Sister Mary William talks with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: Apr. 10, 1968 | DURATION: 00:53:44
Interviewing Sister Mary William of Marillac House.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Well, we hear that word "commitment" so often and how often is it really put into practice? You know, we hear of the white community finally awakening to the situation in our society. We hear so much about civilizing the rest of the world. We hear so much about helping them, we, the white people. Sister Mary William is at Marillac House. Marillac House is right in the heart of the Black ghetto, 2822 West Jackson. Sister Mary William was part of the order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. When you hear this phrase, I'm sure you come across so many well-meaning people to those less well-meaning, they say, "Oh, we must do something." What's your first reaction, Sister Mary William?
Sister Mary William My first reaction is to the preposition, rather to the pronoun "we." Who do you mean by "we?" "We" Americans, or "we" white people, or "we" haves, or "we" social workers? Because it is in the history of mankind, Studs, as you know, that the criteria for right is always very subjective. It's what I am. And so "we must do something" I think really has to be changed to "we must be something." You know, if you take the word "commitment," and it's certainly thrown around a lot today, you take it, it's Latin and it's derivative: Com, with, sent; That which is sent with. And as a Daughter of Charity, as religious, I have felt always that my commitment was not of my own choosing but rather God's special calling to me which is manifest through the duties to which I am assigned, but also the people who come into my life and the people whose lives I share. So they are my commitment. It is not a matter of a set rules and then I turn it off if it doesn't fit in with my bag, but rather the people whose lives I touch and who touch my lives. And when you're committed, you let yourself be open and naked, if I can use the term, to be part of many people's lives. But as a wise old sister once said to me, "He who lives in many lives a thousand times must die." The test of commitment is how many times are you willing to die. Not how many times are you willing to go in and organize or plan or legislate for other people. But are you really willing to be with them even unto the point of death? And I think we've had this dramatically in Chicago in the last few days. But we at Marillac House out in Jackson Boulevard have, I guess, been in kind of a microcosm of what has happened in the big Northern cities over the last 13 years. When our sisters came to Marillac House, which, by the way, was an Episcopalian orphanage 20 years ago, the neighborhood was 95 percent white and about 90 percent Catholic, and there were no services in the area, and this is why St. Mary's Episcopal Home for Girls was purchased and it became Marillac Settlement House. And then the neighborhood changed, but it changed for a different reason 20 years ago. It was after the war and people had money, but the housing wasn't available. So as housing was available, the white people of the community moved to Skokie and Wheaton and so on. And the vacuum was filled by the Negro who also had made money during the war and he wanted to get out of the South Side strip. So the changing, racial change was not done on the push and hostile basis and the feeling tone was much different than it is now.
Sister Mary William Feeling tone. Yes. This is really, I guess maybe, this is something that in our work is extremely important, much more important than the plan or the editorial in some of our leading newspapers.
Sister Mary William I don't know where I first heard of it, but I know some people say, "You fly by the seat of your pants." Well, that isn't too dignified for a sister to say, so "feeling tone" is about the same thing.
Sister Mary William That's right. And you know, Studs, I guess this is really what the people have taught me, because there's no -- People who have had to preserve themselves by being sensitive to other people's reaction to them, like the Negro has, this is how the Negro has preserved himself. By being sensitive, not to the words or the gestures, but to the feeling tone. And he's preserved himself by being aggressive or submissive according to what the tone was coming across. Not the words, not the programs, not the plans, but the performance. And I suppose this is why I use the term, because this is a way we operate. We have to operate, too.
Sister Mary William It, oh, well is. In fact, my mother accuses me of being two shades darker since I've been working here. The Negro people in our community have taught us a lot. But it isn't -- You don't get all hung up, Studs, on people being Negro. The thing that our religion and our faith has taught us is that they are children of God. And I would be just as responsible to have the feeling tone of the Mexican-American, or --
Sister Mary William That's right. And so my responsibility is not only to serve, but to be able to communicate and know the value system of the people with whom I am working. And if they use the term "feeling tone" and many other terms they use, I know I pick up, we've all picked up, because it's the language of the ghetto, and we work in the ghetto. If I was over in Vietnam, I would have to pick up enough Vietnamese phrases to communicate, and "feeling tone," and "like it is," and "I'm not in that bag," and all of these things.
Studs Terkel Isn't it very interesting, the very language that young people use today. So many of the idioms that are so colorful are really Negro in origin. We talk about con-- You know, I'm sure you often hear this phrase from, not colleagues of yours, but people you meet in the middle-class community now and then when you go out there, is "What have they really, why don't they contribute as much?" And the contributions, of course, are fantastic, to our language, to our culture, to our music.
Sister Mary William And to the richness. One of the things I think that the Negro, I don't step back enough, because if I haven't gone down to the Loop, say, for about a month, and I walk down there, I get a terrible funny feeling of being in a foreign land. Suddenly all those white faces sort of scare me, because I'm so used to being surrounded by all Negro faces, that you kind of aren't sure of the land you're in. Not that you deny your own culture, I'm white middle-class and you can't deny that, but the people have a way of communicating to you and they have a tremendous endurance. Studs, let me say this, that if I were in like circumstances, a Negro woman of my age living in the ghetto, I couldn't have survived for two weeks. They've survived in spite of things for three hundred years and they're going to continue to. Survival is one of their beautiful, beautiful attributes. The thing that will attack survival more than anything else is the thing that we in the northern urban areas must understand and not contribute to any more than we have, and that's bitterness. You see, nobody could destroy them, but they could destroy themselves if bitterness took place. And this is what happens. For years they were down on the cotton fields, and they were deprived of some of the very basic things like education and identity, and so on. But there was always the Promised Land. The more aggressive people picked up stakes and got on a bus, or a little piece of a car, and came up to the Promised Land, and now they're up here and they're packed in, and they're hungry, and they're cold. And when you're hungry and you're cold, as Charles Brown says, "When you're hungry and cold in the Promised Land, then what do you do? And what do you hope for?" And this is the thing that we in Chicago are facing. And I say "we" and I mean Negro and white. I mean poor and rich. I mean whether you're living in suburbia, Chicago, or whether you're living right in the central city, because until we can face the reality, that unless we can really make this the Promised Land, not just for the few but for the "us." And we quit talking in terms of "they," they.
