The Autobiography of Sister Mary Grace Langer, SSND
Part I – Early Years
It was a cold Tuesday morning on November 26, 1901 when Henry Langer, my father, took Amelia Pitterle, my mother, as his bride in St. Henry’s Church, Watertown, Wisconsin. Henry was the eldest surviving son of John and Barbara Langer who operated a 157-acre farm one mile east of the village of Clyman in Dodge County, Wisconsin. Amelia, who was better known as Millie Pitterle, was the daughter of Ferdinand and Rosa (Rosalie) Pitterle who lived on a farm in the town of Emmet about five miles south of the Langer farm.
The young couple took over the John Langer farm after the elder Langers retired and moved to Watertown. This fertile land provided good income for the Langer family who made their living in dairy farming. A garden and a fruit orchard helped to supply the family food. Chickens were raised and occasionally ducks to increase the food supply and income.
On June 26, 1904, Gertrude Anna arrived to liven up the house. She was the pride and joy of her parents, an only child until April 5, 1909 when Francis James was born. Imagine the happiness of that five-year old attending the baby in her own childish way. A year and a half later on September 28, 1910 another brother, Leo John was born. The Langers now were a family of five, but for a very short time.
When Gertrude was six years old, she entered first grade in the public school about half a mile from home. She had hardly begun school when she became ill with a high fever and chills which were symptoms of cholera, a disease quite common at this time. My father had to get her with the horse and buggy. When she got home, she told our mother, “I am so sick. I can hardly walk.” A doctor was called from Juneau who gave her medicine. During the time of her illness, Leo was born. Though grievously ill, Gertrude was aware of her new baby brother and in her sickness and delirium, she sang to him. Sadly, though, within a few days Gertrude died, leaving her grieving parents with their two little boys.
One day, as Mother checked on Francis who was playing in the yard, she discovered he was missing. She searched for him and noticed the dog wandering through a field of grain. As she looked closer, she saw the dog following Francis in the field as he called, “Gertie, Gertie. ” The dog following him helped my grateful mother locate her child.
Francis and Leo were having a great time when on April 22, 1915 they were surprised by the arrival of a new little sister. Unfortunately, she was a premature baby who died shortly after birth because the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Our grandmother baptized her and gave her the name of Marcella Eleanora. She was buried next to her older sister Gertrude in Holy Assumption Cemetery, Clyman.
The next two years Mother longed and prayed for another baby girl. On March 3, 1917 at 1:30 A.M., her prayer was answered. I was joyfully welcomed by my parents with probably some concern in their hearts. How long? Two girls had already died. Would they keep this one? My brothers, Francis and Leo, would have preferred another brother, but were finally satisfied that a sister would grow up and wash the dishes, a task heartily disliked by both boys.
My godparents, Aunt Anna and Uncle Ed Pitterle, took me to St. John’s, Clyman, our parish church, on Sunday, March 11 for my baptism. Since there was heavy snow, they took the bobsled which was pulled by two horses. (This was used as a lumber wagon in the summer after wheels were put on it.) The pastor did not approve of the name Jeanette Mary chosen by my parents and entered Genevieve Marie on my baptismal record. However my birth record has Jeanette Mary, the name I still claim.
About this time, World War I was in progress and Dad was called up for the draft. Mother was very upset, fearful that he might be called into service. She packed up her family of three children and told Dad she and the children were appearing at the draft board with him. Dad, Mother, me the baby in her arms, and my two brothers drove to Juneau in our first car to see what could be accomplished. She was not slow in making the board aware that in no way could she, with the help of a hired man, operate a large dairy farm and take care of a household with three small children. Needless to say she won her point and Dad was deferred.
Less than two years later, I was no longer the baby in the family. My youngest brother, Henry Ferdinand, joined us on February 6, 1919. It was this brother who gave me the nickname, Net, which I despised. How could a little one pronounce a name like Jeanette? So I endured it until his vocabulary improved. That ended my nickname, but Henry being Junior was nicknamed Sonny until he began first grade. That ended all nicknames in our family.
My father did not talk much. He was not in the house much. He was a workaholic. We hardly talked at breakfast. During dinner, we did converse, but at supper not much was discussed. I think he was in a hurry to eat so he could finish the chores. As a child, I spoke only German. Later, we got a hired hand who spoke only English and so we switched to English. My father read the Watertown Daily Times and some magazines. They were in English. On the bookshelves, we had a Bible and a dictionary. I don’t remember my father ever writing a letter. I know my mother wrote to her sister, Aunt Dora, in California. We had daily mail delivery, but the mail box was at Train Road, not at the top of the driveway. Dad was a generous man as shown by his purchase of a piano for me. He took care of disciplining the boys and my mother disciplined me. My father was very excited when I was born. After I was bathed, he walked the house with me and explained what things were, like a sink.
The farm day started in 6:00 a.m. with milking. I would get up at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast. We ate dinner at noon and supper at 5:00 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. The cows were milked again at 6:00 p.m. My mother did the milking.
Everything was progressing well for some time until Dad was kicked by a cow and suffered a broken arm. He was advised to take a year off the farm to recuperate. A renter was found to operate the farm and live in the house. Our family moved in with Grandma Langer who lived alone in Watertown. Henry was a baby of a few months, so Grandma had a lively household with four youngsters under her feet.
