Mary (Curran) Razor’s letter to Dorris Wells

10 December 1987

Dear Cousin Dorris—

Your nice, hand decorated letter arrived and I’ll try to answer your questions:

Your new Hamilton area paper sounds fascinating.  I’d like to hear more about it.  How about sending me a copy?

Didn’t Alden Clausen’s family formerly have a paper there?  He’s head of the World Bank or some such now.  I don’t really know him and only met his sister Jocelyn once or twice at Carthage College…but Alden went with a girl from my home town who had the room across from me in the dorm.

If you don’t accept advertising and don’t sell subscriptions, how do you pay your expenses?  I agree with you about the big publications offering little except “canned” news (and what the Hollywood stars ate for breakfast!).  Even the Des Moines Register, which used to be a first class newspaper, is now owned by Gannett...and has slipped badly.

You were cracking ’85 walnuts while I was shelling ’86 pecans that I brought back from my vacation in Texas.

What do you do with all the baby booties and teddy bears you mentioned?  Surely you don’t have enough grandchildren—at least in that age range—to keep it all in the family.

Here’s what I recall about our respective mothers’ childhood.  (And I’m curious: what prompts your questions?)

My mother, Lil, was the 7th of the 9 children of Audubon and Laura Ellen Alvis, nee Good.  Mother was born 29 March 1895, so she and Bess were less than two years apart.

After the divorce, and unsuccessful attempts with housekeepers, they were sent to St. Mary’s School in St. Louis.  Grandmother Alvis didn’t leave her family till the baby George was old enough to walk—probably between one and two years of age.  He was three years younger than my mother, so that would make her about 4 ½ or 5.  I recall a class picture taken of her in a school before they went to St. Louis.

Incidentally, in that generation it wasn’t rare for fathers to have the nuns raise orphaned daughters.  For instance, Kit Carson’s two daughters were in convent school in St. Louis.

St. Mary’s was the Mother House of the Sacred Heart nuns.  That is, the young nuns were trained there.  Also I believe the Magdalens were there; they were a branch of repenting sinners who were taken in to do menial labor in return for their keep.  The Magdalens had nothing to do with the school.

Mother mentioned seeing the young Scared Heart nuns taking the veil, or being professed, as the term was.  The woman who started that order of French nuns was St. Euphrasia Pelletier.

St. Mary’s was in no way an orphanage.  It was a fine boarding school—a sort of finishing school for the older students.

Remember mentioning to me that you went to visit a nun in California when you and your mother went out to see our grandmother?  That was Sister Mary of St. Constantine.  When you met her, she was stationed at a hospital in California.  I believe she was a nurse as well as a teacher. I believe it was in California that she was in an elevator that plunged out of control.  Her heel (or heels) were broken…and while she recovered, she always was sensitive in her heels.

At the time our mothers went to St. Mary’s in St. Louis, she was called Mother Constantine because she was the Mother General of that group of nuns…rather like being the general in an army.

Originally she was from String Prairie near Keokuk.  I can’t recall today her family name, but they were of German descent.  My mother corresponded for years with her sister whose name was, I think, Mrs. Healy.  And I think she lived in Chicago.  That part I’m fuzzy about.  I believe in my mother’s old stationery box that Dad made for her by hand, that old address is still under the wooden cover in faded ink…but I’m sure not going to try to chase that box down tonight in this cluttered house.

The Alvises and Mother Constantine’s family were friends and neighbors.  Our Great Grandfather Alvis was all in favor of our grandfather marrying her.  Now I might be slightly askew  about this, but as I recall it, Laura Ellen lived somewhere and Audubon was there but Laura Ellen’s mother was away…and there was a flood…and they were overnight without a chaperone…and although nothing improper happened, he was honor bound to marry her…and he did…much to his father’s displeasure.