Studs Terkel This began when I deliberately said we and they, and you picked up on that, of course. You -- If we can return to this theme, I will come to you and your mother, too, in a moment. If we return to this theme, so post-World War II, then, whites moved out, and to some ex-- Relatively middle-class Negroes had moved in. That was at that time.
Sister Mary William At that time. And so we helped them set up a program of organizing the traditional block clubs. And because leadership moves out first in any organization, you know, leadership moves out first and you develop then -- This is true in businesses, the need to develop leadership at all times, because your leadership are the ones who move on. So we had block clubs and had beautiful garden parties and alley fairs and so on and there was a middle-class neighborhood and the program in Marillac House, which was certainly mammoth, didn't really change much because it appealed to the same class of people who saw the same needs and had the same value system.
Sister Mary William Middle-class people. Then, of course, the University of Illinois decided not to take the Garfield Park but took the Circle Campus area. The line had been held in West Garfield because the people out there felt that if the university came in, this would stop the Negro progression West. So panic selling took place. And in one block on Van Buren, the 4300 on Van Buren, one of our sisters, her mother lived there. In September of '64, the first Negro family moved in, and February '65 she was the only white person left on the block. So there was sort of a mass exodus of the middle-class Negro to, in quotes, better neighborhood. And the vacant spots were filled with a poorer class Negro, and many of the middle-class Negroes then became the absentee landlords which they had condemned for the white. The real problem, Studs, is not really one of color. It's not race, it's class.
Studs Terkel So this is interesting, then, it's the question of the poor as against the haves. Although I suppose in the case of someone Black, there's the double-cross, I didn't mean to pun there, but that's as it is. There's the double burden, poor and Black.
Sister Mary William Are suffering. And then there has developed over the last, I would say eight years, I see it strengthening in Chicago a culture of poverty, a group of people who are going to beget children who are condemned to poverty. In other generations --
Sister Mary William That's right. And in other generations, when our country began, you know, people came over here because they were poor. The rich didn't leave Europe to migrate to the United States, the poor did. And they came over and there was land, and land to be settled. Then the next step was that we needed muscle because we wanted to develop our railroads and our factories, and in the 1920s when they stopped immigration, or they limited immigration, then the Depression came and then the war broke out. And so the in-migration took place, because we needed hands and we needed muscle for the war. Well then, the poor who had been on the cotton field was released, but he was in the North. But now there is no step out of poverty. We are -- We have no other step out of poverty but welfare, which is so highly condemned, so criticized, so punitive in our society. It is one of the most degradating systems that has ever been perpetuated on a people, because it says you are wrong until you can prove yourself right. You can only have the minimal substance, you can have no dreams. You can't like nice shirts and nice ties. You can only subsist, and that usually on corn meal and minimal things, and I don't blame the welfare system, I blame the mentality of America, which permits the kind of welfare legislation in the state --
Sister Mary William And you've got to prove, you've got to make yourself eligible by conforming. And the minute you start to better yourself, then immediately any kind of help has to be removed from you, so keep yourself "un-bettered," if I can coin a phrase, so the poor, really, we must look into ourselves because we are from the poor. We are poor stock. We are, we are from Europe, and we have come over, we are from the poor, and this is one of the reasons we're so sensitive to the poor, because our parents taught us that was the worst thing in the world.
Sister Mary William That's right. That's right. And when they could have the material, the objective material things to show that they were not dependent upon others. And so that to have a house and to have a car and to see that their children had an education so that their children could -- Why in America do we have our children get an education, not that they develop as a person to the fullness of this wonderful soul God has given them, but they can get a better job? And so a boy who goes to Harvard has a better chance of getting a better job than a boy who goes to a local small local college. So parents make great sacrifices to get their kids into Harvard. Why? That they want him to develop more fully as a man? Naw, they want him to get a better job.
Studs Terkel You know, a discovery was made by one of the teachers who lives at Ecumenical Institute, not too far from where you are, Judy Huff, I call her in the book, husband's a young minister, she's teaching at Marshall High, which is 99.99 percent Black. And she says many of the young teachers find it far more exciting and challenging than teaching in a suburban school. She says, "There's less cheating, for one thing, at a ghetto school than there is in a suburban school. There's less need to get that as the, that of getting ahead." In other words, the bright kids, nobody cheats from.
Sister Mary William That's right. And all I have to do is get the grade and serve the ideals of my parents and have the material things, and what I am as a person doesn't really have that much importance.
Sister Mary William That's a good question. I think that I've lived in a so-called ghetto for 13 years, and I guess a lot of people would say I'm culturally deprived. I got a master's degree. But we were kidding before, they said something about taping a symphony and I said, "What's a symphony?" I really do know what a symphony is, I really do, but that's not part of my environment. I don't deal in terms of symphonies. I deal in terms of survival. I deal with people who, if they have today's food and this week's rent, life is good, and takes all their human resources to get these things. Would you say then that they are culturally deprived? I don't know if they really are, I don't know if this -- I'm not, I would never canonize poverty.
Studs Terkel Now, I was curious when I said that, I was being ironic, too, isn't someone, a young white kid living in Marquette Park or Cicero culturally deprived, or the child who lives in Glencoe, or whoever he may be, who is taught that he is, you know, definitely of another class, superior. Isn't there a cultural deprivation?
