by a couple of times. I go down memory lane.
I was very happy at Holy Rosary. Oh, I loved it! I was taught by the Franciscan Sisters whose Mother House was in Peeksill, New York.
I had wonderful teachers, wonderful teachers! It was a congregation with its base in Genoa, Italy so they had a kind of international vision. I liked that.
I grew up in a bilingual family and a bicultural family – therefore my education kind of went with that. I graduated Holy Rosary School in 1932. I was reminiscing that I had my first protest experience as an 8th grader. Our pastor, Father Dominic Nicheldeen – he was told that the houses surrounding this grammar school – all around it – they were all single-family houses with front gardens and backyards. They were owned mostly by Italo-American immigrants – they are used to having individual homes with gardens.
Now they wanted to create a project – a housing project. Father said “No. Italian people don’t like to live in housing projects.” He gathered the whole 8th grade and I think the 7th grade too and I carried the protest sign. It said “We do not want a housing project next to Holy Rosary School.” We went down to town hall at Germantown Avenue and High Street. We protested. We had own our mayor at the time. It was a mayor for that locality and protested outside his office. We kids loved it – we had the morning off from school and it was fun.
But I wonder if that didn’t get me started on justice and peace issues. A seed, I think, in my brain and in my soul. But it was an injustice. Well it was never built next to Holy Rosary School.
When I graduated, the only Catholic high school for girls was Hallahan, but that was at 19th and Callowhill and both my mother and I sat down and talked about that. It seemed so far. So she said “What do you think?” and I said “Mom, all my friends are going to Germantown High School. I’d rather go to Germantown High.” It was on the corner of High Street where we lived. So I loved Germantown High School – it was a great school. It was a college prep school – lots of Jewish kids, and Jewish parents insist on a fine education for their children. They had excellent teachers and I had four wonderful years. I graduated in 1936. In fact that school now is, I’m going to say, 100% Afro-American, or maybe African immigrant children go there, and they’ve had some problems there these past two years. Like all public schools, they’ve had some discipline problems.
But the other day, on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer there was a beautiful picture of Germantown High School in the background with students and teachers because they had been using it on Martin Luther King Day as a center from which they went to volunteer all over the city. Oh I was so proud of that picture! The next day – I like to congratulate people for things they do – I called Germantown High and I said “Doctor” – they got him immediately – “This is Sister Frances Joseph. I used to be Rachel Scarpello and I was a student at Germantown High – I am an alumna. He waited. I said “I hope you’re sitting down. I graduated in 1936.” “Oh my” he said. “What can I do for you, Sister?” I said “Nothing. I just want to congratulate you and encourage you to keep up the good work that you are trying to do.” “Oh thank you so much” and we said goodbye. I was glad I had done that.
From there I went on to Catholic college – a women’s college in those days – Chestnut Hill College, located in a geographic suburb of Philadelphia called Chestnut Hill. Several girls from Germantown came to Chestnut Hill with me – the one that stands out is Madeleine Conte. We had been friends since 6thgrade and we both found ourselves freshmen at Chestnut Hill College. I just loved Chestnut Hill College. I was very actively engaged. I was President of the French Club from the time I was a sophomore. I just loved it because I had gotten a good background in French at Germantown High School. I had two majors – French and English and Italian as a minor.
I graduated with a lot of joy in my heart and I wanted to be a teacher of course. Now I wasn’t allowed to do my practice teaching in my fourth year. The head of the French department would not allow it. “No” she said “You have to come back for a 5th year and you can start your Master’s work in that year.”
Well, you know, jobs were at a premium – post Depression, World War II – so we agreed to do that. I did my practice teaching at Frankford High School very successfully. In the middle of my time there, the head of the French Department, a native of France who liked me very much, was very good at allowing me to see all I should see and participate in as a student teacher there. She had a heart attack, so I think she recommended me, and the school asked me, if I would be willing to ask permission of Chestnut Hill College to have me as a regular teacher substituting for that woman. They said yes and that’s what happened. I got paid for my practice teaching because I was really working for Frankford High School.
Well I finished that and I immediately went to apply at Villanova for my Master’s degree. Well Villanova said “No way.” It was just a boy’s university. “Well” I said “You accept women on Saturday mornings.” “Oh but they’re nuns.” I wasn’t a nun. “No, we cannot accept…” “But I work for the Catholic School System” because by that time I had had an interview. I was called by the Dean of Chestnut Hill who said “There’s an opening at a private school for girls – a good school – in Germantown called the Academy of the Assumption.” I never heard of it but she said “Why don’t you call and find out if they’ll give you an interview.”
ES: You went for an interview at Ravenhill?
SFJ: I got the interview on a Friday afternoon at 4 o’clock. Well I had just purchased a car – a Ford – for $28. There wasn’t a space on that car that didn’t have a dent but it worked – it got me where I needed to go. Oh my family was so proud of me in that little car! I had gotten my driver’s license when I was 16 – that was the gift from my family and my father taught me how to drive.
So I drove down School House Lane and made a left-hand turn into a beautiful entrance of a gorgeous estate and saw a sign that said Academy of the Assumption. They used to use both names. Well, as I turned into the entrance to the gate, a big black limo is coming towards me and I went a little bit too close – I didn’t hit him, but I think I touched the black fender. Well I was petrified. A chauffeur in livery uniform came out and said:
”Miss, what did you think you were doing?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t really figure out my space.”
