Aunt Anna Gleason and I share many things: a maiden name (Blanchard), our Catholic faith, our devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the willingness to allow God to take control of our lives (albeit, imperfectly). However, our similarities are nothing compared to our differences.
Aunt Anna was born on September 29, 1915. That’s right – she just turned 99 years old! She is my aunt through a step-family dynamic: her niece is my mother-in-law, Janet, my husband’s stepmother. So, while not an aunt in blood, I can think of no one I would rather count as one of the mentors of my faith! When my mother-in-law traveled in March to visit during Spring Break, I asked her if I could tag along to visit with Aunt Anna, possibly interviewing her for the blog. I figured, when you get a chance to interview a 98 ½ year old faith-filled working Catholic momma, you should do it.
I wasn’t sure what I would discover – I was open to anything. What was revealed illustrated a much deeper truth and saint-filled vocation than I had ever known about beloved Aunt Anna. Standing at not much taller than 4’0, never would one ever want to mistake Aunt Anna for anything other than courageous and strong.
I was greeted by her daughter, Ann, another strong woman of faith. Almost immediately, Ann presented me with an article from the Clarion Herald, the New Orleans Catholic newspaper. The article is about Mother Olga Yagob of the Daughters of Nazareth. The photos depict the humility of both Aunt Anna and Mother Olga, as Aunt Anna responds to Mother Olga’s request for a blessing.
In the picture, I was drawn to Aunt Anna’s hands, fingers a bit crooked with arthritis. But what else? I see women blessing women. I see spiritual motherhood in action. I see humility. I see openness to the holy.
At the opening of our conversation, Aunt Anna and I casually spoke about Saints, Popes and future Saints. At first we were speaking of Pope Francis:
“…he’s – I don’t know – I haven’t watched him…(talking about Pope Francis)…I was impressed by the very first thing he did was ask people to pray for him. And I mean, very humble. And he wanted to pay his own bill in the hotel.”
Then the conversation turned to the upcoming canonization of St. John Paul II.
“Mary: And then what about John Paul II is going to become a saint.
Aunt Anna: Oh, he was wonderful. When he was visiting New Orleans, he jumped down to visit this boy who was playing with his feet. (she was talking about music artist, Tony Melendez)
Ann (her daughter): In the Superdome for the Youth Rally.
Mary: I was at the Youth Rally. I was 15.
Aunt Anna: That was so impressive.”
The conversation quickly turned to the subject of being a teacher. Aunt Anna was a teacher for 51 years, much of that time as a working Catholic momma. Educated at the Louisiana Normal College in Natchitoches, LA (now Northwestern State University – ironically the university I graduated from twice), Aunt Anna’s first travel away from home was the train ride to Natchitoches:
“I never thought I would get to college. When I was young, very few people were going. When I graduated, it wasn’t a very large class. I was the top one. I had some old clothes and stuff and someone brought me to the train in New Orleans. I went by train. I had never been anywhere by myself. I was met at the train station and taken to the college. We would sleep out on the porch at night. Our beds were on the porch. At 10:15 the bell would ring and you had to be in bed. At 6 o’clock in the morning, the bell would ring, you would get up. And then you would eat breakfast and the usual things. The whole year, I didn’t go home until Christmas.”
Her career began in public schools near New Orleans, and ended in private schools.
“I continued teaching at Braithwaite after I was married… The parish closed our school and they built a private academy down there. All the same teachers moved to the academy. And it was a private school. And I taught there for 17 years …in the public schools and the rest of the years in the private schools. And it worked out alright because the private school I could work there longer because of the social security. So that helped out. But that’s how I got the 51 years of teaching.
Mary: So the whole time you were teaching, and even before that your Catholic faith was important?
Aunt Anna: Oh, yes. I’ve had my Catholic faith since I was born. Momma used to take us when I was very little so many years ago. There were not cars like there are now. It was a buggy and a horse. And so we had a horse and my grandparents had a buggy and Momma used to take that. Momma had several sisters in a large family and she always had one of them – somebody to stay with her to take us to go to catechism. So we would go down not too far down from where we lived. It was kind of a long distance to walk – it was across the bayou. In fact, she (Momma) said when I was little that I knew all my prayers in French. One time we were on a train because there wasn’t buses and stuff like that – if we went somewhere it was on a train. We must have gone to visit someone in the family, you know…But there was a Church on the way, and soldiers were coming back on the way and they were making me say my prayers. (laughs). And everywhere that I went, I was a small person, but I knew all of my prayers in French. Momma used to take me and my cousins to church so they could make their communion. I must have made my little communion early, because I took it several times. And I was 11 before I made my first communion. And I had been going to communion before that.
