Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
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Story of ‘Lusitania’ sinking is ‘sad but an enjoyable read’; biography offers insight into Benedictine Sister
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the March 17, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)
My favorite book by Erik Larson is The Devil in the White City, with its dramatic crime story at the World’s Fair
in Chicago in the 1890s. The non-fiction book combines a vivid murder mystery with all the excitement and information on the buildings of the fair and their creators. It becomes a memorable
Larson’s latest non-fiction book is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. The story focuses on early May in 1915. The First World War has been happening in Europe for
almost a year. We follow the people and crew on Cunard Line’s giant passenger ship, the Lusitania. We learn of a number of the guests aboard, especially those in First Class.
The German government has placed an advertisement in the New York papers warning anyone traveling to Liverpool that the ship is traveling in a war zone and might possibly be attacked by
German submarines, called U-Boats.
The most fascinating sections of the book for me are the chapters on the men in U-Boat U-20. The captain is Walter Schwieger, who guides his ship, clearly described in detail, from its
northern German coast to the Irish Sea, and the St. George Straits into the Atlantic. In this large area of sea U-20 is to attack and sink merchant marine ships of the Allies or neutral
Captain William Thomas Turner is in charge of the Lusitania. We read of his career up until the fateful May 1915 sailing of the ship. He comes across as a capable, no-nonsense
leader. Since this is after the sinking of the Titanic there are safety drills and enough emergency small boats for passengers and crew.
There are sections on President Woodrow Wilson and his personal life after the death of his wife and eventual second marriage. All this is within the context of the War and the
possibility of United States’ involvement.
There is a secret War Room in London that is cracking the code between German ships. Sadly, the information from the secret effort does not get to Captain Turner. Also, no British war
vessels are sent to protect the Lusitania as it glides along the Irish Coast near Queenstown.
Captain Schwieger is able to get a direct torpedo shot at the Lusitania and the ship sinks in about 20 minutes.
It is often thought that the sinking of the Lusitania is the cause of America entering the War. But the U.S does not come into the conflict for roughly two more years.
The total number of deaths because of the sinking of the Lusitania were 1,195, plus 3 German stowaways. Of the total, 123 were Americans; 600 passengers were never found.
Erik Larson has a way of making history come alive with a fascinating narrative. The footnotes at the end, which I scanned after reading the book, have many an interesting detail.
Dead Wake is a sad story but an enjoyable read. It is published by Crown Publishers, New York, at $28 in hardcover.
With the assistance of Orbis Press of Maryknoll, N.Y., Tom Roberts, who for years was associated with the National
Catholic Reporter, has produced a wonderful new biography of the famed Benedictine spiritual writer Sister Joan Chittister. The book is titled Joan Chittister: Her Journey from Certainty
to Faith. The list price is $28 in hardcover.
Joan grows up in the midst of domestic violence in western Pennsylvania, with a stepfather who was an alcoholic. At age 15 she seeks to enter the Erie Benedictines and is told she is too
young, but they do take young women at 16. Joan returns at 16 and is told she should finish high school. Her mother meets with the superior to explain how bright Joan is and how wise it would be
to get her out of her home.
Right about the time she seeks to enter the order in 1952, she contracts polio. So with the help of family and the Sisters she struggles to become a Religious Sister.
She is told by a superior that she will be able to enter the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Joan has always wanted to become a writer. After waiting six months or so she is
told that she will not go to the University of Iowa in the fall and she will be the third dishwasher at the Order’s Summer Camp for girls. Somehow in the disappointment Joan is able to follow
the strange request of obedience.
Later, when giving some talks where a group of professors from Penn State University are present, she is asked by them to come and get a Ph.D. in Communications. She does not want to do
it because the order only has a high school and she sees no need for a higher degree. But the superior tells her to do it, as the university will take care of all the costs. So she teaches the
first four days in the order’s high school in Erie and then travels more than 100 miles to Penn State for Friday and Saturday, returning home on Sunday. It’s amazing, but she completes her
degree in two years, and the degree helps her greatly in the leadership roles to which she is elected through the years.