Sister Mary William Yes, and you see, one of the -- The greatest depriva-- We are a deprived people, because the cross-section of America as you have so well said, is such a rich thing. The Negro, the poor Negro, has his stamina which perhaps the kid out in Glencoe really needs to experience, and the youngster down in our ghetto needs to experience the aspiration and the intolerance of failure which is a good thing from the kid in Glencoe. But we've so bagged ourselves, we so cut ourselves off from each other, this is wherein our great deprivation comes from. It isn't that we don't lack richness in our society, is we so come -- It's like having wonderful ingredients: Good eggs, good butter, good flour, but keeping it all in its bags and boxes and not letting it mix with each other. You're never really going to produce that wonderful angel food cake. Well, we've done this in our -- We're afraid. One of the eggs we're afraid to mix in with the flour, you know, because they might lose their identity.
Sister Mary William It's a mess, too. It's a menace, too, and it's a mess most of the time. I really can't say it's just now. It's like Noah's Ark, Studs. We have two of everything, and I think we have three of a few things. It's a settlement house.
Sister Mary William Well, you know when you're going to say, "I will stand and be ready to respond to need," it's not an orderly way to live, because then you know who's calling the shots? The people who have the need, not some preconceived program developed by sociologists, you know, and approved with a federal grant of a couple of thou -- Million with a triplicate copy having been sent in to justify everything. It's when the people come in and say, "Today, we need this." And so we develop a program to take care of that need.
Studs Terkel You know, you said something that, again, fascinated me, you said, "Not an orderly way," this word "order," whether it's law and order or order, you know. I guess the most orderly state is death, isn't it? Death is the most orderly state there is, isn't there? No, I disagree with you. The most orderly state in the criteria for all order must be love. Oh, I was -- We're speaking in two different wavelengths here. All right. Get the feeling tone, get the feeling tone. There's a phrase here that, I think Dr. King used, a creative disorder. That's right. I'm talking about order as used
Sister Mary William No, no. by the establishment. That's right. Status quo, keep things the way we are. Be sure we're calling the shots. We set the value system -- 'Cause I was afraid I was getting into a theological argument with Sister Mary William. That was, go ahead. No, but I wanted to get that in, because people are afraid to operate
Sister Mary William No? No, but I wanted to get that in, because people are afraid to operate on love. They have to operate on what costs most, or what costs least, or what achieves those things, where the power, you know, we're so power-crazy in our country. That's one of the reasons why people want good jobs, so they can be in a power position, so they can call shots, you know. I wonder if we would say, "Look, all I want to do is really serve, and I don't care whether I get paid for it or not."
Studs Terkel Yet isn't power within an individual? And if we could perhaps even use this phrase "Black power" for a moment, the creative aspects of it, power within a person. Don't you feel that the violence that comes out of people who are power-less and thus frustrated?
Sister Mary William That's right. And when a person feels that he can really govern his own life and his family, that he really has his hand on the till of his own ship, if I can say this, then he is much less prone to destruction of that which is around him and destruction of himself. You know the riots that are taking place, people are destroying their own neighborhood, and when you sit and listen to young and old, they keep saying, "It doesn't make sense, Sister. It doesn't make sense. They're, we're destroying our own neighborhood." This one teen, who was, I was quite surprised she was not looting Friday night when all of the thing broke loose, and she knew I was surprised, too, and she laughed at me. We were sitting there, watching a looting take place across the street at a little store and she said, "Now, you know, Sister, this doesn't make sense." She said, "When they killed Kennedy, the white people didn't go out and destroy their neighborhood." She said, "But what can you do, what can you do when you pain the way our people pain?" She said, "It's not that everybody backed Dr. King, but at least he was a voice, he was somebody that the establishment recognized and now they've taken even him. Who will they recognize?"
Studs Terkel Isn't it also true, ironically true, that when property is destroyed and the establishment looks around, not when man is, when property is, and suddenly there is the fear is, gee, the property is being destroyed. And maybe Congress, maybe the city fathers, I use the word small F for the city fathers in this case, you know, but take action, isn't that the ironic aspect, too?
Sister Mary William It is, and it's ironic in this much, that I can say this, Studs, thousands of kids have been and destroyed in that neighborhood for eight years. Seven out of every 10 kids get dropped out or pushed out of high school in that neighborhood. And you know, there's been no big wave of white sympathy or about that. And isn't that much more a destruction than the burning of a shoe store?
Studs Terkel Isn't that the phrase, called institutional, institutional racism, the institutional destruction of lives of people, the very birth, the violence, violated the very day they're born. Now here again, the "they," I speak now of the have-not people.
Sister Mary William I think, too. And in this Kerner's report, you know, the report on the riots brought this out, that our greatest problem, our greatest challenge, is not programs but it's attitudes, and attitudes exist in individuals and it's luxurious to work with on an individual basis. We want to do everything mass, in mass. But you don't change attitudes by mass interpretation, but rather on an individual basis. And the term "they," whether I'm talking to a group of white people, then I know they're referring to our people in our community, or whether I'm talking to a group of block club people or a group of teens around Marillac House, and they -- It's funny, they use the same term for each other, "they." And last year I remember giving a talk and asking, the wouldn't it be great by the end of the summer if we could have eliminated that pronoun "they," and think in terms of "we."