During this time the baby, Henry, became very ill and Mother became the faithful nurse, caring diligently for her child. One day Grandma saw my mother crying and told her not to cry because the baby was going to die anyway. She had seen a dove fly across the room–a sure sign the baby would not live. Mother was upset by such superstition and earnestly prayed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus to heal the child. She also agreed that if Jesus wanted him in heaven, she would be willing to let him go later, but to now let him recover, if only to prove there was no foundation for this superstitious idea. Henry recovered and became a chubby, healthy boy. After six months at Grandma’s, we went by train to stay with my Aunt Dora and Uncle Henry Berg in Los Angeles, California. They had no children, so this was a new experience for them. Dad took the older boys out for some of the sights. Other times Aunt Dora kept the little ones or all four of us children while Mother and Dad took longer tours. I was two going on three and have no memories except hearsay and snapshots of the California vacation.
After four months, we prepared to come back to Watertown. Both Francis and Leo came down with the mumps just before we left, so what to do now? A kind neighbor advised Mom to put a warm coat on each boy, turn up the collars, and tie scarfs around their necks. Thus they were smuggled on the train, mumps and all, without difficulty. We had a private drawing room so we were to ourselves for the entire trip. Henry and I stayed well and we must have been sufficiently immunized because to this day we have never contracted the mumps.
The last two months of our year off the farm, we rented a funny orange colored house near Grandma’s in Watertown. Then in due time we moved back to our farm.
Back in the 1920’s, winters were cold and sometimes very stormy. The winds blew in through the cracks around the doors and windows. We heated the house with a small wood burner in the dining room (the room with the wood floor) until the really cold weather set in. Then Dad set up a coal burning stove, which was our main source of heat. This warmed the living room, downstairs bedroom and two upstairs bedrooms. The heat from this stove entered the second floor through a hole in the ceiling. It never became very warm up there so we undressed and dressed downstairs in back of the coal stove and ran up and down the stairs as fast as we could go.
The next few years we spent growing up. The older boys were in grade school which was walking distance from our home. Henry and I spent most of our time outdoors in the summer playing in the yard east of our house. When we were about seven, we took on little chores like bringing wood into the house for our kitchen stove, gathering eggs, feeding chickens and helping in the garden. I began doing more around the house, learning to help Mother prepare the meals, cleaning and dusting, and helping put in the garden, picking berries and cherries and canning fruits and vegetables. Besides being an excellent homemaker, Mother was an accomplished seamstress. She had a beautiful sewing machine on which she mended, made clothes for us and sewed things for the house. I thought my day had come when I could use her machine. She taught me to sew my own clothes from a pattern, and make towels, etc. for the house. Mother also was good at fancy needlework and crocheting, and taught me those arts. I learned to embroider pillowcases and dresser scarfs and to crochet edges on them. Mother was a good teacher and was always generous with her praise. I will be eternally grateful for the early training I received from her.
My first steps in my educational career were an interesting experience. When I was six years old, Mother started preparing me for school, a real kindergarten experience. It was important to be polite to my teacher and always answer with “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” I learned to count to one hundred, to write my name and to recite and write the letters of the alphabet and my numbers which provided me with a good deal of penmanship practice. At the village general store in Clyman, Mother purchased the necessary school supplies, including the Winston Primer from which I had my first reading lessons. I was a happy little girl and eagerly waited for the beginning of my first school days never realizing all the years of study that would follow.
My first day of school is still vivid in my mind. Leo and I walked to school that sunny September morning in 1923 with our lunch buckets in hand. Francis had graduated from Grade 8 in the spring of that year and was now home helping Dad on the farm. Leo, who was an 8th Grader, took me into the one-room schoolhouse, showed me where to put my lunch pail, etc. and introduced me to my teacher, who assigned me to a desk in front of Leo. I was very shy and knew if he was near me I had nothing to fear. But then he went out to play with the other boys and I was alone with my teacher. She took me to the blackboard and started writing phrases from my reader in manuscript and reading them for me. It seemed very strange that she did not write like Mother taught me, but I let it be. After some time passed she wrote manuscript and the cursive underneath it. I was really puzzled about this, but never admitted I could read the cursive. She could have saved herself much time.
Busy work in First Grade was just that, — stringing beads, taking tiny letters out of a box and building the story in my reader, drawing and coloring pictures, building with one-inch colored sticks. I never found out what I was supposed to learn from that and it seemed like a foolish waste of time. Later when I learned to read better, I was permitted to go to the library shelves and take out books whenever I needed something to do. Since there were few books, I read and reread the same books. I realized I needed to make good use of my time, and I did.
The annual enrollment was small, maybe anywhere from seven to thirteen in the entire school. The Lutherans had their own school, so our Lutheran neighbors attended it until they reached Grade 8 when they transferred to the public school. I was the only pupil in my grade all the way through, which was to my advantage. I finished the first four grades in three years and never really understood how it happened. My parents were pleased with my progress, but grade level never was a topic we discussed.
Due to enrollment fluctuation when I was in Grade 7, Henry and I were the only pupils in the school. A neighbor girl, who was enrolled in Grade 8, was ill and died shortly after school began. Dad, a school board member, hired the teachers and helped set up policies for the school. During the school year 1928-29, we had a teacher in her second year of teaching, with only two pupils, Henry and me. During the winter months our teacher boarded at our home. That winter was bitter cold with lots of snow. Dad went to the County Superintendent and explained the situation to him. The Superintendent realized the dilemma. The teacher and her two pupils had to trudge through the cold and snow to a cold school room, start a fire in the heater and shiver while still clothed in coats, caps, mittens and boots until the room warmed up enough so that they could remove them and get ready for class. The Superintendent agreed with Dad that the sensible solution was to have our classes right in our home during the winter months, provided we kept our school schedule. No problem. By this time we had installed a hot water furnace which provided central heating. My (west) bedroom became our classroom, the teacher’s bedroom was the adjacent (east) guest room and I roomed downstairs in the small bedroom at the northwest side of the house. It was an experience like I’ve never heard of, with home tutoring at its best. Now my favorite story of my grade school years was the winter I spent in Grade 7 at home, the most interesting of all my years in grade school.