Mary: How did your faith, when you were a teacher, how did your faith influence your profession for you?
Aunt Anna: I don’t know…Sometimes…After we were living in Braithwaite and going to school, sometimes I would go to Mass in the morning. I had gone to Mass in the morning during Lent sometimes, but I had never really gone daily. The priest said, “Well, maybe you could go in the morning sometimes.” So once I started doing that, I found it was easy because Mass was early at 6 a.m., and I’d come back. We were closer to that church. In Braithwaite, our house was here; there was another house here, and the Church was there. We would walk to church in the morning, come back, and that was whenever school. Of course, after I had my kids I always had somebody there with them – somebody to stay there with them. I’m thanking God I took it more seriously.
As with a long-lived life, Aunt Anna experienced the Cross of Christ. Perhaps one of the biggest crosses of her life came 15 years after she was married.
“Mary: You were a single mom for a long time. You were a widow, right?
Aunt Anna: I was married for 15 years. Well, he battled depression. Well, he took his life. It is something I thought I’d never get over. In fact, I’m still at times…you know…And, it was very hard. I’m still not over it. I didn’t know what depression was. So it was really a…and uh, I don’t know…
Mary: So you had to keep working because you had the 3 children…
Aunt Anna: Yes…then I had…it was me. I was the one who had to do it. And I knew I had 3 kids to raise.
Mary: How did your faith play a part in that?
Aunt Anna: Well, I prayed a lot. First of all, it left me there by myself. I had this big black Rosary. I’d get up at night to go check on them (the children) with that Rosary in my hands. That’s what kept me company…that’s what kept me going. And I would take it back to bed with me. Every night it went to bed with me. Went around whatever I did that day. At night, it was my Rosary. I know it is the Lord who saw me through it. I continued to thank God. I’d pray. It didn’t stop me from praying. I wasn’t blaming anybody. I was blaming myself more. I remember Lela (sister-in-law) worried I wasn’t going to make it through.
Mary: So your faith was big then.
Aunt Anna: I was depending on it. I was depending on it. It is what saw me through. And I wasn’t interested in getting mixed up with anybody else, either. I didn’t want anyone else telling my kids what to do. I wasn’t interested…
Mary: You were being the mom…Aunt Anna, you’ve been through a lot.
Aunt Anna: Yes…I’ve lived a good life. I worked hard. I lucked out. Things worked out. I mean, I don’t know. I wasn’t praying for certain things…In fact at the time, I think it was family …tried to tell me to come to where they were…they had some job there…But we had a house…that was our home…Of course, I had to learn how to drive again because I had stopped driving. I didn’t find it hard. I worried. I prayed.”
When I asked Aunt Anna what advice she would give Catholic women, particularly those who work and are mothers, her strong-character was front and center and I found it completely refreshing!
“Mary: So Aunt Anna, there’s a lot of women – Catholic women – who have to work in this day and age. I have to work, and Janet has to work, and a lot of them are moms and have to deal with balancing all of that. What advice would you give them? They want to live a good Catholic lifestyle. And they have to work. What would you tell them?
Aunt Anna: I don’t know. I don’t know how successful I’ve been. I tried for one thing to bring my kids to Mass all the time. I struggled to make the first Fridays of every month. I mean, I would keep them in touch …
Ann: We used to tease because we lived right next door to the Church. Just two houses away. So if the lights were on in the Church we went…
Mary: That’s how I feel we are now…we are the mainstay at the Church.
Aunt Anna: Well it was the most important thing. That’s the thing…at that time when kids were growing up, people were still thinking more about faith. They were taking it, and you had to go to Church. Since then it sort of …the world has taken over. And changing everything. All the people down there used to go to Church. The missions – we’d have a mission at least every year. And when we had a mission, it was always something that was important! They would talk about the things that you needed to do. Now the missions that I’ve gone to lately have not been as impressive to me. You go to it, you talk about a few things…At that time…I listened. And what is it? If you gain the whole world, but you lose your mortal soul… That’s the kind of statements that they would start with! Something like that. To show how important it was for you to keep your faith. I always thought it was important. I mean, I wouldn’t have missed Mass for anything unless I was really sick. But I don’t know…things have changed…the world is changing so much…especially in our country now…there were changes going on before here. I remember my best friend Helen and I went to Europe – landed in Paris and we wanted to go to Mass. Well, it was Sunday. We walked and walked, you know we went into the Church and the Church was bare, so few people in it! I couldn’t believe it, you know. That was after the war.”
