Combined accounts from Mother Caroline of the SSND on her survival of the tragic explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858 in which the beloved Reverend Father Urbanek was lost and how through this tragedy, two slaves influenced her life and career.
“It was on June 13, the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, a Sunday morning between five and six o’clock, about 60 miles from Memphis when the boiler exploded. One single bang and a third of the ship was blown to the sky! Almost 200 people lost their lives, were torn to pieces, burned scalded, crippled or drowned. Among them—O inexplicable destiny – the two Reverend Fathers Urbanek and de la Crosse. The Sister of Charity had the consolation of seeing her Reverend Confessor still alive. Longingly, he asked for Holy Communion, which however could not be given him. Reverend Father Urbanek disappeared without a trace, God alone knows how. I searched and found nothing, everything was useless. I cannot describe my sorrow and the fearful worry that came over me. Naturally speaking, it is inconceivable that I did not lose my presence of mind, even when holding on to the strong cable between fire and water, in order to save my life.
Even in the wooden boat that came quickly and which I grasped happily, life was not a certainty; the boat came too near the flaming steamer and hovered in a great danger of being set on fire by the leaping sparks. Horrible were the lamentations and cries for help of those who were left on the burning ship, who still had hope to be taken by the boats, but the boats had to be pushed away by force in order to avoid being burned themselves. The cries for help were soon stilled; they had become victims of the angry elements. In the boats were 68 passengers……….”
Describing herself as being on deck just standing there, not knowing what to do or where to go…… she was asked how she escaped.
“By a miracle of grace,” she said, “and the aid of a great, huge Negro. The deck glowed – gave way at one end and the rail hurtled into the water. Suddenly, I found a life preserver thrown over my head, and the black man was telling me to jump. When I didn’t move, he thrust a rope into my hand and practically pushed me off the edge, letting me down until I fell upon a heap of people in the lifeboat. Then he plunged in, clambered into the boat and took the oars. But there were sixty-eight of us and the boat was so over weighted that we could hardly shove off. I no longer had a thought for this world. I awaited my death – and prayed. It seemed an eternity that we went winding in and out of seething fire that broke over us in curling waves, threatening to devour us….. Then at last we came to the island Helena.
“That afternoon,” she continued slowly, “ a boat picked us up. ………. I had nothing, no clothes but those that were hanging on me in ribbons, and no money…..Shortly after were underway, I found myself surrounded by a half a dozen American ladies. They had seen me in my drenched and tattered dress and brought me dry garments. Their generosity was something I shall never forget. They vied with one another to give me relief, to show sympathy. One brought me a drink of ice-water, another bathed my face and hands, while another quickly found a suitable dress. They managed to get a stateroom for me and took up a collection to pay my expenses.” There was a faint smile on her lips. “God is with this country,” she said, ”or there would not be such goodness in it. It was enough to overwhelm me.” Now again the tears came into her eyes.
“Reverend Mother, don’t let it upset you. They wanted to help you…”
Mother Caroline shook her head. “It wasn’t only the ladies – it was the slave. What she did was so unexpected and so gracious – and I offended her by being over-scrupulous. She came to me and pressed a five-dollar bill into my hand I thanked her, but said I already had enough to see me home and I could not accept more than I needed [that I wouldn’t take money from a slave]. She took my refusal of her money in the wrong sense. I’m sure she thought me prejudiced and proud, for she said with the greatest dignity, ‘Though I am a slave, I am not poor; and you must know that a slave is also able to do good.’ Before I could explain, she was gone.”
For this misunderstanding, Mother Caroline punished herself with an almost exaggerated self-reproach. But it led her to a worthy decision. Years Later she was to open schools for Negroes, largely in tribute to the generous slave and to the Negro who had saved her life. When she took this further step, these two were foremost in her mind.
From the memoirs of Mother Caroline (SSND) some excerpted from a publication, Running Waters, all provided by the School Sisters of Notre Dame Central Pacific Provence at Jefferson Barracks.
(From Mother Caroline’s schools, came a Negro priest from Quincy, IL)
Mother Caroline assigned Sister Herlinda Sic, SSND to open a day school for the Negro children. The 21 children soon increased to 60. It was so successful, that non-Catholics protested. The school was closed in 1881 but through the efforts of Christian lay people and the Franciscans at St. Boniface, St. Joseph’s was reopened in 1882 as a parish church and school for Negroes supported by St. Boniface parish. S. Herinda returned to teach the children.
Sister Herinda had previously taught Augustine Tolton when he enrolled at St. Peter’s School in 1869 at the age of 15. He was subject to insults and derisive remarks but the pastor and SSNDs remained firm in their belief that he had a right to a Catholic education. Aware of Augustine’s desire to become a priest, Father Michael asked him to give Catechism classes to the black children in Quincy, IL. He helped establish the “Sunday School” in 1877.
Desiring to become a priest he found no seminary in the United States would accept him. With the help of the Franciscans, he was ordained from the international seminary under Rome, in 1866 and was sent to his home diocese and appointed pastor of the St. Joseph’s Negro Church in Quincy.