The next year the school was closed and we transferred to the village school in Clyman where I first learned to live and work with a large number of children–32 in all eight grades. In spring of that year I was out of school several weeks with pneumonia, but I returned in time to take the achievement test which could exempt the Eighth Graders from their final eighth grade exams. I succeeded, scoring at the 98th percentile, thanks to my ambition for school and learning. In June of 1930 I joined the graduates of the Dodge County Public Schools to receive my 8th Grade diploma from the County Superintendent himself.
After graduation it was decided that I would not attend high school. Mother did not want me to enter Juneau High School which was in our school district and preferred a Catholic High School which would have been St. Mary Springs Academy in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Two of my friends were attending there and Mother felt that would be her choice, but since she wasn’t physically strong, I was needed to stay home to assist with the work in the house and garden. I never questioned the logic of all this, but I realized she needed me so I improved my skills in the household arts which I had been gradually learning along the way. I also spent lots of time reading, doing needlework and enjoying music on our first radio which we had installed. My brothers did not attend high school either so I was quite agreeable about it although deep in my heart I wished I could have gone.
About this time it was discovered that I had scoliosis. This hampered my activity as I had to wear a spinal brace until I was sixteen. Also I could not do really heavy work, so I’m glad (sad) to say I never milked a cow. However, there were plenty of other things to be done around the farm. I drove the horses on the hay fork, my only contact with horses. Otherwise, my early activities were of the less strenuous kind within the household. My early memories of good times were our frequent visits with aunts and uncles and their families. We cousins knew each other well from frequent get-togethers for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and just Sunday afternoon visits. Our most frequent visits were with the Uncle John Langer family, Dad’s only surviving brother, who lived about two miles away. These visits always left me with happy memories. John’s daughter, Margaret, and I were close in age and I liked her very much. We still keep in touch although she lives in Fond Lac since she married.
Other interesting activities included church bazaars and suppers (ours as well as the Lutherans), barn raising followed by barn dances, quilting bees, card parties, box socials, and the like. We frequently visited the Haases, who lived a five-minute walk across the field. I recall winter evenings when we were normally snowed in, we’d trudge through the snow to play cards with them. Dad, my older brothers and Mr. Haase played sheepshead while Mrs. Haase, Mother, Henry and I played rook, a game now hard to find. The cards were numbered one to thirteen in four colors, black, red, green and orange. It played something like 500. We enjoyed these evenings very much.
Are you asking, “What is a box social?” It is a money-raising event for some good cause. We had them maybe once a year at our school to raise funds for school materials. Each woman made a box lunch for two people, packed it into a fancy box and took it to the social. The men would bid on the boxes not even knowing on whose box they were bidding. The highest bidder on the box shared the lunch with the person who brought it. Dad usually knew which was Mother’s box, so that was the one on which he would bid. Anyone who knew the trick could bid it up to a very high price, like maybe two or three dollars in those days.
Being a farmer’s daughter, I did have opportunities to help with outdoor work on the lighter side. I did some corn husking, planting and picking up potatoes, gathering eggs, feeding chickens, caring for hens hatching their chicks, feeding baby chicks, gardening, gathering strawberries, raspberries, plums, cherries and apples from our trees.
We had music in our house mostly by playing records on an old Edison phonograph. A radio was installed sometime during the 1920’s. It was a battery-operated set, with three dials to locate a station and three more to adjust the sound. You almost had to be a genius to operate it and Poynette was about the only station we could hear. The music was mostly cowboy songs and ballads.
When I was about ten years old, I was surprised one morning by a truck delivering a piano to our house. I never remembered how it happened, nor do I remember wanting one. My cousin Margaret had a player piano and I liked playing on hers. Maybe that gave my parents the idea, so we could have more music in our house. I took piano lessons from a lady in Clyman–twenty-five cents an hour. Francis had Uncle Otto’s violin and later Leo had a banjo. Henry had a small drum on which he kept the rhythm going. Francis and Leo took lessons for a while and the four of us played together. We tried, but never became professionals.
My mother sometimes got sick with spells. When this happened, Leo cooked. This happened on one Thanksgiving. My father would go to a tavern and play keno till he won a goose. My mother got a spell when she was cooking the vegetables to go with the goose. The doctor was called and he told my mother to stay in bed. So Leo did the goose, dressing, potatoes and gravy. (Francis would be helping his father with chores while Leo helped his mother, as needed.) In the late 1920s, my mother was taken to the hospital in Fond du Lac due to hemorrhaging. She spent six weeks in the hospital. She received radiation treatments. I suspect she had cancer. While she was in the hospital, one of the Gritzbauch girls came out to help.
I helped my mother a lot in the kitchen. She taught me to make a cake. By the time I was sixteen, I could cook a meal. One time, I tried unsuccessfully to slaughter a chicken.
Laundry was a big job, especially since we had no running water. We collected rain water in barrels outside which was used for washing since it was soft water. We would heat this water for the washing and use cold well water for rinsing. We made our own soap. During the winter, we used washboards to scrub the clothes and then hung the clothes outside. During the summertime, we used a gas or kerosene-powered washing machine. We could not use this machine inside which is why we washed by hand in the winter. We would start at 7:30 a.m. and finish at 11:30 a.m.
By the time I was about 12, I was responsible for housecleaning which was done on a weekly basis. I used a wet mop for the kitchen and a dust mop for the rest of the house. The boys took the carpeting outdoors to clean. My mother told me when cleaning the boys’room: “Don’t look in their drawers.” My mother helped with the yearly cleaning which included ironing curtains, washing windows and cleaning closets.