Sister Mary William Well, I -- She doesn't, really. She's a darling Irish woman who came over from Tipperary and she's the essence of refinement and lace-curtain Irish, and so was my father. We were raised in a very conservative neighborhood, which -- And you know, we didn't realize it was conservative. The same neighbors are still living in the houses where -- They were living there when I was born. And the idea was that you got a good education. You lived your faith fully. You did well and bettered yourself. In other words, you had to live in a better neighborhood than you and the parents were now living in, but it was a nice neighborhood, and you kept to yourself and you kept your dignity and you weren't dependent upon anybody. But I think -- And then, I don't know why, they produced me and that was really, you know, I guess there's always one in every crowd, in every litter. Well, I was it. And when I was four years old, I had two -- An older brother and a sister, and then a younger brother, and we went up to my uncle, who was a pastor in a small town in Iowa, and his housekeeper made the best sugar cookies I've ever tasted in my life, Studs. So my mother said, now I was not to go and ask for any more sugar cookies. So see, I had a problem. I liked sugar cookies. I wanted sugar cookies. I would not disobey my mother, and I had enough of that good old Irish Catholic fear in me. But I spent most of my life figuring out how to obey and get around her. And she spent most of her life being around the corner when I came around her. So anyhow, and then a hobo, a gentleman of the road showed up, and the housekeeper gave him a sandwich and four butter cookies and a cup of coffee, and he sat on the pump, you know, how a stoop around the pump? So, four-year-old Annie here says, "Aha!" So I went over and I sat next to him and I told him it was a nice day, wasn't it. And then he said, yes, and I can remember he had a beard and I wouldn't, you know, a four-year-old, you don't -- But I can remember the beard because I hadn't seen men with beards. But anyhow, we began to talk and I began to praise the butter cookies. So he gave me two. So my mother looked out the window and here was her darling daughter sitting next to the gentleman of the road consuming butter cookies so you could be obedient and still get around things. And I guess this has been sort of my way of life. You ask and I know a lot of people say, "Why did you become a sister?" Well, I never thought I could. You see, the traditional was the religious who went in and who prayed a lot and who was very obedient and who was very conforming. And I went to school to sisters and they were very nice, and very refined, and very dedicated, and they kind of disappeared at three o'clock, you know, and then at eight o'clock the next morning, they appeared again. The fact that they had a life together was something that was a mystery. And although I had visited in convents, because I had aunts who were sisters, the whole idea, you know, wasn't so -- But this was the only way, being a sister was the only way, that I could fulfill something that had been brought into my life. I had tremendous parents, Studs, and they loved each other deeply. I can remember asking my father one time why he loved me, and he said, "Because you're the manifestation of my mother -- of mother's and my love." And I thought, they love so much and so deep and so practically, they really did. They didn't say it a lot. They lived their love for us. And I thought, "I have been loved. Now, how can I communicate this love with many others?" And if I were, if I married and had four or five children to myself, that would be a husband and four or five children, you know, and that would be my center and I would do it, but somehow or other that wasn't enough, and I wanted to love many, many people. And the way I could do it, and really do it practically, was by becoming a religious. You see, my mother and father were very good and very close to God and I didn't become a sister because I thought that would bring me closer to God, because they were they were so close to God. But that this was the way I was going to love many people. So when I was 15, a priest asked me about it and I laughed, I said I wasn't the type, and he said, "There is no type," and so I made up my mind then. Well, then the problem was convincing people, because when I told my father and mother, we were at the supper table and I said, "I want to be a sister." And my father said, "Yes, pass the biscuits." He really -- They weren't impressed, because they felt that I'd probably go in the community to be [unintelligible] and, you know, in two weeks things wouldn't go the way I wanted and I'd be home. That -- And when I graduated from high school I said "Well, now let's go," I wanted to be a sister, and my mother had given me good advice, though, she said, "Pray over it because it's a grace and don't talk about it." She said, "If you're normal now, a normal girl and you're a good student and so on, when the time comes to be a sister, you'll be a good sister, too." But I think that was good advice. And then my father was just a darling and he said, "Let me give you one piece of advice, Dolly." He used to call me Dolly. He said, "When you're down, don't ask yourself." He said, "When everything's going the way you want it, say now, do I want to be a sister?" And I can remember being on the top of the Chase Hotel in St. Louis and Hildegarde was there, and I was on the dance floor and I thought, now this is, you know, I -- This is really it, this is about it, and I had a real nice date and I was -- We had a convertible, I remember, and the top was down, and that was the thing in the day. And I said, "All right, now. Do you want to be a sister?" And I said, "Yes, I want to be a sister." And I was convinced and I came into the community, the Daughters of Charity, who were founded 300 years ago to serve the poor, and St. Vincent de Paul was a very practical man. At -- Nuns at that time were not serving the needs of the people. They were cloistered, and the poor had no one to serve them. So he took some good-willed little girls who wanted to really serve them, who wanted to love many people. I guess that's why he took me, too. And he had Louise de Marillac train them and they are very simple. You see, we're not nuns, we're sisters. You never take final vows. But the idea was that we take a fourth vow of service of the poor and for 300 years we have, and there's 43,000 of us all over the world. We have a tremendous tradition. So that I came into the community and I was trained to serve the poor. And that's for, but not in the sense of a paternalistic kind of a way. We are the servants of the poor -- Can I read you something?
Studs Terkel Please.
Sister Mary William Have
Sister Mary William we got time? Sure. This -- St. Vincent said this to Sister Jean, a young sister before she went to her first mission to the poor. And this is taken from a picture, "Monsieur Vincent," the movie, but this is very typical and this is something that we I hope, I think live today. "You will soon learn that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and a basket of bread, but you must keep your gentleness and your smile. It's not enough to give soup and bread. The rich can do that. You are a little servant of the poor, the maid of charity, always smiling and in a good humor. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting, as you'll see. But the uglier and dirtier they are and the more unjust and bitter, the more you must give them of your love. It's only because of your love, only your love that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them." And this is a spirit in which the Daughters of Charity work. And this is the spirit in which I have worked.