So he looked and said “You didn’t really hurt my car. We couldn’t possibly hurt yours.”
He was very nice and, as he was talking to me, somebody from the back seat came out – a great big, big man, and I looked at him and recognized him – it was Cardinal Dougherty and he said:
“Miss, what happened here?”
And I said “Oh I’m so sorry, Your Eminence, but I think I touched the fender of your car but your chauffeur said I
didn’t hurt it.”
“But what are you doing here?”
“Oh” I said “I’m a graduate of Chestnut Hill College (I thought I better say I’m a Catholic school graduate) and I’m
coming to the interview by Mother Francoise Marguerite.”
“Oh”, I said “They have an opening to teach French and English and they are my two majors.”
“Very good. Good luck. God bless you and be careful of your driving.”
“Oh I will.”
But I was so relieved to get back in the car and not be arrested, and I was interviewed in this gorgeous mansion in a lovely parlor.
The Reverend Mother came in and she was very nice and the interview went very well. Towards the end of the interview she said “I’m very pleased with you. I would like to say that I would like to hire you, but you haven’t asked me what the salary is.” I said I was so happy to be hired and I said “What is the salary Mother?” She said $75. “Oh”, I said to myself “that’s the same as the public school teachers.” And I said “Mother that would be fine, but can I have a couple of days to think it over?” I wanted to play hard to get but I was dying to get the job. I got home and, as you can imagine, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, little brother all sitting in the living room waiting for me. They were ready to have dinner I think. “And what happened, did you get the job?” And I said “I got it if I want it, I was going to think about it for a couple of days.” “Good idea” my grandfather said. “What about the salary?” I said “$75.” My grandfather said “That’s what the public school teachers are making.” He was a great business man. “Oh take it Ray; sounds great.”
That September I began to work at Ravenhill Academy of the Assumption and I stayed 12 years. It was such a happy experience.
Now the first week went by at Ravenhill – no check. I guess they paid every two weeks…Second week – no check. Third week, no check. They pay by the month. So at the end of the month I got the check – $75. I misunderstood – it was $75 a month, not a week, like public school. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I was so happy. I was growing professionally by getting all this experience.
This is 1942, but I must get back to Villanova. Villanova had refused me to start for a Masters and I asked to see the President. I went to the President and I said “I think this is unfair – it’s an injustice. I want to come and get a Master’s degree – I’m teaching in a Catholic school (because by this time I had the job). Therefore, I don’t make much money. I would love to come to this university to follow the Master’s program.”
He said “I’ll have to talk this over with our Board of Trustees.” Would you believe it? They got permission to have a lay person without a veil to come follow the courses they had allowed nuns to do, but no lay women. So I was the first woman on that campus. When I graduated and got the Masters, my whole family came to the graduation. My grandfather said “Hey, how come you were the only woman without a veil?” I told him the story – I hadn’t told them the hard time I had getting in. So that’s a little incident in my feminist background.
After two years, I was asked to be a homeroom teacher – what they called Mistress of Class, I think. Homeroom teacher for one year and then I became principal. I was the first lay principal in Philadelphia.
I went to a principal’s meeting in Atlantic City on the Boardwalk and I walked into the hotel and I walked right into the principal’s meeting and there was an Immaculate Heart Sister standing there and she said “Good morning dear. I think you must have the wrong room.” I said “Is this the principal’s meeting?” “Oh yes” she said. I said “I am one.” She couldn’t believe that a lay person was coming to be a principal in a Catholic school. Well, I was. And as I say, I stayed 12 years.
Now one day in October 1952 Mother Francoise asked me if I would drive the Sisters to an exhibit in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Sisters were not allowed to drive and I said sure. “Just for the weekend” she said. Well, they lent me this old station wagon that William used to drive the kids back and forth in and we got as far as New Brunswick. It died. Got the gas station people to come pick it up, and us, and they said “Oh no, we have to keep it overnight, something big is wrong with this.” I forget. We stayed in some convent overnight I think, or maybe we went to a hotel. No, I think it was a convent in New Brunswick.
We stayed there and then the next morning we set out again and we got to Springfield, Massachusetts. A great big convent with a huge sign “God is Love” encrusted in stone. We got in and the Sister was lovely, lovely, “We’re all ready for you Sisters, and where is the young lady staying?” “Oh” Mother said “We thought she was going to stay with us.” “Oh no, we’re not allowed to take lay people.” Well of course I didn’t know what to say. “God is Love” I thought.
So I said “Sister is there an economic hotel around?” and she said “Well we have a hospital just down the street. Let me call. Yes they have a room for you at the hospital.” So Sister Clare Joseph, the first American novice said “I am coming with you” and you can bring me back. And it was in the pediatrics department. And you know, all those poor little sick children crying and she said “I‘m not going to leave you here. Come on let’s go.” We went. I said “Don’t worry about me; I’ll find a room.”
So I departed from the convent and I went over to the exhibit hall. There was a very nice girl sitting very importantly fixing things so I went up to her and I said “Do you know somewhere I could find an inexpensive hotel to stay for the night, maybe the weekend?” and she said “Well why?” Well I said “Oh I’m here for the exhibit” and told her the story. Oh she said “You’ll stay with me.” She was secretary to the Bishop and in charge of the exhibit so that’s what we did.