Many memories of our early Christmases remain in my mind. Every Christmas we attended Midnight Mass, weather permitting. This meant we had to go to bed early so that we could be awake for the services. We also attended another Mass the next day. The singing was beautiful. My brothers were altar boys and I was proud to see them serving Mass. Later they joined the choir since they both had good voices and did very well.
Santa Claus always came early after we had gone to bed before Midnight Mass. Mother had the tree and presents ready in the parlor, and while we were sleeping, she moved the Christmas tree and presents out of the cold winter parlor into the living room. Little did we know what was hidden behind that door and never did we question the whole Santa Claus myth. Did we dare?
We had a small artificial tree standing on the sewing machine. Every evening Mother placed the tree on the dining room table and lit the candles. We sat quietly and watched the candles burn about ten minutes after which they were extinguished and the tree returned to the sewing machine. We did this nightly until a second set of candles was used up and then the tree disappeared until the next year.
Among my special and most treasured presents from Santa Claus was a doll about 24 inches tall, not a work of art by today’s standards, but I liked her and named her Maryann. Another special gift was a set of china dishes of about 18 pieces. I played with them only when I was sure nothing would be broken. I don’t know what happened to Maryann, but my dishes probably went to Jean, Carol and Mary, my three oldest nieces and the dishes probably got broken.
My first doll was rather special because she was Gertrude’s doll. She had beautiful curly hair, glass eyes that opened and closed and jointed legs and arms. I named her Marcella after my sister who died right after birth.
Religion was important in our family. Even as a baby I always went to Mass since there was no babysitter for me to stay with. I remember seeing my dad and brothers saying night prayers before going to bed. When we were small, Henry and I said our prayers at Mother’s knee until we knew how to do it on our own. Since we rose at different times, morning prayers became our own responsibility. During May and October we prayed the rosary together every evening unless we had devotions in Church which we always attended. During Lent, we also prayed the rosary nightly unless we attended Lenten services in Church on Friday and Sunday evenings. These devotions were very important in our home and we always participated as a family. Sunday Mass was always attended by the whole family. We had a family pew where we sat together unless the boys were serving the Mass or singing in the choir.
Our religious education was taken care of by Mother. She saw to it that we learned our catechism for our weekly classes held by our pastor. She also instructed us for Confession and Communion. First Communion Day was made special by a family celebration after Mass. We had our baptismal sponsors invited for our dinner and spent the afternoon visiting.
During the summers we had two Sisters who spent four weeks teaching us religion during the month of July. Classes were held during the mornings beginning with Holy Mass. These began after Francis and Leo were out of school, so Henry and I were the only ones who benefitted from them. I enjoyed going to these classes because the Sisters taught us songs and told us stories about Jesus and the saints and other interesting stories. Perhaps this is where a seed of a religious vocation was planted, because I never thought much about being a Sister before this. I did begin to play a sister and Henry played a priest at home. Mother made some clothes for me and dressed me up like a Sister and I’d parade around the house. I didn’t do this often, nor for other people, only at home when we played by ourselves.
The Dodge County Fair in Beaver Dam was one yearly event I always anticipated. We packed our lunches and stayed all day. There were circus acts, which I did not enjoy at all. I was afraid of the high trapeze acts and the wild circus animals and was always glad when they were finished. I liked the exhibits, but the barns were always too smelly and I preferred the household exhibits. The bingo games attracted me because I was a good winner in those days. One evening after our lunch, Dad took our things to the car and Mother and I played bingo–two cards for a quarter. On the first game I won a beautiful Indian blanket. We played a second and I won another. We played a third and neither of us won. Two blankets for seventy-five cents seemed pretty good, so we marched off to meet Dad, as I proudly carried my two blankets, one under each arm. Dad was surprised and took them to the car and off we went to play more bingo where I won more prizes. In the evening we enjoyed the fireworks, which ended a really enjoyable day.
Every Fourth of July I looked forward to celebrating with the Uncle John Langer family, alternating each year. We supplied ourselves with firecrackers, sparklers and such, and had fun sharing our excitement. We were always careful and never had an accident with our firecrackers.
Sometimes when driving home at night, we’d come upon a band of gypsies in two or three cars. I would be very scared and was always relieved when they were out of sight. They never really bothered us, but they would stop during the day in the village and shoplift in the stores. After they left town, the shopkeepers stood on their front steps to compare their losses.
One day, Dad was driving the cows home from pasture across the road. Some gypsies came along, stopped and began asking questions. While they were talking, they wished him good luck so he would not have heart trouble or rheumatism–while they were feeling his pockets for something to steal. Dad said he just stood there not realizing what was going on until all of a sudden he told them they had better move along because the cows were getting restless and might break through the fence. All he had on him was a gold pocket watch which they did not find. He was lucky that day.
Every year we took a trip to Holy Hill, which was not far from where we lived. Cars traveling at about 25 miles per hour made it seem longer than it really was. We packed a lunch and arrived in time for the Sunday Mass. After Mass we picnicked on the grounds and later visited the gift shop. This was a treat because there were so many interesting things to see. We always bought some remembrances from the store.
Sometimes we went to visit Mother’s Aunt Sophie who lived in Benton, Wisconsin. We would leave early and stay overnight because it was a long trip. I enjoyed the trip more than the visit because I wasn’t much interested in the conversation. We also drove to Darlington, Wisconsin to visit Sister Ernesta Klecker, my first cousin. She always looked at me as though she would like me to become a Sister, or at least I thought she did, and I was not too much interested in that. Later, when her dad, my Uncle Ernest, died we visited Sister Ernesta again when she was teaching at St. Aloysius in West Allis, a school where I also taught in the 1960’s. It was some years later when I made her aware of my plans to become a Sister. She was pleased and came to the Motherhouse the day I entered.