So the other girl became a nun…and when Grandmother Alvis left her children…Grandpa Alvis played cards (or some game) with the local priest, banker and some other man in the town in Missouri where they lived…and the priest suggested boarding school.  By this time, Mother Constantine was at St. Mary’s in St. Louis, Missouri…and our mothers went there.  Grandpa kept Uncle George with him.  The older children were grown…but I believe our Aunt Min lived for a time with our Great Grandparent Alvises.

Hope I’m not confusing you with the names I use…probably not, because you knew these relatives or at least knew of them.

It was 6 January about 1901 or 1902 that our mothers went to St. Mary’s.  I recall the 6 January because it is the Feast of the Epiphany and my mother described how they celebrated the day.  Mother Constantine brought big bowls of candy and passed them around to the girls.

Mother Constantine called my mother “Stella” (which means star) and your mother “Mercedes” (which, I believe is a word meaning mercy).  Possibly they were re-named because their original names weren’t saint’s names—or whatever.  Even years later occasionally I’d hear one of their friends refer to them by those names.

My mother became the secretary to Mother Constantine.  In the days before typewriters, she could mimic the nun’s handwriting exactly.  Incidentally, did you know that my mother was the person who started that “Put the Christ Back in Christmas” campaign against people who used the abbreviation Xmas?  Being the amanuensis of the Mother General, no one realized it was just a schoolgirl with an idea.  Xmas IS a proper abbreviation, because X is the Greek word for Christ.

In Missouri in those days, a man had complete control over the females in his family.  For instance, once Laura Ellen came to visit our mothers and she was turned away because they didn’t have their male parent’s consent to the visit.

Audubon worked two jobs to support his family.  I think his main interest was farming or gardening although he’d sold out to his brothers when they’d moved to Missouri where our mothers were born.  He also worked on the railroad engines on the night shift, getting just a few hours sleep each night wrapped up in a quilt between jobs.  No wonder he died at 64!

Mother always said Bess was pretty and mischevious.  One time my mother led a school strike…and Mother Constantine who was ill at the time, got out of her sick bed to dress and admonish the children…and shamed them into behaving.

Uncle George and Grandpa Audubon would journey to visit them at St. Mary’s.  Three months before my mother’s graduation, they went to visit at St. Mary’s…and both Bess and my mother begged so hard to go home with them, that they did.  My mother was 16 at that time—probably quit about her 16th birthday.  She had been trained as an embroiderer and seamstress at the school.  Back in Iowa she traveled from rural house to rural house, making clothes for the kids when they needed school clothes, etc.

After St. Mary’s as I said, Mother Constantine went to California (maybe Los Angeles?  I can’t recall).  Or maybe she went there to recuperate from the broken heel.  No, I think the injured heel occurred in California.

Later Mother Constantine was stationed near Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Blue Mound Road in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  With his WW1 bonus, Dad bought Mother a Buick…and the first trip she took was to see the nun.  I was three years old (1929) and Mother hadn’t even learned how to shift into reverse gear yet.  But we made the trip safely.

Later at least once Dad and Mother and I visited the nun again.  She was a tall woman but anyone standing next to my mother looked tall…and had big brown wide set eyes.  I used to correspond with her regularly from the time I was about 12 although I’d always written Christmas cards, etc. to send.  She died when I was a teenager.  The other nuns sent my mother a box of her belongings, such as little paintings, prayers, poems.

During the Great Depression, the nuns used to wash off the old X-ray film and use it like primitive cellophane, crocheting lace edged around religious items like prayers or pictures.

Incidentally, on our trip to a Bio-Dynamic Conference in New Harmony, Indiana we stopped at Greenup, Illinois overnight.  I suppose you know it was founded by our relatives.  His uncle (also our relative) also founded Greenup, Kentucky and again named it for the Greenup family.  They have HUGE reunions.  In 1987 it was held in Omaha and even had someone come from Australia.

Who Who who was the Clyde Alvis you said had an Alvis reunion.  Please put my name on that mailing list.

Now I think you owe me a long answer and tell me why you are interested in all this ancient history.  Where were our grandparents married in Missouri?


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