By Charlie Johnston
On July 17, 2015, I pulled into Newark, New Jersey on a Greyhound Bus. (Hopefully it will be my last bus ride for a while. Mary, who schedules everything, had been trying to get me to fly. I finally agreed because of growing time constraints. But once I did, I have to concede I arrive a lot more ready to go than I do after 20-24 hours on a bus). Karen and Andrew Dembia were the coordinators for New Jersey – and Andrew was waiting there to get me and
take me back to Morristown, where my presentation would be made at Villa Walsh Academy, a Catholic College Preparatory School for girls.
After settling my luggage into my hotel (which had one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in) I went to dinner at the Dembias along with some of the team who had arranged things for the visit. They served fabulous homemade lasagna and meatballs and sausage with a homemade sauce. It was authentic Italian stuff (one of my dearest friends in Chicago comes from a family that had several restaurants. I know – and love – authentic Italian food). One of the women in the group sounded just like Fran Dresser from the old TV Show, “The Nanny.” I mentioned it and my hosts said, matter-of-factly, “She’s from Brooklyn.” So for all you non-Easterners, they really do talk that way. It was at this lively dinner and discussion that one man responded to a comment I made by saying, “We have to let go and let God. Bada-bing.” I laughed and said I did not know if that was actually considered a prayer
outside of New Jersey. The thought of it still tickles me.
The bus ride must have truly exhausted me, for the next morning I slept through a wake-up call and my alarm, missing Daily Mass. I finally woke up and went over to the Dembias for some coffee and to begin the day. It was while having my first cup of coffee in their sun room that I got the terrible call from George Cronin, that young Joey had died when a nurse tried to do a two-person changeover in the middle of the night instead of waiting for the second nurse to arrive at seven a.m. – and tragically erred. George was wailing in agony, and I started doing the same at the news that, after all this time, Joey had died the day before I was to meet him. Realizing something was terribly wrong, Andrew and Karen left the room until my call was finished. George re-iterated he wanted me to come the next day anyway – and I re-iterated that that was exactly what I intended to do. I had to sit and recover from my shock for a bit, though the agonizing grief would stalk me throughout the next week.
Once I got calmed down, we settled on some things to get to that day. George Washington’s Continental Army wintered in Morristown in the bitterly cold winter beginning in December of 1779, the coldest ever recorded there. It was colder and snowier than at Valley Forge, but they got a huge number of small cabins built in nearby Jockey Hollow to weather it. I did not feel as sociable as normal, so I opted to spend most of the afternoon visiting the historical sites with them. We started at the Village Green with statues commemorating the meeting of Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette met.
We drove up to where Fort Nonsense had once been, a fort high upon a hill overlooking Morristown where soldiers could easily espy any approaching British troops. No one knows exactly how it got its name, though the legend is that General Washington ordered it built in 1777 to keep the troops pre-occupied and out of trouble. Whether it was originally erected as nonsensical busy work or not, it became a useful defensive fortification.
Perhaps the most impressive of the sites for the winter was Jockey Hollow, which became a bustling neighborhood of 1,200 small wooden huts in which the soldiers holed up for the winter. With the lush greenery surrounding the area, one might think they lived well off the land, but the brutal winter killed off much of the wildlife. Snows were so deep and foraging so scarce that soldiers were often reduced to eating shoes. The nearby Ford Mansion was let out by its owner as command quarters for Washington and his top staff. During that horrible winter, it became the diplomatic headquarters of the fledgling United States as various officials, foreign and domestic, came to visit and take counsel with Washington. While walking through, Karen and Andrew greeted everyone by saying, “How ya doin’?” After a bit, Karen said they must sound like a Sopranos stereotype. Knowing I was mainly from Chicago,
she asked me how we normally greet people. “We usually say, ‘How ya doin’?” I responded as she and Andrew both chuckled.
Wonderfully, later in the afternoon, I was taken for a tour and visit of the cloistered Carmelite Monastery in Morristown. We met Hattie there, who had been at the dinner the night before and helps take care of things for the nuns. So that they always have fresh flowers there, one of the local chains give all of the flowers they are going to discard to the Monastery. That day, they gave six boxes of beautiful roses, the biggest single delivery they had ever gotten. Hattie had given some of them away because the sisters couldn’t use all of them. Then Karen held some back to make an arrangement to send with me the next day to the Cronins from all the Next Right Step Community. She is a lay Carmelite, so she also made arrangements for a Sunday Mass to be said for the Cronins – again with a Mass Card to be taken on behalf of the Next Right Step Community.
Karen and Hattie took me into a room where lay helpers go inside the Monastery.
Once we were in, they rang a bell. After a bit, Mother Therese Katulski, O.C.D., the Prioress, opened the back cover and we sat and chatted with each other through the gate for about half an hour. I kept calling Mother Therese “Sister,” as she had to be nearly 20 years younger than me. She originally came from Poland, but was moved to Morristown as some of the older sister had passed on and the order thought it needed an infusion of younger blood there. She was an absolute delight, speaking of their call to prayer and intercession on behalf of the world, their love of Christ and devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Karen and Andrew help make sure they have the things and the maintenance they need. It is a vibrant community. At the end, Karen gently asked Mother Therese if she minded if she took a picture of us. To my surprise and delight, Mother Therese gave Karen an enthusiastic yes – and said she wanted a copy of the picture for herself.
I stopped briefly at the hotel to prepare for the presentation that evening. I was driven over to the Villa Walsh Academy and met by Sr. Catherine.
They are Filippini Nuns, a teaching order founded in 1692. I was taken up to their beautiful chapel, where I was left to pray for a bit. I must confess, my memory is a little foggy. I was still in shock from the news about Joey Cronin earlier in the day. I rarely get stressed, but when I do, my pain levels from the neurological damage skyrocket and I have to concentrate deeply to get through without betraying how hurt and foggy I am. I prayed for a time…for the Cronins, for the repose of Joey’s soul, and that I would do a competent job that evening of explaining what my message was. I would like to tell you about the highlights of the presentation, but my memory is extremely fuzzy until the next morning. I don’t think it showed. Karen and Andrew were enthusiastic about how well everyone received it and I was told about 60 people came. Sorry, I didn’t fully come out of the haze until after Philadelphia when I was in Hyannisport, but at least my memory is fairly clear the rest of the way.
Sunday morning we went to Mass at the Monastery, a traditional Latin Mass at which two of the Dembia children were Altar Servers. I have a brother who absolutely loves the Latin Mass. I certainly find it awesome, though I like the Mass conducted in the vernacular very well when it is done with reverence. I was at two Masses during this trip where a Mass in the vernacular borrowed two features of the Latin Mass that I am very enthusiastic about.
I prefer it when the priest leads the assembly in worship by facing the altar (with his back to the people) and I absolutely love the use of communion rails. Another feature of the Latin Mass I love is the use of incense. With music rising from the nuns behind the screen, the incense filling the church, and the formal sound of Latin prayer, almost all your senses are lifted up in deep worship. Your heart truly lifts up to the Lord in such a setting.
I went back to the house and we had some refreshments. Paul Rumley of the Philadelphia suburbs had graciously offered to pick me up and drive me down, so when he arrived, we all visited a while before heading out.
The faith that sparked the patriotism that made a great nation and changed the world is alive and well in New Jersey. And it will rise to do it again in the fullness of time.