In 1930 my godparents, Aunt Annie and Uncle Ed, took me to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Aunt Annie’s sister, Ella Frodl, also went with us. We left on a Friday and stayed in an upstairs flat with friends of Uncle Ed’s. It was a dingy place, I thought, crowded and smokey, and I did not get a good impression of Chicago. We enjoyed the fair all day Saturday. On Sunday we went to Church and after dinner toured the Brookfield Zoo which had just opened; my first trip to a zoo. I really had a good time.
Life on the farm was always busy during the spring through autumn months, with more leisure time in winter. During the winter months the outdoor work consisted mostly of daily chores and any kind of indoor work that could be picked up. This left more time for being together in the house when we could read or play games. One of the games we played was two-handed pinochle. Dad and my brothers were great players. Dad liked to play with me so he could laugh when he beat me. I never liked that, but when I beat him, he’d say he let me win the game, and I didn’t like that either. I knew I really beat him, because I had the cards to do it.
Every year, during the week before Christmas, we usually butchered three hogs for our food supply. This was a lot of work from the last squeal to the first sample of the finished product. Everyone was into the act. After the meat was cut up, the fat had to be ground by hand and rendered (heated to separate the fat from the gristle). Then the lard was poured into jars to harden and stored in the cellar to be used later for cooking. Other parts were prepared in various ways. The hams and bacon were prepared and hung in the smoke house where a low fire was kept burning to cure the meat. On the evening of the butchering we ground the meat for barley sausage (graupenwurst). We had a large wooden tub about four feet long, fifteen inches wide and twelve inches deep. All the ingredients were placed into the tub and Dad mixed them by hand. Then a sausage stuffing machine was attached to the tub and the fun began. Dad did the stuffing, some of us did the tying and Mother cooked the sausages in a large boiler until they were done and taken outside where we had a “deep freeze barrel.” Some of the sausages were held back for our sampling party and were they ever good. The Haases joined us in the party, and a good time was had by all.
Our “deep freeze barrel” was half filled with straw and ice and snow. The meat for use during the winter months could be kept frozen in that barrel until the warm weather. In this way we had good fresh meat for weeks after the butchering was done.
One winter, we had a milk strike when no farmer was allowed to haul milk to the cheese factory. I don’t remember too much about the rationale behind the strike, but we had several hundred pounds of milk daily which had to be dumped or fed right to the pigs. Farmers who hauled their milk ran the risk of meeting up with protestors who dumped it for them on the roadside.
This experience took us back to much earlier times when people churned their butter by hand. However, some people did try using the washing machine, but we never did. Every day after the milk was cooled, we skimmed off the cream at the top and put it in the basement, the only really cool place we had. After a few days we poured the cream into a large churn and by hand we churned it until the butter began to thicken in the churn. Then we placed the butter in a large wooden bowl and washed out the buttermilk with cold water while kneading it with a wooden spoon. The butter was made into molds to be put into a cold place for future use. The buttermilk left in the churn could be used in cooking or for drinking. What couldn’t be used was fed to the pigs.
We whipped lots of cream and covered our cakes and desserts with it. What could not be used, we churned into butter. In all, we made about fifty pounds of butter and ten gallons of ice cream. Making ice cream was not too successful because we had no cold place to keep it frozen except a snowbank which was not cold enough. So we just ate it and chalked the effort up to a good try.
Late July and early August was harvesting time. It was a time of hard work for our neighborhood. Dad had a threshing machine to harvest the grain. About ten of the neighboring farmers were on his threshing route. He would move the machine from one to the other to thresh their grain. While he was paid for the service, all the neighbors furnished horses, wagons and help to do the jobs. It was always an exciting time, I thought, to see all the activity. The women worked together to prepare the meals for the threshers who were about eighteen in number. The meals were well-prepared and the threshers “ate like threshers.” (Now I know where that expression originated.)
A couple other things I remember about my childhood. During the 1930s, my father got the job of taking care of Holy Assumption Cemetery which adjoined the farm. This is where my sisters Gertrude and Marcella were buried and where later my parents were buried. Leo and Francis would capture pigeon fledglings from the nests and would sell them for spending money.
On the morning of August 16, 1933 Dad had just moved the threshing machine home to finish his last job. It was a hot day and he never spared himself when work had to be done. The plan was to do the threshing and then to have a keg of beer. All the preparations were finished and the work was about ready to begin when he stepped up on the machine to make an adjustment. He fell backwards, striking his head and shoulders on the ground. He was pronounced dead of a broken neck at 58 years of age. The cause of the accident was never determined– whether it was a stroke, a heart attack, or just an accidental fall. The kind neighbors rallied to finish the threshing that afternoon while the grieving family went about preparing for the sad days ahead.
Dad’s death made many changes in our family. With great difficulty Mother took over the full burden of a caretaker. Francis and Leo were in their early twenties, and Francis being the eldest, ably shouldered his responsibilities on the farm, with the help of our Uncle John Langer as adviser. Plans were already made for Leo’s marriage to Alta Plasil, which occurred six weeks later. Leo and Alta moved to an adjacent farm which Dad had purchased some months earlier. Henry at fourteen had graduated from grade school and stayed on the farm to help Francis. Mother and I took care of the household and helped out whenever we could. Without a machine, the cows were milked by hand. Mother helped with milking whenever she could. I was not allowed to help in the barn because of my back problem. We adjusted as best we could and lived a day at a time. Francis was dating Gertrude Hofmann, a lovely girl whom Mother and I knew and respected very much. I remember doing to the dishes with her and talking about my hope to enter the convent. As his plans for marriage were materializing, Mother and I began making plans to leave the farm after the wedding and move to Watertown. My mother did not want to live with her daughter-in-law. My maternal grandmother was aging and needed care and her house had room for the two of us. This is how the chips seemed to fall into place, and Mother and I ended our life on the farm in Clyman in the year 1934.