When she is asked to take a leadership role with the 50 independent Benedictine groups, she refuses. As part of a workshop, the Sisters had planted seeds in banana split-like plastic
containers. Joan knew nothing about seed germination. She said if one of the seeds bloomed in three days she would leave her name in the group for possible election. One of the other Sisters
stuck a blooming flower in one of the dishes. Joan kept her name in and won the position.
There is much about her life as a Religious and a spiritual writer throughout the book. But my favorite story is near the end of the book. Joan at a given point feels she is getting
distant from real people and decides to answer every letter she receives from people who have read one of her books. In a given year this might be 1,000 letters. So Joan finds herself giving a
workshop in Perth, Australia when a young couple come in late, dusty and dirty, as if straight out of the Bush. She thinks maybe they are in the wrong room. At the coffee break she makes a
beeline for them. She asks where they are from. The young woman replies from Alice Springs, 1,500 miles away. Joan asks, “How did you get here?” The couple reply that they traveled by walking,
train, bus, and walking some more. Joan asks them, “Why did you come such a great distance?” The young woman tells Joan that when her mother died some seven years ago, she had no one to talk to.
So she wrote Joan, who had responded with a two-page letter that the young woman had framed and takes down and reads each year on the anniversary of her mother’s death.
To this powerful story, Joan later says to herself, “It was a good decision, Joan. That is your ministry.”
The book Joan Chittister gives hope and example for any reader. Don’t miss this treasure.
The German entry for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards was titled Labyrinth of Lies. The film was not among the five nominees in the end. And it played only two weeks at the
Magic Lantern Theater in Spokane.
But it is a film to put on your streaming or DVD list. The story is set in Frankfort in the 1950s. A young prosecutor, Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), finds a society that has never
heard about the Nazi concentration camps. With the help of a supervisor he begins a search for witnesses to the unspeakable events that took place where millions, especially Jews, were
systematically killed in factory-like setting with poisonous gas or gunfire.
Johann struggles to get the basics of what happened out to the German public. In the beginning he is told of a teacher who was a former SS guard. The information and the search for
witnesses eventually lead to a visit to the ruins of Auschwitz.
Another part of the investigation leads to the discovery that Dr. Mengele returns home to Germany from his safe haven in South America occasionally to be with his sick father.
Today, German school children of a certain age are required to visit a concentration camp and see what ordinary people did to other human beings.
Labyrinth of Lies is not a great film, but it is a good film well worth seeing.
The film is rated R-restricted because of a brief scene of sexuality. Catholic News Service has not rated the film.
The new British film The Lady in the Van uses a certain whimsy to tell the story of a British writer of stage plays who allows a homeless woman to live in her van on his driveway.
The story is said to be virtually true. A homeless woman named Mary Shepherd (Dame Maggie Smith) parks her old van in various locations on the street of a tony London suburb named
Camden Town. Mary is not a popular fixture in the neighborhood. She appears messy and dirty at times.
Eventually playwright Alex Bennett (Alec Jennings) allows Mary to park on his property in an area he calls the garden. With cleanliness issues and an independent spirit, Mary stays
on the property for 15 years.
The story also involves a motorcycle accident, a convent, and a famed musical career. For me, the movie also was a meditation on life and death.
As usual, Maggie Smith is outstanding in a role far from her familiar “grande dame” appearance on Downton Abbey.
Alex Jennings as the mild mannered playwright is excellent. The film has him portrayed as two characters: the writer and the neighbor who lives his daily life. For me, the double
character didn’t do much and seemed too artificial.
In very secular England this is a film that is about the Catholic faith as interpreted by the woman in the van.
The film is definitely worth seeing, talking about, and remembering.
The Lady in the Van is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America because of adult situations. Catholic News Service has not yet rated the film.
(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)
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