At the end of the night I went home with her and I think we had a little supper, yeah, and then she brought me to the room. She said this is our room. Oh I was going to sleep with her. There was a big king size bed. “All right” so I got ready for bed. She said “Oh I have to tell you that my sister sleeps with me also, she’ll be coming home soon.” And I thought “That’s three of us – I wonder how we’re going to manage that.” Anyway I thought I’d sleep in the middle. I wasn’t very heavy at that time and so that’s exactly what happened. Her sister came home and I was introduced. I was still awake. And then she sat down in the chair. She started to undress and the poor kid, she had a wooden leg. She took off the prosthesis to get into bed. I had never seen such a thing before. I watched this procedure; I almost died. Anyway I thought I better not hurt her, poor kid.
Now in the morning I thought “Now how am I gonna get out of bed?” I was the first one awake so I sneaked out the bottom of the bed, got out, went to the bathroom and took a shower, got dressed. They still weren’t up and I walked into the living room. I was going to make myself a cup of coffee, she told me what to do, and there was a man sitting in the chair. I said “Good morning; who are you? He said “Oh I’m the girls’ brother. I visit them every Saturday morning.” I wasn’t so sure if I should believe him!
All right, we got over there and we found out the exhibit was not just the weekend, it was the week! I said “Mother, I cannot stay for the week. I have appointments all during the week.” She said “Neither can I.” So she said “Let’s us leave the car, we’ll fly home. You’ll fly back and bring them home.” And that’s what we did. I tell you that detail because it’s important in my story.
In the plane coming home, just to make conversation, I said “You know, Mother, I feel drained teaching those girls. I sponsor their religion class, I teach religion, I go with them on their retreats, all that stuff but I’m not putting anything in spiritually.” She said “Oh you’re right, what do you hope to do about that?” I said “Well I thought I would go to the Cathedral, ring their doorbell, and ask them.” You see in those days we didn’t have prayer groups, we didn’t have scripture studies, and groups like that. No, I said I’m going to ask them if we could start a prayer group for teachers. A lot of teachers must feel the same way. She said “Good luck.” I thought “She’s not very encouraging.”
So then she said, without looking at me – she’s looking straight at the cockpit, she said “Ray, did you ever think of a religious vocation?” “Oh” I said “Yes Mother, but I don’t have a religious vocation. “I don’t know why.” Then I asked “Do you think I have a religious vocation?” “Oh yes” she said, again not looking at me, “Oh yes, and I thought that twelve years ago when I first met you.” I said “Well why didn’t you tell me?” She said “You hadn’t asked me.” That’s true. She said “Well, now you’ll have to think of where to go since you’re convinced that you have a religious vocation.” “Yes,” I said, “It’s true.” She said, “Well let’s pray about it and come to see me on Friday. It would be like the end of the week when I come back.”
Well I couldn’t wait. On Wednesday I went to her. I said “I’m sure I have a religious vocation.” I could not have been more sure, Ellen, if somebody had taken a black magic marker and written on that white cockpit wall: “You have a religious vocation”. So she said “Now you’ll have to pray as to which congregation.” Because I love the Sisters of St Joseph and I knew the Immaculate Heart Sisters, but I don’t know them too much, I love the Franciscans who taught me, and they all have helped me a lot, and I love the Sisters of the Assumption, my bosses.
Now that night when we came back I guess it was, yes, the next week, the girls had their retreat and at the end of that first night Father Restuccio (?), a Vincentian priest, was giving the retreat and he was having his dinner in the big parlor and I was going to go home for the night, so I went by and I said “Good night Father; I hope you have a good night.” He said “Where are you going?” I said “I’m going down to the village.” I really was going down to buy cigarettes – and he said “Could you get me a good cigar?” “Sure” I said “I’ll bring it right back to you.”
ES: And what was the Village?
SFJ: East Falls. I said “Father would you pray for me please?” “Why?” I said “Well I think I have a religious vocation but I don’t know where to go.” “Oh” he said, “You’re already there.”
Again, if someone had taken a magic marker and written on that beige wall in that dining room “You should be an Assumption Sister” I couldn’t have been clearer.. And I’ve never doubted it since. That’s 53 years ago.
I have to say this. The night I entered, Sister Terese Margaret, who had been a student of mine, who’s now a Sister with vows – she was my angel , she was walking me into dinner after the ceremony where I got a little black dress and black bonnet – or white – bonnet. She said “Do you have any dietary problems to tell the cook?” “Oh” I said “No, but I’ll tell you one thing, though, I don’t eat eggs. I hate the sight of them. As a little girl, I didn’t like the looks of them. My mother took me to a doctor and he said “It’s ok that she can’t stand the look of eggs. Don’t force her to eat them.”
So we walk into the dining room and on the table the dishes are all set and guess what was sitting on top of the dish – our first course, if you will – two sunnyside up fried eggs on toast! Well, I thought, this is it. I can go home – I’m only ten minutes away – but I know this is for me. I’ll eat the eggs. And I’ve been eating them ever since.
ES: And how did your parents react?