I was and still am grateful to God for what those seventeen years of life on the farm did for me and I cherish many fond memories of those years, many of which I write about here and many more that I have forgotten. I like driving down County Trunk M and past what was our farm and recall the happy days spent there, but always there remains a twinge in my heart that the last year was so tragic, losing a father just when we needed him most. We say “Man proposes and God disposes”, so we just put all in God’s hands and still cherish the happy times we had there. We know God was always with us and still cares for us, so I end this part of my life with THANK YOU, GOD.
Part II – Vocation
Seventeen years on the farm were left behind and many happy as well as sad memories remain. I realized I had to look ahead to prepare for my future. I pleaded with God to help me make a right choice of a vocation and I trusted in his guidance.
One year later, Mother and I completed our plans to leave the farm to Francis and Gertrude and we moved in with my maternal grandmother who was aging and in need of care. As I began thinking of the Religious Life, the awareness just seemed to come from a growing interest and I read every story and article I could find — which were not very many at that time.
During this year Dad, was missed very much and Mother and I took the days as they came, trying to reestablish ourselves to a whole new way of life in Watertown. Since my early years were on a farm and I found it a challenge to adjust to city life, daily Holy Mass gave Mother and me the support we needed. I took walks downtown and spent time with relatives in Watertown. Also at this time, I did much praying and frequently visited with the Sisters at St. Henry’s who were very supportive and helped me find my way through the year as I was becoming more sure of my vocation.
Around September 1, 1935, I entered the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. These Sisters had been my summer religion class teachers and I knew them quite well. Also Sister Augusta Klecker was a sister of my Uncle Ernst and Uncle Frank Klecker. Sister Ernesta Klecker and Sister Florence Stangler were my cousins. Later more cousins joined us – Sister Mary Ellen Stangler, Sister Joan Emily Kaul, Sister Mariel Kreuziger and Sister Lucille Coughlin. We formed a good-sized group of cousins.
Our first Motherhouse was located on the east side of Milwaukee about five blocks from Lake Michigan in the present downtown area. When this place was selected in the 1850s, it was a wilderness area just outside of the city limits and the city just grew up around it. Our first property began with a small piece of land and a “house with four chimneys,”– a former Protestant rectory. As girls began to join the Congregation, the building had to be enlarged until it finally enclosed an entire city block. The interior was a lovely garden with beautiful trees, flowers and walks. A beautiful grotto of our Lady of Lourdes, a fountain stocked with goldfish, a large outdoor porch for our infirm Sisters and a recreation area which was blacktopped for outdoor sports like volley ball, tennis, softball and other games which could be contained in a rather small area. At times a ball would go through a window, but with care this did not happen too often.
By the time I arrived in 1935, we had city smoke and noises, odors from the chocolate factory and tannery or just ordinary city pollution which we endured, not knowing about health hazards in those days. Street noises included noisy children playing their games on the streets, vendors calling out their wares, streetcars clanging their bells and newsboys calling out the latest disaster with a special edition. An example of this was the time back in the late thirties when we were awakened in the middle of the night with a newsboy right below our windows calling out something like this. EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT. EXTRA. FRANCE DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY. EXTRA, EXTRA. That woke us up in a hurry.
My entrance day arrived on September 1, 1935. Francis drove Mother and me to Milwaukee where I entered at our Motherhouse on Milwaukee Street. After I dressed in the attire of a candidate, a simple black dress and cape with a short veil for chapel and after I spent some time with my relatives, we said our good-byes and they left for home.
A candidate was appointed as my “guardian angel” to help me find my way around the candidature area which included our classrooms and living quarters. The entire group of students, including the new members, brought our student body up to 100 members. It was a large number of names to remember, but in time I learned all of them. Our own Sisters were our teachers who were qualified to teach on the college level.
Visiting day occurred one Sunday a month. If our relatives could not come, we spent the time writing letters. Watertown was fifty miles away, Mother had no car nor could she drive, Francis and Leo were on farms, and Henry was too young to drive, so a trip to Milwaukee was often inconvenient for them. Although the inter-urban train ran from Watertown to Milwaukee, they did not use it.
After my 8th Grade graduation in 1930, I did not attend high school, so I needed to earn these credits to prepare myself for college entrance. This took me three years, during which time I finished my high school and began my college work. Our days were spent in regular class work and study. Evenings were spent in recreational activities and in study time. On Saturdays, we performed our assigned cleaning tasks and other duties and had extra study time. Sundays were special, but we always remembered we had classes on Monday, so some time went into preparation. A library next to our study hall provided plenty of books for research and recreational and spiritual reading. Summers included time for study which afforded an opportunity to earn some college credits before the Novitiate year began.
Our candidature provided many good times. Christmas was special with the caroling, choir practice for the Christmas services and all the decorations and preparations to make that time of year so special. We decorated the house until the Christmas spirit was visible everywhere. Our Christmas vacation included time for visits with relatives and time for letter writing, time for reading and time for play. As Christmas vacation ended, we returned to classes again. But we knew there were other holidays coming up–Epiphany, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Reception of our candidates into the Novitiate, Profession of the Novices and Jubilee celebrations of our Sisters.
In the candidature and novitiate departments, all of the housework was done by the candidates and novices under the supervision of the Sisters. About 100 of us were divided into smaller groups and set to work in the various departments and the house was covered. Dishwashing machines were not invented in the thirties, so we were the dishwashers. We divided off into shifts until all the work was finished. We never saw any hired help except one chauffeur and several maintenance men. The rest we did ourselves and I would say no one would ever say we were overworked.
