The example of Joan Catherine Hughes

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Reflections on her life by Father M. Benedict Hughes, CMRI July 19, 2020

In the book of Tobias in the Old Testament, we read that the younger Tobias exhorted his wife Sara: We must practice virtue “for we are the children of saints” (Tobias 8:5). Indeed, we are who we are, to a great degree, because of the upbringing we received from our parents. Although we must not discount the workings of grace and free will, it remains true that our upbringing by our parents exerts a powerful influence upon who and what type of persons we become.

We must practice virtue “for we are the children of saints”

(Tobias 8:5).

For that reason, I would like to share with you some rec­ollections of my mother, hoping thereby to discharge some of my great debt to God for all I have received through her. I will begin these brief reflections by telling you a little bit about her parents. My grandfather James Fitz (born in 1892), owned a farm with his brother, which they had in­herited from their father. James married my grandmother Marie Ineichen at the age of 32. His wife was 11 months older, having been born on May 5, 1891. Her mother died the following day, due to post-partum hemorrhage, and so my grandmother was raised by her father’s twin sister Josephine. For her part “Aunt Josie,” as my mother called her, had wanted to enter a convent, but when her brother asked her to raise his only child who was now without a mother, she could not refuse.

Hold fast to the Faith; when that is lost, all is lost.

My maternal grandparents met at a social sponsored by their local parish, Saint Anne’s in Sandusky, Ohio. They were both hard-working and very devout Catholics. If you can imagine this: while they were engaged, their home was built on the farm. By the time they married on June 17, 1924, their home had been finished and was completely paid for. Many years later, after both of my grandparents had passed away, one of my aunts found in the home a letter written by my grandmother at the time their house was built, from which I quote: “This house is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary with the earnest prayer that its occupants may always be in the state of Sanctifying Grace, so that some day they may all be Members together of the Heavenly Family. Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us. Holy Mother of God, Pray for us.”

This family photo of my mother with her parents and siblings,
is from the 1940s.

My purpose in giving you this quotation is to demon­strate the type of people my grandparents were: devoutly Catholic and hard-working. At their wedding reception there was no alcohol and no dancing. They joined the Third Order of Saint Francis, prayed the Rosary and ab­stained from meat every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. To them, the Catholic Faith meant everything. After his wife had passed away my grandfather wrote a letter, a few years before his own death, to his six children. In that letter he wrote: “I thank God every day for bringing Mom and me together and for all the blessings received by us, our children and grandchildren. Also pray we all will lead ac­tive Christian lives, thanking God for what we have, which I have always felt gains more merit than begging for some­thing we do not have. Hold fast to the Faith; when that is lost, all is lost. And pray always for the Poor Souls. All too soon we will be numbered among them and perhaps soon forgotten by those whom we loved.”

My mother (on right) with her twin sister Jean.

My grandparents were quiet, never speaking much— or at least that is how they seemed to me as a young boy. They were dedicated to duty and truly worked together. My grandfather said several times that there was never a cross word between them. My mother was the 3rd of their 6 children, born in 1926. Growing up on a farm, my mother learned early the importance of hard work. All the children had their assigned chores. When she was in high school my mother and her twin sister would get up early to go with their father on the milk run, delivering bottles of milk to their customers. When she was old enough to get a driver’s license, she drove the milk-delivery van for the test.

“This house is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary with the earnest prayer that its occupants may always be in the state of Sanctifying Grace, so that some day they may all be Members together of the Heavenly Family. Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us. Holy Mother of God, Pray for us.”

In addition to Catholic living and hard work, a Catholic education for their children was of paramount importance to Jim and Marie Fitz. Accordingly, my mother attended Catholic school throughout the years of her education, in­cluding 4 years in an all-girls college run by the Ursuline Sisters. After graduation my mother worked as a secretary until she married my father at the age of 25. One of the skills she learned in college was shorthand. I used to marvel at the notes she would write for herself in shorthand, some­thing almost unknown today.