Studs Terkel But something has happened here with you and with your colleagues at Marillac House and certain sisters like you. There are sisters and sisters and orders and orders, you know, you challenge the establishment, now you see. This is the thing, you see.
Sister Mary William Christ did too, though, you know. He kind of went on after the establishment a few times, because you see, you must be free, be really free within yourself. Your commitment is to God, not to any power structure, and you must often stand for that which you believe is the Christ-like, the [theo?] reason for doing things, and if it isn't the going song, if it isn't the accepted thing, that's too bad and crucifixions still take place, you know, in various kinds of forms, but the idea of the whole thing is this: That God, the people of God, look at the way the Jewish people suffered and yet they had to believe that God called them as His people, and we as Christians feel that we are part of this. This is part of our inheritance, that we are part of the people of God and that we are called to treat everyone as God's children. We wouldn't have riots, Martin Luther King wouldn't have been shot, nor would have John F. Kennedy, if that for which we have been called were lived in people's hearts. It's mouthed but it is not lived.
Studs Terkel Of course, we know during the Sunday of Martin Luther King's death, a great deal of honeyed words, some meant, some not meant, were said over all the mass media, as some young minister said, he never heard so much hypocrisy in his life.
Sister Mary William wonder who that would be. I don't know, the kid didn't tell me, he just quoted his reaction, and I wasn't one to press. He said, "Listen to that cat. Two years ago, when King came in here and tried to explain to him how we were painin', how we, we Black people were painin', he treated him like a boob." He said, "He couldn't help it then," he said, "but why does he have to stand up now with all that garbage?" You know? And this is the feeling in the heart: If he stood up, they can almost tolerate the man who is sticking to his guns and still condemning the Black man.
Sister Mary William They can't stand the "not for real." You know, because being for real means a lot, and that's with us. It was interesting, over the weekend, going over to Madison, you know, 25, 26, 2700 Madison on Saturday when much of the looting was still going on. And to have a half-intoxicated not only with liquor, but with frustration and violence, a young adult man turn on you and say, "You're white, I hate you, go home before I have to kill you," and serve as that, having a white face so he could get it out of his system. Finally, he turned around, he says, "Please go home." And I said, "I'm going home, I'm just trying to get out of here. I came to see --" I said, "We heard a family was burned out and we're trying to find them to get them housing." And he says, "Now, what you doing that for?" I said, "'Cause they're burned out and they got kids." He says, "Yeah, but then that makes you nice." And I said, "I'm sorry about that, man," I said, "I can't do anything about being white, but I sure can do something about being nice."
Sister Mary William And he was torn between realizing, not wanting to hate and almost being driven to hate. You know, once we can make up our mind to something, peace comes. But when we are torn between accepting and rejecting, and this is what has happened, this great outpouring of so-called compassion that has taken place in our city, where in our house we have, in the last three days, have sat down with representatives of about 349 families to see what their needs were, all the stores are burned out, so they don't have food. It's not only just the burned out families, it's the people who are suffering from the thing, they can't -- There's no place to cash checks. There's no place to get milk.
Studs Terkel By the way, cashing check, if we talk about little things I know with which you are so well-acquainted, very often, when some guy works for you or does something for you, a white guy or a Black guy, he's poor, particularly a Black poor, he'd rather have it in cash than check, wouldn't he?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Sister Mary William You know, another thing about checks is funny. You always cheat -- They don't understand about this withholding business, you know, so they -- You have to be really explicit about how much they're going to get paid, and you can't say, you know, the full sum, you gotta say after all the takeouts. Or else they feel like it's cheating.
Sister Mary William That's right. You pay, you know, you pay for being Black. And people say this all the time. A bona fide first-class store will just not, they find the address of a person, and they won't give them credit. FHA won't give them a loan. They want to rehabilitate their little piece of a house.
Sister Mary William Well, you see, because FHA loans are just, you know, that's pie in the sky, that's like that first trip to the moon. In our neighborhood you cannot get a loan on housing, on the purchase of housing. So what people have to do is to buy on contract. In other words, they put a down payment down, but they don't hold the deed. The real estate person holds the deed, and they pay on a note, but they don't have the deed and let them miss two payments and they lose the place, because they don't have the deed. So the contract purchaser is just in a state, a very precarious state, because if he loses his job or illness or can't meet that note, then he not only has to move out, but he's lost everything he's invested. One woman, a white woman, came to me irate, they had a little bungalow. She and her mother and sister and father, and it was just big enough for the four of them, and they -- Her sister married, and they decided to move out, so she sold this to a real estate company. But there was a water heater in it which she had promised, a new water heater, so she had promised to somebody, so she made the deal which she'd come back after they took a trip to pick it up. So two weeks later, they came back from California, she stopped by to pick up the water heater. The man let her in. He knew about it. He and his wife and ten children were living upstairs.
Sister Mary William A Black man. Another man, and his wife and four children were living in the basement, which they had put up a couple of clapboards in, she had -- They had, the company that had bought it had put some of this artificial tiling in that in the kitchen, and had painted the ceiling of the bathroom, and that's all they had done. She had sold the bungalow for $8,000, and she said to the man, "May I ask you, sir, may I ask you how much you paid?" And he says, "Oh, that man he was real nice, he was. He's sellin' it to me for 16,000 on contract." And she said, "And how much are the payments?" And she figured it out. That man was paying $23,000 for a home, and he was willing to pay it because he had 10 kids and there was no place to live and that home was only big enough, really, she said, for four people, and he was glad to get it to get a roof over his head. Now, he could have taken his $23,000 if we had open occupancy and bought it in someplace else and had a place for his kids to go to school. But he's got a Black face, and he's got 10 children with Black faces. And so in -- You spe-- You pay $23,000 and you're always in the precarious position of losing it, because he didn't hold the deed. And this was within two weeks. So this kind of exploitation the Black man knows.