Most of our days during the school year were spent in intensive study in preparation for our future work. Our aptitudes were evaluated so those who were designated as teachers were given intensive training for that work. Others were trained to be homemakers, seamstresses, artists, each according to her aptitudes. Our main thrust was in education, since Mother Theresa founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame to be an educational congregation, and so my training was in preparation for teaching. My immediate needs were to earn my high school diploma so I took the regular high school courses. These requirements being fulfilled, I began working for my Bachelor’s Degree which would continue during my Novitiate year and on into my early years of teaching. Our college work was done mostly at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee with summer school sometimes in other centers. I spent several summers at Longwood, Illinois, St. Mary’s, Prairie du Chien and one summer at St. Norbert’s in De Pere. All of these experiences spelled hard work and lots of fun. The candidature period ended with a more intensive training as postulants, followed by an eight-day retreat in perfect silence ending with Reception Day itself. This would be a great day in the history of the Congregation because 56 girls in my class were making the free will decision to consecrate their lives to the Lord in the service of His Church.
On July 19, 1938, we entered the Chapel singing the Magnificat. The Celebration of the Liturgy followed, after which I received the habit, white veil, a crown of roses and lilies and a name with the words– Jeanette, from this day forward you shall be called Sister Mary Grace– and our Novitiate was now beginning. After Mass and breakfast, we spent the rest of the day visiting with our relatives. It was a great day of celebration for the entire Congregation and many Sisters came to visit the new Novices, some of whom were their relatives or former pupils. At noon, a special dinner was served for the guests, while the new Novices began observing the rule of not dining with their relatives. In the afternoon we did more visiting with relatives and at five o’clock visiting was over for the day, to be continued the next day. At the end of the second day of visiting our strict enclosure began.
Our Novitiate year was spent in study, prayer, reflection and instructions on the Rule we were preparing to live. There were also celebrations like Christmas, Easter, etc. and the Novices who did the choir singing spent much time in practice. We also had some preparation for teaching which most of us would be assigned to do after we took our Vows. This year also ended with an eight-day retreat and much excitement as we made immediate preparations for the day we would take our temporary vows and consecrate our lives to God for three years.
July 20, 1939 was the special day selected for our First Temporary Profession. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, as we lined up in procession to the beautifully decorated chapel for our Profession ceremonies. A beautiful Mass sung by us Novices was followed by the ceremonies which included the changing of the white veil for the black veil of the Professed Sister. We solemnly professed our Vows and ended by singing the Salve Regina as we left the chapel. The rest of the two days were similar to the year before with visiting our guests. Both of the days were spent with my mother who was present for all the ceremonies. Because of the limited space in our chapel, we could not have many guests for the ceremonies, but the rest of the days could be spent visiting with our families in the beautiful convent garden on Milwaukee Street.
The next few weeks were spent in preparation for our new assignments. We lived in great anticipation of the day we would receive our appointments and excitement spread everywhere. Finally the day arrived when we were called together and received our assignments to our new place of work, when to go and how to get there. Within a few days we were on our way.
My first assignment was St. Mary’s School in Port Washington, Wisconsin with a class of about 45 boys and girls in the 5th Grade. My grade school experience was in a one room country school, so needless to say, I was overwhelmed at the size and expectations of my class. With help from my principal and my Sisters, I survived this assignment for nine years. After this time, I was transferred to SS. Peter and Paul’s School in Milwaukee where I continued as teacher of Grade 5.
After six years in Milwaukee, I had completed fifteen years of teaching. During these years, I had the opportunity to attend classes at Mount Mary College and completed my work toward my bachelor’s degree in 1954. My years in the Milwaukee Archdiocese with its rigid educational rules, provided good preparation for my next assignment which came in 1954.
My next transfer read St. Mary’s, Galena, Illinois, where I taught for eight years. My classes depended on classroom sizes in this smaller school. Grades 5 and 6 or Grades 6 and 7 fell to my lot. I loved this place, country air, country people and an atmosphere of small country living. Galena is a historical city and it grew on me as well as the school, people and parish. I like to think of this period as my favorite teaching experience, and fondly recall many incidences of this, my only out-of-state assignment. The unique memory of my teaching in Galena was the freedom with which I could teach. Fifteen years of Milwaukee Catholic School System was good preparation to carry on my own methods and I felt it was a very successful experience.
During the summer weeks, we closed the house because of the intense heat and humidity, and came to our Milwaukee Motherhouse for retreat and for summer work. My time was spent in the needlework department sewing and embroidering on Church vestments.
In June of 1958 my mother died and I made my home-visit to be at her death and funeral. The next four summers I studied at Mount Mary College and earned a certificate in Theology. This was followed by another transfer,– to West Allis, Wisconsin and Grade 7 at St. Aloysius School in 1962.
My seven years at St. Aloysius were enjoyable and much like my Galena experience. 7th Grade was new to me and I especially enjoyed teaching the math. About this time the so called New Math came on the scene and I had a real struggle with that. Also at this time, the metric system was introduced to confuse us. Mount Mary offered special classes to update the teachers, so we always had help along the way.
In 1965 I began courses at Marquette University toward a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would do such a thing, but I was strongly supported by my Sisters and I survived. My work was completed and graduation was in May of 1970. Also this summer I was asked to teach a course at Mount Mary College to lay teachers who were new to modern math in grade school– my one and only experience teaching in a college. You better believe I had butterflies in my stomach, but I really enjoyed the teaching while the students knew nothing about the butterflies. I think the title, Sister, was in my favor because they were always very respectful and we had a profitable summer.