SFJ: Ah, that was another story. Took me weeks. That’s how covert … And so I went to Mother and I told her “Would you accept me in your Order?” She said “Yes, now when would you like to enter?”
I said, “Well I think I’d like to wait until Oct 7.” Next year was the Feast of my Parish. I said “I have to finish the school year.” Oct 7. It would please my parish because I was very close to them and they were close to me.
ES: This was Holy Rosary?
SFJ: Yes. So that summer, July 2, I’m reading in my room and I was reading the life of Mother Teresa Emmanuel. She was the co-foundress. Very thick book, not too interesting, but I was reading that book and my room was down a set of three steps; it was on another level. We had like a split level 2nd floor, and my mother left her bedroom about 11 o’clock and went to the bathroom which was outside my room and, as she came out then, she stood at the top of my steps, and I said “Oh hi mom, is something wrong?” and she said “You know, Ray, I went to the doctor’s today.” “Oh’ I said “Is something wrong?” and she said “Not really, but the doctor found me very anxious about something.”
I said “What are you anxious about?” She said “I think you want to be a Sister and you’re not telling me.” I said “That’s true, mom.” So God told her for me.
Well she came down and we talked till about 2 o’clock. And she said “If that’s what God wants, Ray, you’ll have to do it.” I said “But you tell Papa, will you?” “Oh no” she said “You tell him yourself. I don’t have the courage to tell him.” But when she went back to the room, I could hear them talking for a long time so she must have told him. Now Papa was easier. He was very easy going and he said again “Ray, if that’s what God wants, you’re going to have to do it. It’s a terrible thing for us, but it’s a good thing for you.” So that was done.
ES: Why was it terrible for them?
SFJ: I was the only girl you know. And it was like Italian families didn’t like to give up their daughters to a religious life. There were very few Italo-American religious. I entered on October 7 as a postulate. Charlie drove – oh that was a tearjerker! All my friends and relatives were there to say goodbye to me – you can imagine coming from an Italo-American family. I remember that the last words Charlie said to me were “Now don’t you worry about mom and pop. I’ll take care of them when they’re old and need help.” It was very encouraging for me. A concern.
ES: Couldn’t they visit you?
SFJ: Well we were semi-cloistered. They could come once a month but I could never go back home. That’s what was wrong for them. And when I was in the Philippines and my father died and I couldn’t go back that was awful, terrible.
ES: Oh you were going to the Philippines shortly after that?
SFJ: I did. Well I entered Oct 7 and made my first vows on May 31, 1955. I entered in 1953, vows 1955. And the very next day, June 1, I was off to work to study theology in Rome called Regina Mundi. I was supposed to study in an Institute for Sisters that was attached to Gregorian University. It was not co-ed in those days – it was mostly priests. I got started but, gee, I was bored. I had had all those courses at Chestnut Hill or at Villanova where I got my Masters and I thought I’d better be honest about this – I’m wasting my time.
So I told my superior and she said “Well go to ask Father Martini.” He was the famous Cardinal of Milano and the President of the Gregorian. So I went to him and I said Father I’m wasting my time and I’m only here a year. Couldn’t I take courses with the men?” And he said “We don’t allow women. I said “You could break a rule like that. You made the rule; you can break it.” Well he took me, and I had wonderful professors as a result. Famous Father Teflon, British theologian. I had a course in Italian, a course in French, and two in English. It was wonderful, that second semester.
So I got through that year, it was very good for me. And I came back and became principal as a Sister. Now that was hard. The same job but now with a habit. It was very hard I thought, but I got through that. And then I guess around 1963 I was told I was going to go for one year to France, San Visier (?) to learn how the Assumption integrates in parish work because we were not doing that here in the United States. And to be a successful religious congregation, apostolically, in the US you have to be integrated – I don’t care what anybody says – into the parish. That’s the life of the church in this country.
So I went there; that was successful. I taught theology to men, a boys’ college across the street from us, and I taught religion to our own girls in our own school and I observed how the sisters worked very well – almost like our sisters do in Lansdale, fully integrated in the parish, as we’re trying to do here with St Francis de Sales.
I came back and I got a letter from the Mother General asking if I would be willing to open an English speaking college in Japan near Osaka. The Japan law says the president of a college had to be an Anglo-Saxon. Everything’s going to be taught in English. Why? Expo 70’s coming in a few years. They want the girls to learn English, get jobs. So, Anglo Saxon president with a Masters in English from an Anglo Saxon university. Now that’s pretty clear and that’s exactly what I had. Would I be willing to go? Well, gee, I’m really not big for Japan, I don’t have the personality for Japan, I‘m exuberant, I’m spontaneous – they’re reserved. No, impossible.
But Isat down and I wrote a letter and I said, Dear Mother, these four things I think I have to give to them. I could give these things and these 25 things are against my going – they should weigh – I did the discernment, but I ended “If you really need me, I’ll go.” Of course I went. And I opened the college and that was nice. It was hard but it was a nice experience. It was a challenge but I got through it. I was warned: Frances, you’re very enthusiastic with everybody and we don’t do that in this country. Sister, you smile at everyone but in Japan you only smile if you’ve been introduced. It was hard for me to not smile at all the people.