Studs Terkel I think that Sister Mary William is talking now about specific instances far, far more than generalities and sermons, this instance, this particular instance of this is of course is prevalent.
Sister Mary William That's right. It's common. This is not the exception. This is not the exception. And so many times, last year we were trying to help people get loans for rehabilitation, and the deeds are so messed up because the con-- In contracting, the contracts have been, you know, sold from one place to another, so who really has the deed and who really legally can transfer the deed? Why, it's just, it's impossible to get a hold of.
Studs Terkel You know, there's so many aspects of life that you know and that people outside should know, Sister Mary William of Marillac House, right in the heart of the Black ghetto. I know that you get along. I don't know how, I suppose contributions are up, are one of those sources, aren't they?
Sister Mary William An essential part, and when they don't come, it's an agony, Studs, to sit down and say, "What part of the program would you eliminate?" I wish sometime when we have to cut down because we haven't made the money, I wish you'd come down and help us decide what services we curtail. It's agony, because every service is so needed.
Sister Mary William That's on Thursday, April 25th. We're going to have, we'll be Marillac House Night at "Golden Boy" with Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Auditorium Theatre. And tickets can be purchased at Marillac House by writing in. The address there is 2822 West Jackson, that's Marillac, M-A-R-I-Double
Sister Mary William Six-oh-six-twelve.
Sister Mary William The phone number is 7-2-2-7-4-4-0. Now, because it's a benefit, Studs, people will see a good show, but they'll also be able to make a good contribution to the house. The tickets are 15, 25, 50, and 100 dollars, and we would certainly like to have the place packed, because whether we're going to have a teen program this summer or not depends on whether we make the money on this benefit.
Sister Mary William It's as simple as that, and I think the people of Chicago have to decide whether they will let a group of people who know and who have contact, not with they, but with Jimmy and Roy and Susie and Hattie --
Studs Terkel Because it also involves something else, I want to ask you about the teen program in a minute. It involves something else, too, doesn't it? You say cutting out the "we" and "they" which become wholly irrelevant words now, there's a phrase and it's from a young Black militant, see, and I have to agree with him, that the white community must civilize itself. This is of course, the --
Sister Mary William How many people in the last two months have said something, had says to me, because I am white, "Sister, you gotta do something about your people." You know, Studs, right now I'm glad I'm in the ghetto because I can think of a few things to do and be and work with the people in the ghetto, but I really wouldn't know what to do with the white people. What are we going to do about us?
Sister Mary William Well, I think right now they have, they've had resignation. I've been a sister for 25 years. They had me for 17, and they couldn't do much about me, and the community fed me for 25, so I think they feel the cement is
Sister Mary William I think a couple things have had a effect on them. I think this, I think when I talked I can remember crying one time, I opened -- I had the privilege of opening an extension in public housing eight years ago, and I was talking to Mother and Dad and I started to cry, and I said, "Ma, don't they -- Doesn't anybody know about the poor Negro, the poor Negro in public housing?" That wasn't the going thing then, you know. It was juvenile delinquency and psychiatry and so on, I said, "Doesn't anybody know these people exist?" And my mother looked at me and she said, "Really, I guess we don't. We're so far removed." And then when much of this came about, my father said it was funny. She kind of, you know, paraded me as the expert. What they want me to do, what they feel I must be, is to live according to the things that I believe in. And this is true of all their children, and they've come to the point to believe in my dream not that they see it, not that they have the same vision, but they believe in the sincerity of my dream and in my vision. And they also have deep faith in my commitment as religious because I love being a sister, Studs. I just love being a -- I got so many children and so many people to love, I don't think there's a woman in Chicago who is really loved more than I am.
Studs Terkel Yet I'm certain of that. And yet isn't, isn't there a, don't you represent something that is happening in the church itself, you know, you and so many of the young sisters and young priests, you know, who are challenging something that has been centuries and centuries, that is, not to challenge authority. You are questioning that.
Sister Mary William Oh, maybe I'm blessed. I've got great authority. One of the things you have to do is quit making them the authority of "they." We can do this within our own structures, too. Kids, teenagers, talk, call -- Talk about their parents as "they," did you know that? You know, again it's the same bag. So you can't make the authorities in your life they, and if you communicate with them and interpret to them and really believe in their wisdom there isn't a thing the authority in my life whether it was church or community has been nothing but most cooperative, understanding and supportive, and counseling, so that I would really say that the road to go, you know, is not to boomerang and shoot down anybody in authority, that's stupid. That's like cutting off your head to spite your face. I think it's informing, communicating with, and having faith in authority. When we lose faith in authority, then we lose faith in, in one of the most basic things of our lives.
Sister Mary William Well, you know, there is authority of position and there's the authority of person. Now, there are certain authorities that have position, and these people have the obligation of saying yes and no to things. If you keep them informed, it's just like my mother with the sugar cookies, you know. You can pretty well keep obedient and still not get so bound down. But wonder if I had gone out and sat on the curb and cried and said, my mother didn't love me because she says I can't have any more sugar cookies. My mother hates me, my mother doesn't understand. So I think that's, I think -- Authority, you can't use it as a scapegoat for everything. President Johnson said, "OK, I've been a scapegoat long enough, I quit." And we suddenly, many people in many facets of our society lost a scapegoat and they've really at sea now. So I think in the church, I believe in authority, and I believe in, that God is an authority, that God is the father of us all. I think you have to interpret and you have to accept the yeses and noes, authority has never been a problem in my life.
Sister Mary William Keep him informed as best you can, but at times when in conscience, you [cannot?] go along with him. You have to make this known openly. And I think this is the thing that has to be challenged. But you have to look into your heart and say, "Why am I challenging this particular decision of this particular person in authority?"