During the summer of 1971 I received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study modern math in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Here is another time I was encouraged by the Sisters. I applied to several places, — San Francisco (I turned it down because I feared earthquakes); DeKalb, Illinois (I turned it down because it was too close to home); Catholic University, Washington, D.C. (No room and I didn’t even make the alternate file); Princeton and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I turned down Princeton and chose Gettysburg because it was a historical city). About three weeks before I was ready to leave, I received a call from Catholic U – all alternates used up, I was pulled from the rejects and offered my chance. Too many preparations were made for Gettysburg, so I stayed with that and I was never sorry.
My summer in Gettysburg was most enriching, both in modern math and in history. We had class in the mornings and extra help optional for those who needed it in the afternoons. I made friends with a couple from Wyoming who drove with their own car to Gettysburg. While his wife was in class in the mornings, he scouted around for something special to see, and with three Sisters, we managed to get to see some very interesting sights. Beside this, the college sponsored a bus trip for all fifty of us for the Fourth of July. However, we had class on the Fourth and took another whole day for our wonderful trip to Washington, D.C. where we spent time at the Capitol, the White House, the grounds, the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum, Arlington Cemetery and much more. We slept well that night.
My years in West Allis came to an end in 1969 and I started my final years of teaching at St. Agnes in Butler, Wisconsin. This was a very large school, with an enrollment of approximately 1000 children in Grades 1 to 8. There were three classes of each grade ability grouped. I had an 8th Grade class for homeroom and taught all the math for the 7th and 8th grades. The students were not up to par due to some mismanagement several years before, both in math and in study habits, so we had some learning to do. However, with the cooperation of the parents, we soon had things going in the right direction. Teaching the math in Grade 8 was a new experience, but I had a new set of math textbooks for them and they were a tremendous help. It was no problem to work up the enthusiasm with the colorful texts and illustrations. I think my ambition helped to arouse many of the students to study. My math classes were the best part of my work in Butler.
My nine years in Butler were difficult in so far as the students were concerned. They were not always cooperative in some ways and it made discipline a problem. Many of the students had too much knowledge about what was happening on the college campuses and didn’t want to remember they were still in grade school. The campus riots, the downtown race riots and many other disturbances affected them adversely, and caused a lot of stress and distraction. The parents were cooperative on the whole, and we tried to work things out as well as we could. However, at the end of nine years, I was ready to look elsewhere for a job.
I might insert here the changes that had come about from the time I began teaching. It was 1978, and from 1939 to 1978 I had gone through thirty-nine years of teaching. I always liked teaching, but by 1978 much had changed in education. In the first fifteen years I taught in Grade 5 in the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Catholic School System. It was a well-organized system with much direction from the Education Office. In 1954 when I went to Galena there was little direction from the office, but my experience in the middle grades made me free to handle my class as I had experienced teaching in Milwaukee. It was a blessing because I had children who were below standard and needed a lot of help and our staff of five Sisters were happy in this situation under our control, and in a few years we brought our classes up to a standard we knew they should be. The pastor, the parents and the children were happy, too. Not to say there weren’t difficulties, but there was nothing we were unable to handle. The children were mostly from the farming area and the city children were cooperative, too.
In 1961 I was back in the Milwaukee area, St. Aloysius, West Allis to be exact. This was a large school with an enrollment of about 1000 students in all eight grades. We managed to handle them in three classes of each grade and experimented with ability grouping. This gave the teacher more time to work with the slower group and prepared them quite well for the next grade. I had the middle group of Grade 7, and after a short time, moved to the upper group after their teacher was removed for health reasons. These children were not too hard to discipline either. After three years we moved to a modified departmental system. One teacher taught all the English, one all the science and I handled all the math. This was a good experience for me, as well as enjoyable. There were a few difficult experiences as might be expected in such a large school, but we managed very well. I taught in this setup for four more years and at the end of seven wonderful years in West Allis, I was called to a new assignment.
St. Mary’s, Butler was another school of about a thousand pupils. Here I was the math teacher for the 7th and 8th grades. Since I was teaching my favorite subject, I had no complaints, except a very unusual text. However after one year, we introduced the revised edition which I liked very much and the students also appreciated it. Now after seventeen years I still meet some of these students who always tell me how much they enjoyed the math. I also had an 8th Grade homeroom where I was responsible for the religion class. Both in West Allis and in Butler, we had more lay teachers than Sisters. Generally we were blessed with good men and women who were very dedicated to their work.
At the end of my ninth year in Butler, I felt strongly it was time for me to move on. After speaking to my counselor at the Motherhouse, we decided it was time and I was asked to look for a job. This was a new experience because before this we were not asked, just assigned to a place, as the Motherhouse counselors made a careful decision to place us were there was a need. This was what happened before I went to Butler, I did not choose, but I was asked if I would be willing to take the 7th and 8th Grade math and an 8th Grade homeroom. In 1978 I was asked for my preference and I was given several offers including an assignment at the Motherhouse in Mequon, Wisconsin. There always was plenty of work there and help was needed in some department. I accepted this assignment and began training as a switchboard operator. I was able to drive, so I did occasional trips and some tutoring. After about eight weeks, I was asked to take on the work of Motherhouse Community Bursar and that is where my money problems began. We had about 100 Sisters living there in a large complex that was once a training center for our candidates. There were many bills to pay. I always enjoyed living without the burden of money and expenses, but now had my full share. I also began taking on some of the work of the provincial finance office. With about 1000 sisters living in the province at the time, and working in various places in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, there was much coordinating of expenses to be done. This is the job I held as we moved from Mequon to Marshall Street in Milwaukee in 1983. I ended my service to the province after teaching 39 years, and 14 years in the finance department for the province and in 1992 at the age of 75 I retired to our home for the sick and retired at Notre Dame of Elm Grove, Wisconsin.