There was one incident that was funny in Japan. I was sitting in a trolley train – a fast train going from Osaka to Tokyo – I was going to interview a new teacher for the college and I was with a Japanese Sister and she had warned me “Don’t smile at anybody.” I sat down in the train and the lady across from me was bowing her head and smiling. I said “Yoko, look at that lady over there smiling at me. She said I could smile back. I smiled back and bowed my head as they do. She had a basket in her hand and she kept pointing to the basket and pointing to her eyes. I didn’t know what she meant. Alright. Her stop came before mine so she got up and as she was waiting for the doors to open – same thing – pointing to her basket and her cat appeared with blue eyes like mine. Japanese don’t have blue eyes. “You have eyes like my cat.” My father did not appreciate that story when I wrote home saying I looked like a lady’s cat.
Now Japan belonged to the Philippines so I belonged to the Philippine province (?) now. The Philippines needed me in the Philippines, so I could still be principal, kind of the absentee landlord? But I came to the Philippines and I used to go back to Japan for a whole year – I did this every Thursday, I taught – I think it was twelve hours of intense English every Friday and Saturday to obey the rule, the law. But in the Philippines then I was teaching theology to the girls at Assumption College. It was ok – a little boring. I was there six full years. But I had a real turning point – a conversion of heart.
Sister Frances Joseph, Part 2
ES: Did you teach the lady who became President?
SFJ: Corozan Aquino, both of them and Gloria Macapagal, the present one. I taught both of those girls for a year at Ravenhill, but Gloria Macapagal there. Now, my father died December 4. Christmas came. I couldn’t go home – 6000 miles for a funeral. That was hard. And all the families of the Sisters came to visit. That was sad for me to watch. I went in and wished them a happy Christmas and all that.
ES: You couldn’t telephone or anything?
SFJ: I did. Oh yes I telephoned. And then I went to Mother Superior: “I’m really sad today. I feel lonely.”’ She said “I can see that. What would you like to do?” “I would like to get into the jeep” – I was the only driver – “I’d like to get into the jeep and drive around town and wish Happy Christmas to people.” She said “Do it.”
I was driving outside just by the driveway, the entrance to the driveway and Sister Loretta was there, “Where you going?” She said “I’ll go with you.” Instead of turning right as I always did, I turned left. Nine minutes away from this rich, rich college – well, seven minutes away – I started to smell something. I said “Loretta, what’s that smell?” ”You’ll see.” Two minutes more – big mountains of garbage, garbage thrown by the international hotels to squatters. Homeless people. Squatters. They lived in corrugated boxes as homes. They were their shelters. They were glad for the garbage. They could pick food, they ate the garbage that the hotels threw away.
I said “What’s that?” She explained. I saw a little girl tugging at something. She said “Merry Christmas Mother.” I said “Merry Christmas, honey, what are you doing?” She said “There’s a crate of oranges in here – could you help me get it and bring it to my mom for Christmas?” She was right. I said “Honey they’re rotten – look they’re all green.” She said “Mother, you cut the green off and they’re real sweet on the bottom.” We helped her, we took her home. Her mother- you know they’re known for hospitality – was happy to see us, cleaned off two crates. Please sit down. We sat down on the crates. She went to a bucket of water, no running water. She washed the oranges, did what the little girl said, cut off the green and brought us an orange each. Hospitality, huh? I said “Lori, I can’t eat the orange; I have a squeamish stomach.” She said “You must.” I ate the orange – the sweetest orange I’ve ever eaten.
I got home, uneasy, couldn’t get the scene out of my head, couldn’t sleep, got up went to Mother, “Mother, I cannot stay in this mission.” “Why not?” I said ”Mother, nine minutes away people are eating garbage and I’m gonna teach theology to rich girls who don’t know what’s going on? I can’t. I can’t do that. My vocation is to go to the poor.” She said “Let’s have a meeting tonight.” So to make a long story short, we had a meeting and the sisters said “Lead us, Frances. We will follow.”
And I did just that. I gathered rich men, fathers of the girls, with poor men and we had a meeting and were going to build a housing project. We need land, don’t we? The very next day Sister Esperanza, the President of the University, gets a call – her sister-in-law had died months before and they just probated the will and she left the land to the Sisters – land near to the garbage. End of story. It was the grace of being in the right place at the right time, because just at that time Marcos came in as President and people were ready to have a revolution for social change. The gap between rich and poor was extreme. I prayed a lot about that.
The first thing I did was to start service training in college – you couldn’t take my theology course if you didn’t do volunteer work. The testing was based on what they learned in their books and what they learned from poor people with whom they worked. That was successful. Then I got a board together and, to make it short, we founded the Maryville Advisory Board and Foundation and we built together with our hands and our pockets.
We built the housing project, 34 houses, two-story. We made the bricks, concrete blocks ourselves. I came to the United States to visit my mother and a company here gave me a machine to make concrete blocks. They sent them over by cargo boat. They gave me instructions and we taught the people how to make concrete bricks. And then the Sisters built the school and we taught there. I never taught, I just took care of the social part. In our car.
Four years later our Sisters went there and built a school. It’s still in existence. Well one of the biggest thrills I ever had in my life was at the canonization of Mother Foundress. A beautiful young sister comes up to me, hugs me, and she says “Sister it’s thanks to you that I am here.” I said “Who are you?” Sister So and So. She said “You gave a house to my squatter parents, and I was born there and now I’m one of your Sisters and I came for the canonization.” That was a big grace for me. It was a poignant moment. But it was the conversion of my heart, too, because for the rest of my life, I was able to stay in the ministry of justice and peace.