If I were to characterize my mother’s qualities, I would do so with 2 words: faith and dedication to duty. Her faith was strong and unwavering. We prayed the family Rosary and she was truly the heart of the home. I recall how she used to say, when teaching us children, that something was a sin. It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it—with deep conviction. She often said to her children: “If you don’t save your soul, nothing else matters.” She was not shy about standing up for her faith either. One story I was told only recently by one of my sisters hap­pened 50 years ago, when I was off at the seminary. There was a meeting in the parish with many parishioners gath­ered in the gym. On the stage there was a panel comprised of a group of leading men of the parish, and the discus­sion was on why there were not more vocations and what could be done about it. My father was on the panel since he had two sons in the seminary. After all the discussion, the moderator asked if anyone else had anything to say. After a lull, my mother, who had been in the kitchen went to the microphone and said, “I have something to say—there would be more vocations from this parish if all the moth­ers dressed modestly” No one said a word. In fact, that was the last thing said as the parishioners left silently, with a lot to think about. Another example of her courage was when she confronted the owner of a gas station about the maga­zines he was selling. She told him she was deeply offended by that smut. He removed the magazines.

This happy young couple wed on June 21, 1952.

My parents were always active in our local parish. In particular, my mother ironed linens and altar cloths. My siblings and I can all remember her spending many hours at the ironing board set up in the dining room, ironing linens. Sometimes I would go with her to Mass on Saturdays. After Mass she would often stop by a woman’s house to pick up the linens that needed to be done. Our pastor was very particular on how he wanted the altar cloths ironed, which took a great deal of time. I did not know it at the time, but later we learned that our mother offered this labor for the intention of vocations in the family. After my ordination, one of my sisters asked her if she was now going to stop ironing linens. She simply replied, “I have other sons.”

She often said to her children: “If you don’t save your soul, nothing else matters.”

It was on one of our Saturday trips to Mass (probably a First Saturday), that my mother explained to me on the way home about the Third Secret of Fatima. She described how it was supposed to have been made known in 1960, and she wondered why it hadn’t been revealed and when it might be. When we were young children she would read to us, and I recall that one of the stories was that of Our Lady of Fatima.

My mother was pious, but not in a showy way. I have mentioned how she ironed linens with the intention of ob­taining vocations. She also prayed daily for this purpose. Many years after my ordination she showed me a holy card with a prayer to the Infant of Prague, all wrinkled with time and use. When she was a young mother (or perhaps even before she married) she had attended a women’s re­treat. The priest told the women that to obtain vocations, they should pray to the Infant of Prague. She did, daily. She was most supportive of my pursuit of the priesthood—af­ter all, it was what she had prayed for during many years. As my ordination approached, she gave me her wedding ring to be incorporated into my chalice—a fitting sacrifice by one who so long desired to have a priest (or two) among her sons.

“I have something to say—there would be more vocations from this parish if all the moth­ers dressed modestly”

She also prayed daily for the Holy Souls. One of my sisters recalls how, when they would drive into town, my mother would take out her rosary and pray ejaculations for the Holy Souls on the beads. Whenever she was at the Mount, she would invariably go up to the chapel to make a visit for the Poor Souls. Later, after all her children were grown, my mother would not miss a daily Mass.

Her faith was also practical. She was honest to a fault and instilled that virtue in us. She was also charitable. When I was young she would stop by a blind woman’s house some­times after Mass to visit with her. We had to remain in the car, and it seemed like she took forever. Once, when we complained of the wait, she pointed out that it was impor­tant to visit this woman, who had to deal with such a trial. I also recall her giving food to needy families. My parents also frequently entertained out-of-town guests to the Mount and held wakes at their home.

After Fr. Brendan’s first Mass in 1989, a pose of the two priests with our parents.

My mother was also thrifty. She spent a lot of time at the sewing machine, repairing and even making clothing. We used to have patches upon the patches upon the patches of our trousers. And that is not an exaggeration. She grew up during the Depression and learned early on never to waste.