Sister Mary William Oh, indeed. The people in our neighborhood could certainly give an awful lot of challenge to much of the things that have been done: The programs and the plans and the promises, and most of all, the lack of performance. It's the time for promises and programs is long past, is long, long past. It must be from now on in performance and the power structure better learn the lesson not to come out with any more platitudes or palliatives.
Sister Mary William That's right. You know, I don't want you to forget though, Studs, that the day to day working closely with the people, being with the people, being part of the environment, which is the reason for Marillac House. The reason for Marillac House is to love. We really are depending upon "Golden Boy" on April 25th and those tickets can be gotten at Marillac House, 2822 West Jackson.
Studs Terkel Repeat that. That's 2822 West Jackson. All the proceeds, of course, go to Marillac House, and Sister Mary William has just touched upon some of the work you're doing, you mention there's a teen, teenage program, too, involving the young of the community. This, too, I take it is a key aspect, if you were.
Sister Mary William It's, it's a great key because we were doing it wrong. You know, that's -- I told somebody that from another city the other day, she called and said she wanted -- They were starting a center, and I said, "Oh, come out and see us, we've made all the big mistakes." And we were treating the kids as if they wanted to, you know, wear shades and have the cigarette and a rag around their house and -- Their heads, rather, and they got a young Negro man came in, he says, "Enough of that. Enough of that. No more of that jazz. We're going to stand tall." So he got the same kids and he says, "Now you carry yourself." But you see, it had to come from behind a Black face. "You carry yourself." And they, man, they wear jackets and they got emblems and they're the young men's [skill?], and we got the [co-?] Marillac sisters and sharp as anything, and boy, do they carry themselves. But it took the leadership of somebody they could identify with, another young Negro.
Studs Terkel You know, just as you're talking, couldn't help but think or read headlines, by the time this program is on, a couple of weeks ago of a peace council between the Blackstone Rangers and the Disciples and the thought occurred, "Gee, what great marshals they would have made in the parade here, honoring Martin Luther King." A peaceful parade, you know.
Sister Mary William Yes.
Sister Mary William You know what was interesting when the looting was going on Friday night, a group of about 25 teens had come in for a meeting, and I -- We rang the bell for the sisters' prayers, but the kids showed up in the chapel because -- And we had a spontaneous memorial service for King and it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard, because none of them are Catholic, you know. And so here we were in this Catholic chapel with the sisters supposed to be singing their night prayers and the spontaneous testimonies of the kids, praying to God for guidance, and the singing. And then as they marched out we had sung, you know, "Mine eyes shall see the glory of the coming of the Lord," and "We Shall Overcome". But as they left the chapel and the sister stayed in to say their Catholic night prayers, a couple of the boys started, "They will know we are Christians, they will know we are brothers, they will know we are brothers by our love," and all the kids picked it up as they went back to the gym to play basketball. Now those kids could have been out looting, you know. But it's this feeling of "We carry ourselves tall, we're people, we're human beings, we're not denying we're Black, you know, we're not denying we're Black."
Sister Mary William That's right. We're proud. But being Black doesn't mean you have to be out burning your neighborhood down, either. It's the new, it's the seed, it's the remnant, it's the [unintelligible], it's the head seed from which the new growth will come. And I have great faith that our country, Black and white and the young people, will resolve this much better than any of us ever could.
Studs Terkel Hey, in speaking of that, before we say goodbye, I know you have to return to your work, where you are and where you live at 2822 West Jackson, and that phone number, by the way, is 7-2-2-7-4-4-0, for the "Golden Boy" tickets, April -- Yes. The young that it's coming from. I gotta ask you one last question that's come back to you again. What makes you tick, Sister Mary William, little Annie at four years old, getting -- Finding roundabout ways of getting around that authority, your mother in this instance. Do, in your circle, the circle of your former -- while you see them or not, when you were, before you became a sister, you say your lace-curtain Irish or your mother, father circle, your mother father know what you're doing, did they talk about you on occasion? You any idea? Yes, they do. I think they're funny. I think they're proud. Very proud. They wonder sometimes about it. They don't -- They love me and they don't want me to be hurt. I don't mean your mother and father, I mean. My brothers and sisters and sister-in-laws and aunts and uncles and the people that I've known, they love me and they don't want me to get hurt. They aren't inclined to do what I'm doing, I don't think, and yet there's a peculiar kind of admiration. One of the greatest things I think about this whole is a kind of protectiveness that perhaps my mother, because I could have gotten sick on those butter cookies, you know, it's a protectiveness that many of them have for me, because they don't think that I'm prudent and I'm not. I'm not prudent. I'm also not easily frightened ,and they worry about that, because if I were frightened maybe I'd be more prudent. And they also feel that I live on emotion, and they're right. But all of these things, if they come from a motive of my deep belief in God, God's love for me and my love for God, and my sharing with other human beings, my life is so rich, Studs, it's so rich even though right now we are overwhelmed with the tremendous needs of the people in our neighborhood in this crisis. My life is so rich in an opportunity to love and be loved, that if right now God would turn back the clock to 1943 and He'd say, "Do you really want to be a sister?" I'd say, "Yes, amen." Louder than ever. Sister Mary William of Marillac House is our guest, and perhaps if there's a little postscript to this is that maybe a little less prudence, a little more emotion, might be in or less coolness, you know, might be in order here. The imprudent Sister Mary William, our guest, talking about Marillac House and the incredible work that's being done in the community by this order, and by you and your colleagues, and again to remind the audience of the dough that is needed. That's right. For the project. April 25th is the big benefit of "Golden Boy" at the Auditorium and its tickets at -- You can write to 2822 West Jackson, it's Marillac House, M-A-R-I-Double L-A-C, or call 7-2-2-7-4-4-0. We should have another session soon. Yes. About developments. I wish you could meet the rest of the team. There is nine sisters and they're fabulous. They're the most independent people in the world, and they're all imprudent. They're all imprudent. They are. They love dangerously. You know, I think that maybe I'll head there someday with a portable tape recorder, have sort of a round table with the nine sisters. Oh, you'd love them. And with some of your friends in the community. Yes. The people. The people are the reason. You know, the people are the reason. People are the reason. That's it. Sister Mary William, thank you very much.