Then in 1970 I was elected as a delegate to go to Paris and there we elected a new Superior General and it was decided we were going to have a General Secretariat for the first time in the Mother House. It would be the hub where all the provincials around the world would be united to create some kind of communication system. They asked me to be the first Secretary General. I said “Sure, but I have to go to the Philippines to close up.” I wasn’t happy – I didn’t want a desk job after a happy and successful ministry in the Philippines.
So on February 22, 1971 I closed up and left the Philippines to go to Paris, and I was told not to go directly to Paris, but go via Rome. In Rome I was to go and see what other congregations were doing vis a vis Secretary Generals. Oh, and they tagged on “We just made you responsible for the organization of the beatification of Marie Eugenia Millere (the founder of the Sisters of the Assumption), so while in Rome start to investigate that – how to go about that. I thought they were nuts.
I did just that. I learned a lot in Rome and stayed a good month. I flew back to Paris, and in Paris, at the airport, Mother was flying in after her first visit to Japan. We met in the airport and the General Council – all but I – came in a minivan to pick us up. Coming home on the Boulevard – like an expressway – we had an accident. A mechanical fault in our car. Our brakes gave way. We hit one car, swerved and hit another car, and two cars behind us hit us – so we were surrounded by metal. Both my legs were crushed and both my arms were crushed. I thought “This is some way to begin a new ministry.” After seven weeks I was ok. I came out of the hospital and started to plan things on paper and then started to go back and forth in Rome.
And then in 1975, first of all, I had to go to speak to every community that would get together – 3 or 4 communities – to introduce them to the beatification. In those days, the Sisters didn’t want it. We knew she was a saint – let it be. Well I was trying to convince them it was one way of making the message of Marie Eugenia Millere to the world.
It was a wonderful thing, on February 9, 1975 – the beatification with John Paul II. And while I was in Rome, I met a lot of good people – wonderful people. And I was there for the famous years of three Popes in 1978, because right after the beatification, I was asked to go to Rome and live there and be the Executive Secretary of the International Union of Superior General. It was founded by Paul VI. He wanted a central office which would unite Secretary Generals from around the world, so there would be a Central Education formation going out – a place where they could come once a year. There would be a meeting of all the heads off the religious congregation.
Now I was in charge of the women. Father Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits who died a few years ago and is going to be beatified soon – he was the head of the men. So I got to work with a Saint! He was wonderful, wonderful and I learned a lot from him.
I did that for four years and then I came back to this country in 1980. Oh! I met Cardinal Foley – he was a seminarian. We were standing at mass at the basilica in the square. I met him very early when I was a student in 1955 and he was a student. He was a graduate of St. Joe’s University and he was a seminarian. And now, on Sunday, he’s going to celebrate mass at St. Joe’s and I’m going to go. He’s going to celebrate it as a Cardinal. So it’s a small world and you meet up with people again.
But the big grace was working with those three Popes – Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. I didn’t get to work with Benedict XVI yet and I’m a little mixed up. No, it’s Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. We forget that poor man – he was only Pope for 32 days – only one meeting did I have with him and John Paul II. It was wonderful. They were just like fathers to me. I’d make some mistakes – “It’s ok, Sister; we’ll fix that.”
I came back here in 1980 and I heard there was a Mass of the Holy Spirit at St. Joe’s University. Madeline Conti, my classmate, called me. “Would you like to come?” “Sure.” I sat next to her. She introduced me to the President, the Dean, and some Provost – I’m not sure they called him that in those days. Anyway, they asked me “What are you going to do now?” I said “I have no idea.” “Well” they said, “Come and see us tomorrow.” I went to this interview with the Academic Dean and I was hired to open a Justice and Peace Desk in the Faith Justice Institute and start a lecture series – an outreach lecture series for the public in the Greater Philadelphia area.
That was the original job situation at St. Joe’s. Now at the same time I went to see Cardinal Krol to say hello because he had been very good to me in Rome. Every time he came he would call me and I would have lunch with him. I said “I’m back!” So he said “What are you going to do now?” “Well, I just had an interview with St. Joe’s University and I think I’m going to take it. It’s part time – three days a week.
And he said “You know, I’ve had an idea to open the same thing – a Justice and Peace Desk here in the Archdiocese. Why can’t we work together? You work two days here, three days at St. Joe’s. Figure it out. Go down and see Monsignor Devine and see what you can work out.”
Well it worked out. I was there fifteen years – both. I did St. Joe’s University who used to call me their liaison with the Archdiocese. After fifteen years it became too much and I left because I was also then asked to be responsible for the Spiritual Center at Bowman Avenue – our convent had opened a spiritual center a few years before and Sister Teresa Margaret asked if I would go back there and be responsible for the Center. I’m still at St. Joe’s, but only as Emerita – I go in every Thursday for the staff meeting and they pick my brain.
It’s a nice situation. I spiritually accompany anyone who asks for it. I also teach the children, K through 8th grade, once a week across the street (St. Francis de Sales Catholic School). I teach Peace. How to be ambassadors of peace to children at risk. It’s a great school. The children come from risky areas, risky family situations. On Tuesday I spiritually accompany students who would like that at the Newman Center at the University of Pennsylvania. So my week is full.