“Ora et labora” was the motto Saint Benedict gave his monks. My mother certainly fulfilled it. My father used to call her a workaholic. And yes, there is such a word. I have to think that it was created to describe my mother. She never seemed to be happy unless she had work to do. If it wasn’t for family or friends, it was for the Church. She often would volunteer for work projects, such as when we re-painted the chapel at the Mount. She was even high up on the scaffolding to paint. Also, the first time we repaint­ed the window frames at the Mount, the large windows were taken over, 3 or 4 at a time, to her house, where she scraped, repaired and painted the molding and trim. She was also one of the “founders” of our host-making bakery at the Mount. She worked there every week for 20 years.

Another task she enjoyed was repairing vestments. Many of our vestments at the Mount are very old, and some of them were literally falling apart. She enjoyed the challenge of repairing them, a task that took many, many hours, giv­en the tedious nature of the work and the difficulty of find­ing the proper fabric and thread for each vestment.

“She never seemed to be happy unless she had work to do.”

Speaking of labor reminds me of something that Father Denis used to say to me. When he was particularly ex­hausted he would say, “Now I know why the prayer says ‘eternal rest, grant unto them.’” My mother certainly de­serves to rest after a life full of labor!

Mother spent many hours at her sewing machine, especially repairing vestments.

Although I have shared with you some memories of my mother and her virtues, I do not want to imply that she was without fault, for we all are frail human creatures. She must have had faults, but I certainly do not know what they were. One common fault she certainly did not have was gossip. I never recall her spending much time at all on the telephone. She didn’t have time, because she was busy.

About 20 years ago my mother told me of an incident that had just happened that week. She was driving home from Mass after a snowstorm and came across another woman whose car had slid into the ditch and was stuck there. My mother, farm girl that she was, got out the tow rope, connected it to the other woman’s car, and pulled her out of the ditch. The other woman was amazed and grate­fully said, “Joan, I want to take you out to lunch.” But my mother wasn’t interested. When she told me the story she added, “I hope she forgets about the offer of lunch.” She did. My mother would prefer to be ironing linens, working in the host room, or cooking for her family or the religious rather than spending a couple hours visiting with a fellow parishioner over lunch.

My mother with her last child Monica.

Again, my mother had no time for gossip. But for what­ever defects God, in His infinite justice and perfection, found in her, I humbly ask your prayers for the repose of her soul. Ironically, my mother is likely most pleased by the necessarily simple nature of her funeral—without the large numbers who would have liked to be present. She was always self-effacing and quiet, ever devoted to God, to her family, and to her duties. She did not care for any fanfare.

When my mother was dying the visiting nurse stated that never, in all his years, had he witnessed anything like it. She should have died months before, given the lack of nutrition and other reasons. Yet she lingered on and even­tually passed away on July 18 of old age. I attribute her lengthy life to her strong constitution and keeping busy. She did, however, suffer from numerous illnesses through­out her life, particularly arthritis, which necessitated hav­ing both knees replaced. She also had varicose veins, as a result of bearing ten children. (In fact, on one occasion she nearly bled to death when a vein in her leg opened while she was sleeping.) This reminds me of what Saint Paul said: “Women will be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty” (I Timothy 2:15).

“Women will be saved by childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with modesty”

(I Timothy 2:15).

I can never repay her for all her labors for me: all the life lessons, delicious meals, the patience, the many times she would fix things that I couldn’t figure out, her good example, the many lessons on virtue, the letters she used to send when I was off at the seminary, etc. May God repay her for all she did for her family, which was done for Him!

We, her children, will always remember the example and lessons she gave us by her life. Once, my father, in recount­ing his blessings, said to me: “I have a wife I don’t deserve.” With even more honesty I can say, “And I had a mother I didn’t deserve.” I will spend the remainder of my life trying to be more worthy of her. The words on the “valiant wom­an” of Proverbs seem particularly applicable to her: “Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: the woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised” (31:30).

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2 Responses

  1. you have been blessed with the holy example of your dear mom. Keeping her in my prayers. God Bless all you do.

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