Sister Mary William Twenty-fifth.
Studs Terkel Twenty-fifth.
Sister Mary William Yes.
Studs Terkel Twenty-fifth. Twenty-fifth. At the Auditorium. Before you do, you spoke of the young, we come again to this gap. It's among the young, of course, primarily. The young that it's coming from. I gotta ask you one last question that's come back to you again. What makes you tick, Sister Mary William, little Annie at four years old, getting -- Finding roundabout ways of getting around that authority, your mother in this instance. Do, in your circle, the circle of your former -- while you see them or not, when you were, before you became a sister, you say your lace-curtain Irish or your mother, father circle, your mother father know what you're doing, did they talk about you on occasion? You any idea? Yes, they do. I think they're funny. I think they're proud. Very proud. They wonder sometimes about it. They don't -- They love me and they don't want me to be hurt. I don't mean your mother and father, I mean. My brothers and sisters and sister-in-laws and aunts and uncles and the people that I've known, they love me and they don't want me to get hurt. They aren't inclined to do what I'm doing, I don't think, and yet there's a peculiar kind of admiration. One of the greatest things I think about this whole is a kind of protectiveness that perhaps my mother, because I could have gotten sick on those butter cookies, you know, it's a protectiveness that many of them have for me, because they don't think that I'm prudent and I'm not. I'm not prudent. I'm also not easily frightened ,and they worry about that, because if I were frightened maybe I'd be more prudent. And they also feel that I live on emotion, and they're right. But all of these things, if they come from a motive of my deep belief in God, God's love for me and my love for God, and my sharing with other human beings, my life is so rich, Studs, it's so rich even though right now we are overwhelmed with the tremendous needs of the people in our neighborhood in this crisis. My life is so rich in an opportunity to love and be loved, that if right now God would turn back the clock to 1943 and He'd say, "Do you really want to be a sister?" I'd say, "Yes, amen." Louder than ever. Sister Mary William of Marillac House is our guest, and perhaps if there's a little postscript to this is that maybe a little less prudence, a little more emotion, might be in or less coolness, you know, might be in order here. The imprudent Sister Mary William, our guest, talking about Marillac House and the incredible work that's being done in the community by this order, and by you and your colleagues, and again to remind the audience of the dough that is needed. That's right. For the project. April 25th is the big benefit of "Golden Boy" at the Auditorium and its tickets at -- You can write to 2822 West Jackson, it's Marillac House, M-A-R-I-Double L-A-C, or call 7-2-2-7-4-4-0. We should have another session soon. Yes. About developments. I wish you could meet the rest of the team. There is nine sisters and they're fabulous. They're the most independent people in the world, and they're all imprudent. They're all imprudent. They are. They love dangerously. You know, I think that maybe I'll head there someday with a portable tape recorder, have sort of a round table with the nine sisters. Oh, you'd love them. And with some of your friends in the community. Yes. The people. The people are the reason. You know, the people are the reason. People are the reason. That's it. Sister Mary William, thank you very much.
Sister Mary William
Studs Terkel I gotta ask you one last question that's come back to you again. What makes you tick, Sister Mary William, little Annie at four years old, getting -- Finding roundabout ways of getting around that authority, your mother in this instance. Do, in your circle, the circle of your former -- while you see them or not, when you were, before you became a sister, you say your lace-curtain Irish or your mother, father circle, your mother father know what you're doing, did they talk about you on occasion? You any idea?
Sister Mary William My brothers and sisters and sister-in-laws and aunts and uncles and the people that I've known, they love me and they don't want me to get hurt. They aren't inclined to do what I'm doing, I don't think, and yet there's a peculiar kind of admiration. One of the greatest things I think about this whole is a kind of protectiveness that perhaps my mother, because I could have gotten sick on those butter cookies, you know, it's a protectiveness that many of them have for me, because they don't think that I'm prudent and I'm not. I'm not prudent. I'm also not easily frightened ,and they worry about that, because if I were frightened maybe I'd be more prudent. And they also feel that I live on emotion, and they're right. But all of these things, if they come from a motive of my deep belief in God, God's love for me and my love for God, and my sharing with other human beings, my life is so rich, Studs, it's so rich even though right now we are overwhelmed with the tremendous needs of the people in our neighborhood in this crisis. My life is so rich in an opportunity to love and be loved, that if right now God would turn back the clock to 1943 and He'd say, "Do you really want to be a sister?" I'd say, "Yes, amen." Louder than ever.
Studs Terkel Sister Mary William of Marillac House is our guest, and perhaps if there's a little postscript to this is that maybe a little less prudence, a little more emotion, might be in or less coolness, you know, might be in order here. The imprudent Sister Mary William, our guest, talking about Marillac House and the incredible work that's being done in the community by this order, and by you and your colleagues, and again to remind the audience of the dough that is needed.
Studs Terkel For the project. April 25th is the big benefit of "Golden Boy" at the Auditorium and its tickets at -- You can write to 2822 West Jackson, it's Marillac House, M-A-R-I-Double L-A-C, or call 7-2-2-7-4-4-0. We should have another session soon.
Sister Mary William Yes.