I’m now 88 years old and I feel like I can still make a contribution as long as I have spirit and voice to share. I just thank Almighty god for a wonderful, wonderful, fruitful religious life that I have had. And the gift was – He called me and I had the courage – He gave me the courage to say yes. It’s as simple as that.
Talk about your parents individually, and your grandparents individually. What were they like?
Well my mother was an only child so she had a very happy childhood. A nice education. She went to St. Vincent’s School and she was very popular in the school, I heard. She loved the Sisters of St. Joseph and they loved her. In fact one sister thought she might have a religious vocation. Of course her parents wouldn’t hear of that.
My father was an immigrant at an early age. I think he was only around 12 when he came from Italy and he went to live with his oldest brother, Alphonse. Alphonse had a son called Joseph whose children were actively engaged. He had five boys – I think three are still alive, two might be in heaven. My father became a pal of Joseph Scarpello, who was the son of his brother Alphonse. And we used to live – once my mother and father were married and we came along – we lived on the same street as my Uncle Sam, who was another brother of my father, and Aunt Betsy – they lived on the corner. He had a son Joseph who’s still alive. He’s 92. His wife Maryann often calls me and says “He’s very well. He still teaches piano to little children in his neighborhood.” And they have several children and grandchildren.
My father was a cabinetmaker. Very clever with his hands. He could make anything. I think I’ve given you, Charles, a little box with the word “Mother” on it. Well my father made that for my mother for Mother’s Day one year.
We were a very happy, normal family.
My grandmother and my mother would knit. My mother had her own business. She was kind of a liaison between Bernat Yarns and other yarn companies. She had 25 women who worked in their homes – it was like a community project, if you will – but they did the knitting. My mother would bring them the wool and the needles and the instructions. They would make the materials. My mother would bring it back to Bernat Yarns. There was a Franklin Yarn Company my mother worked for and my mother would design the knitted wear which would then be photographed in their book which sold their yarns. It was called Franklin Yarn Company, and I had a lot of nice clothes because a lot of the samples, which would be in the windows for a while, were my size and then my mother would get them back and I would wear them. The girls would say “Where do you get all those knitted clothes?” “Well that’s my mother’s business.”
My grandfather was in the construction business. He hoved bricks on his shoulders with Jack Kelly. Jack also carried bricks for his father. They both worked for Jack’s father’s brick company and then my grandfather went out on his own and had his own construction company. He was always a builder. He was kind to immigrants. He would hire immigrants. He would help them started in the world. My grandmother had no family here. I think her only brother died in Argentina and settled there.
But my father had four brothers – Alphonse, Samuel, Frank, who had two children. Michael is still alive – I don’t see him very often. Michael’s daughter Mary Frances graduated from Ravenhill.
Talk about your brother.
Ah, Charles. Charles was a colorful character. He was younger than I and he was a bright boy. When he was in 8th grade at Holy Rosary, he got a scholarship to the Prep, so instead of going to Germantown High like I did, he went to St. Joe’s Prep.
There’s a sad story: I think Charles was in school about 4 weeks, maybe 5, and he was getting off the bus. He was a cute-looking kid, always well-dressed. He was the only boy – everybody doted on him. A group of Irish boys – the school was full of Irish boys at the Prep – got off the bus and started to taunt him by calling him names that weren’t considered nice to Italian immigrants. Well, he started to cry at first and then he got angry and he went up to four of them and beat them up. Punched them. Well of course it got to the Principal. Called him in and said “Charles, what did you do?” “Father, I couldn’t help it. They called me those names and I didn’t like it. They’re bad names. You can’t call Italians by those names – it would be like using the N word for an Afro-American. You can’t do that.” Well he gave Charles a pretty good talking to and said “I’m going to have to report it to your parents. Please don’t do that ever again or you might be suspended.
I’m not going to do anything now but you could be suspended.” “Don’t you worry – they’re not going to do it anymore!” So bullying is not new. We talk about cyber-bullying…”
He’s a great kid. He went to work for the City. He got to know politicians, especially Mayor Rizzo, who took him on as a kind of son and as a Deputy Sheriff. He worked his way up to Chief Deputy Sheriff for about three different sheriffs. He had a wonderful reputation for being kind. Police weren’t always considered kind and Charlie was considered a very kind man. He had retired a short time before he went to heaven. He had a massive heart attack in his sleep and that was it. No suffering. But he left a great reputation. I was very proud of my brother Charlie. Friends – he had the gift of friendship.
One story I like to tell, that he was a little embarrassed to tell me. He had to go evict an elderly lady from her home – I think an Afro-American lady. He got there and said “Madam, I bring you these eviction papers. You haven’t paid any rent for so long – you have to leave this house.” “Where will I go?” He said “We have a couple of suggestions here. How much do you owe?” “$80.” “Here. I’ll pay your rent but please from now on pay your own rent so you can stay here.” I think that’s a wonderful story. A compassionate man.
He married Jacqueline Novelli and they had one child, Charles. They had a very happy life; it was a full life. They had a lot of guests because he knew a lot of people. Parties. I didn’t frequent those because I wasn’t in that circle. Also, in my early days of being a religious, we weren’t going out as much as we go now. We went out for our ministry but I was a Contemplative in Action and we didn’t go to family parties.
