Stories of my grandmother Ruth Fowles

February 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Dear Readers! I am very excited to have my blog finally active and running.  And I am also so pleased to be able to post this incredibly powerful piece of writing by my aunt Erica Fowles.  This letter so beautifully tells some of the stories of my grandmother, Ruth Catherine Fowles, growing up as a young Catholic girl in Victoria, BC.  Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her, since she passed away before I was born.  In honour of her life and of her story, I decided to dedicate my first film Taxi Casablanca to her, and to my other grandmother Grace Scott.

So much of my work comes from a strong desire to give a voice to those who have not had a story.  I know that both of my grandmothers, by the very fact that they were born as women in the early part of the 20th Century, were essentially storyless – just as so many women remain today.  When we tell our stories, we become empowered, and we enjoy a witness in the written word, or the spoken voice.

I hope you enjoy this powerful piece of writing.

To whom it may concern at St. Andrew’s:

I am sending this letter to both St. Andrew’s Cathedral and to the Archdiocese of Victoria. 

My mother, Ruth Catherine, would have been 100 years old this year, had she lived beyond 1972 when chronic alcoholism took her life. I have been thinking a lot about her lately – and about some of the stories she told me about growing up in Victoria as a Catholic girl. Unfortunately, aside from the “dressed” insect collection at St. Ann’s Academy, which could be viewed inside a glass case – there were few good memories.

Naturally, with shifting societal attitudes, many of the things my mother experienced, would not occur today. However [though I am not a Catholic], I am aware that in some respects, the Church remains hurtfully and dangerously rigid still. [Example: the archaic and repressive responses to John Oetter and Father Mike Favero in 2007 – which did not go un-noticed by the general public.]

I am writing to tell you what my mother told me, because I want to validate her experiences. I feel that, in her memory, I want to give voice to what she shared with me about her life as a girl, and about the things that powerful religious adults did to a small, still-perfect child.

When she was young, my mother used to attend services at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. On Sundays, her family would go by horse and carriage to Mass, and tie up in front of the church at a hitching post.

She went to school at St. Ann’s Academy as a day student for a number of years, until [in her 10th year] 1919, when the Flu Pandemic struck her family. Her father was critically ill in their Carnsew St. home, and both her mother and little brother came down with the virus – so she was sent to board at St. Ann’s for a short time. She remembered the priest standing outside her front door, giving last rites – too afraid to enter the house as her father died.

During her stay with the Sisters at St. Ann’s, whenever she was given a bath, she was forced to wear a long cotton bathing garment that covered her body. Curiously, she was told it was a sin to be “naked before God”, that her naked body was shameful. As a 10 year old, she was not happy with this, but felt somehow guilty or dirty..a feeling that persisted through her entire Catholic life. Once, around the age of 12 or 13, my mother got hold of a medical book that clearly showed a baby growing inside the mother’s uterus. Armed with this new and wonderful knowledge, she decided to share the information with a girlfriend at “The Academy”. Unfortunately, she chose to draw a picture, tie it onto the blind cord of the classroom window, and swing it up the aisle to her friend [during class!]. It was intercepted by a nun, and [again unfortunately] this woman was not as enthralled by the exciting information…My mother was taken to a room with several [one assumes more powerful, in the hierarchy] nuns who proceeded to emphasize to her [over a period of time] that she was a dirty, evil and wicked-minded little girl. A lesson that she learned well..

Later, when she attended Confession at St. Andrew’s as a young teen, the priest [who, of course, she could not see] repeatedly enquired about her “dirty” thoughts, and if she liked to touch herself and etc. Apparently sinfulness came in “degrees of”, as it became mandatory to tell how often, how much and especially [in detail] HOW it was done! My mother [who at the time had no words for it] later recalled the distinct impression that the priest was masturbating behind the screen. We would call this a form of sexual abuse today – and I’m sure the priest knew that’s just what it was, even then..

My mother descended from a long line of Irish Catholics. They kept their faith during the awful boat trip from County Cork to New York as survivors of the Irish Potato Famine. They kept their faith moving across the country to San Francisco, losing children to typhoid fever, living through the 1906 S.F. earthquake and fire, and on into Canada in the early 1900’s, through the Spanish Influenza, through Church-initiated emotional and sexual abuse….and yes, to the very point of my mother’s 1929 engagement – announced here in Victoria at the “Bishop’s Palace” downtown. However, it seems that when “The Church” discovered my father’s faith to be Anglican, the wedding was refused – and my parents married in the family home on Fernwood Rd.

As a consequence, on occasion [but very rarely] I accompanied my mother to St. Andrew’s Cathedral – where she entered a foreign world and became someone I had never known – genuflecting, crossing herself with Holy Water, and just standing there looking into the church. Once she taught me “Hail Mary”, but carefully, as a point of history rather than a religious practice. I still know most of the words…. She showed me her mother’s rosaries, and gave me her grandmother’s gold cross on a chain. She gave me my middle name Catherine, reaching back through 4 generations. But she did not give me her Catholic faith.

I know that as an adult, my mother recognized that the things that had happened to her were wrong, that she should not have been treated that way. But that recognition did not erase the sense of shame that she carried with her. She did not believe in Good or Evil, Heaven or Hell. She was spontaneously a kind, sensitive and empathic person, and reached out to help whenever she could. For her, morality consisted of treating people [and the earth] as gently as possible, without judgment. But she never overcame her poor self esteem, and sometimes when she was drinking, I saw in her eyes that she still believed she was a dirty, evil little girl. Although no one person or institution can be blamed for that – it was clear to me that she was damaged by the church that should have been there to love and support that defenceless child.

But now it is 100 years later, and this week I dropped my daughter off at the old St. Ann’s Academy to work in a movie being filmed there. I watched her walk up to the building which was my mother’s school so many years ago. She looked little and vulnerable in contrast to the grandeur of the building. I drove home along Blanshard St. past St. Andrew’s Cathedral, again marvelling at the imposing structure, thinking of my mother walking up to the front doors. It would be impossible for a child whose life revolved around such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church to conclude that she was a perfect and worthy individual while being treated in a cruel and abusive fashion. For my mother, the outcome was disastrous. Today, for my daughter, who identifies as Lesbian, it will be different. But I am not happy knowing that, in the Catholic faith my daughter would still be subjected to a doctrine that remains obsessed with creating sinners where none exist.

With respect – but also with anger and sadness,    

Erica Fowles

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