One of the best discoveries I made about Aunt Anna concerned her deep prayer life:
“Mary: So, besides the Rosary, you know you talked about praying the Rosary as you were walking through your house with your kids…What other devotions do you have? Do you have devotions to the Sacred Heart? Or to Our Lady of Fatima, or
Aunt Anna: I just…no, I just still say some prayers – I say a lot of prayers!
Ann: Mom, what about St. Bridget of Sweden?
Aunt Anna: Oh…yes.
Mary: Did you do the St. Bridget of Sweden prayers?
Aunt Anna: Yes, I’m still doing them.
Ann: Yes, over and over again…
Mary: OK, I’m about to enter into that. But I’m nervous.
Aunt Anna: Well, I’ve been doing it…I missed it a couple of times, and I can’t see as well. And I remember it if I can start it…and I can’t see too good anymore. But I said those…I wore out…Your daddy gave me that book (talking to Janet)…This one that I’m using now has all pages. And yes, I’m still saying it.
Mary: So you’re still saying. Those are powerful prayers.
Aunt Anna: It is. Sometimes I say them too fast. If I don’t say them fast, I can’t remember them. I wrote the dates here. I have been saying it for years and years and years.
Mary: That’s awesome!
Aunt Anna: I’m still saying it!
Ann: And she had an adoration chapel at Prince of Peace. Always in the Adoration Chapel along with her brothers, Uncle Larry and Uncle Eddie.
Mary: You loved adoration? You liked going to Adoration?
Aunt Anna: Yes. You see when I was in Chalmette, I used to have an hour of Adoration. But it was easy. My house was over on this street…Birch was here. Walked there…And we had the first ones of Adoration…and my hour was Thursday morning or something…and yes, I used to go once a week at least. And I would stop in, sometimes before going into Church…Sometimes before going into Church, I would stop in there. Here, I didn’t start an hour. I go every now and then when I can.”
And then her daughter Ann revealed another incredible fact about this powerhouse of a Catholic woman: her legacy. As a retired school teacher, Aunt Anna decided her 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren needed to experience travel in connection with their faith:
“Ann: Tell Mary about – she has a beautiful spiritual legacy she’s left. Your legacy to the grandchildren and great grandchildren. She took many of her grandchildren on pilgrimages with her or gave them money, those she could no longer take she gave them money in savings accounts for that purpose.
Mary: For them to go on pilgrimages?
Aunt Anna: Yes, when they get older.
Ann: And she just did that with the great grandchildren.
Mary: Oh, my goodness.
Aunt Anna: I took all of my grandchildren – some of them were a little too young when I did, but I mean all of them I paid for them to take a trip…
Mary: Wherever they wanted to go for a pilgrimage? That’s a beautiful legacy.
Aunt Anna: Those that I didn’t take myself, I put the money in the bank for them. Mary Catherine is the only one who hasn’t used hers. Hers has grown because at that time, a couple thousand dollars was all you needed. Now, nothing is that…
Mary: So you’ve blessed lots of generations with your faith?
Aunt Anna: Well, I tried. I’m still trying. I’m still trying. There are still things unaccounted for. I hope I did the best…it’s all I want. So that’s me.”
We ended the interview much like we started: in laughter and in love.
“Mary: You’ve led a good 99 years.
Aunt Anna: Only 98 and a half. 98 and a half!”
Aunt Anna – What an incredible woman of faith – a great role model for working Catholic mommas. She has given it all – her whole life – to Our Lord. And it is a beautiful road of holiness. Simple. Humble. At times, fierce. All the time: Beautiful and Holy. In a letter to her grandchildren, penned by Aunt Anna, she writes:
“Since I first heard of your coming (growing in your mother’s womb) you were in my heart and in my prayers. Our goal here on earth is to live our lives in such a way that we can be with Jesus for eternity. That is one of my daily prayers for all of my family. To achieve this goal, one of the most important things we need to understand is the value of the Mass and Jesus’ presence there.”
In a day and age of blogging, speaking, writing, 15 minutes of fame, hashtagging, etc., Aunt Anna’s understanding comes from a lifetime of faith, hope, and love. Her focus has prepared her well. She is a quiet reminder that faith is LIVED, not presented. This interview reminded me to pray the prayer of humility. Aunt Anna reminded me of my primary vocation as mother and wife. I thank God for Aunt Anna. When I left her home that day, I cried tears of happiness and gratitude that God have given me an opportunity to interview Aunt Anna. Her simplicity, her humility, and her gift of self as a working Catholic mom have served as inspiration to me, and I pray it blesses your journey, as well.
Copyright 2014 Mary Wallace