That’s my life.
You were born in 1919 so you’ve lived through major historical events. What were your recollections of the Depression,
World War II, JFK, and 9/11?
The Depression. I saw a lot of suffering. I was one of 19 students in grammar school and my father was the only one who was still working in his cabinet-making work when we graduated. Nobody else’s father was employed. I saw a lot of suffering. My godmother Carmella Palermo was a social worker so she used to come home with stories of sadness and heartaches during the Depression. So we heard a lot and it was all around me. I can’t say that I suffered during the Depression.
But we had some suffering during World War II. We had rations. I remember my mother giving me colored coupons to go buy the meat because there were rations and you could only have a certain amount a month. When you had finished those little coupons – rations we called them – you couldn’t buy any more meat. Sugar was rationed; a lot of things were rationed and we were told to be careful. You couldn’t have any more of that in the house – you had to wait until the next week for new rations.
JFK – I admired him. I remember when he died I was Principal at Ravenhill. It was just before I left. We all went to the chapel. We heard he was dying. I brought all the girls into the chapel to pray and Miss McGucken, the school secretary, had a radio going in the sacristy with the news minute by minute and we finally heard he had died. We went out on the front lawn and we put the flag at half-mast. That’s my recollection of the death of Kennedy. We saw it on television – we saw the shooting and all that business. It was sad. He tried hard, I think. We were very proud of having a Catholic President.
I also went through Franklin Roosevelt. I was proud of him. A Depression President. We never even knew he was a polio victim and was paralyzed. We kids didn’t know that – we didn’t know it until his death. I had the honor of meeting his wife. She was a great social worker – Eleanor Roosevelt. My cousin Edith Palermo was in social Service work and she had to go to a convention up in New York and Mrs. Roosevelt was the head of that. I think she had pulled it together. She came up to me and said “Ray, if I introduce you to that Afro-American fellow and he asks you to dance with him, will you dance with him?” I said “Sure.” She was afraid if he asked me and I said no he would be insulted. She was an outstanding social worker. And that’s what happened – she introduced me and he asked me to dance and, of course, I danced with him. She did not want that man to be hurt. Segregation was rampant then. So those are my recollections of those fine people.
You’ve interacted with a lot of historically famous people. Talk about a few of those who have made an impact.
Good people made an impact on me. Working in Rome with all those good Popes was a big impact on me. I think people like Eleanor Roosevelt had an impact on me. I think President Kennedy had an impact. I can remember thinking “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And I think that’s what I’ve tried to live. What I can do for my country, my church, my people, my congregation, for the lady sitting next to me in church. That’s the way I try to live. I try to reach out and, in reaching out, I was the one to receive. I had wonderful teachers – extraordinary teachers. Good examples.
Throughout your life, what are your observations of how society has changed or evolved?
Well what makes me very sad is that I’m living in a society that’s so violent. We never had that when I was a child. Do you know I was 33 years old when I entered the convent and I did not have a key to our house. We never locked our front door until the last person coming in locked it – my brother or I. We locked it from the inside but it was left open for us. We never worried about being robbed. No. We were friends of the police. We had a police patrol box right outside our house and, every hour, the foot patrol man would come and report back. “All is well.” We could hear them. No problems.
It was a peaceful society and it was interracial. The students in my school at Germantown High were interracial – I don’t remember any Asian, but maybe they were there. I wasn’t aware that people were different. No. That’s what saddens me now – that our children are afraid of walking down the street because of a gang. And that’s what happened last week. A gang – a gang of girls – jumped a girl and lacerated her face. I couldn’t sleep when I heard that story because it wasn’t far from here. That’s what saddens me.
We have good possibility in our society. Our society used to be very welcoming. Look at how we welcomed the early immigrants. They were able to make it. Look at our grandfathers – your great-grandfather made it – all those people did. They were welcomed. They had their problems when they started. Sure. My grandfather told me a story. He was walking down Haines Street one day and a white Protestant man was walking on the same side and when he saw my grandfather, he crossed the street. My grandfather wondered and asked somebody “Why did that man….?” “Because you’re a Catholic. You’re an immigrant Catholic.” So they suffered those little things but they weren’t prevented from taking jobs. If they had the talent and worked well, they could make it and climb the social ladder, and they did.
Yes, I’m sad but I have great hope for the future. We have a new Mayor (Michael Nutter) in our city – he spoke at his Alma Mater at the Prep the other day and he said “I have great hope for the city but I can’t do it alone. Each one of you has to help.” And that’s what I told the children across the street. Each one of you has to help him by being peaceful. They understood, because whoever is taking care of hem had said the same thing to them.
How would you describe your life mission?
I think I’ve been an educator and wherever I was I tried to share insights I got through learning, through grace from Almighty God. I’ve always been close to the sacraments. In Baptism I was infused with a certain grace. I was always ready to share. I am not shy. I share anything I have, anything I know. So I think my mission has been that of an educator, sharing with anybody I met – it didn’t matter who it was – male or female, black or white or yellow. But as I said before, I was the recipient of all the graces from all these people and I still am. Sure. An educator gives and receives. It’s a two-way street. I think that’s enough.