The Mystery of the Haunted Mid Century Modern Home: A Letter, Jackie & Ash Wednesday

Found in the library here at St. Ita’s convent inside a book on Mid Century Modernism dated 1959. We’re not sure how it got here.  Very intriguing. Is it for real? Must investigate. – Sister Barbara

2/16/61

Dear Sister,

I nearly left my husband because he would not let me go to Ash Wednesday with the children.

This surprises even me, with my parents who rarely went to church and frequented the sacraments. I can only remember get ashes a few times as a child. And because it was so rare,  remember them well. Three times I got ashes. Once when I was about 5, I went with my father, he was stinky drunk. Just came back from the tavern. I was loathe to go with him to church and get ashes, but I did because I was a good girl. I was terrified that the priests giving out ashes knew that he was drunk. He could barely stand straight while standing in line, he swayed to and fro. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t want to return to that church.

And that might well, be in part, why I didn’t want to go to church as a child. I associated it with my alcoholic father. I was certain parishioners would remember him each time they saw me.

But as I’ve gotten older, I can appreciate the power of ashes, how it makes you understand your mortality. You’re going to die one day. Soon. Whether when it’s you’re young or old.

Now that I’m a mother, i understand that even more than ever and I want to convey that to my children. As much as I cling to them and want them to never perish or least not die before me, I do understand that they too need to understand that they too will die one day. Even if don’t want it.

So just being a mom makes me appreciate my Catholic faith more, even if my upbringing in the faith was sparse. I see Jack’s family going to church, Sunday Mass and more, and I’m vaguely jealous. While Jack and I were dating, the whole family went to Ash Wednesday together. I remember how the brothers complained afterwards about fasting, especially not being able to drink. So Irish, so Catholic, those Kennedys.

So this Ash Wednesday? I tried to sneak the kids out of the White House. Jean, John’s sister, was my partner in crime. I knew Jack wouldn’t approve, so I just decided to do and deal with the consequences later.

Pat and I decided we would sneak away for a 12 noon service, Jack would be busy. The Secret Service could escort us to a local church there and back within the hour. Jean and I planned to head into church at the tail end of the service so we wouldn’t get as much attention.

But everything went wrong. Jack’s luncheon with a head of state was cancelled so he saw us as we were headed out to a car. Naturally, he was curious.

“Where are you ladies headed with John-John and Carolyn?” he said, noticing that Pat and I had our coats, hats, and gloves on.

I felt hot. I’m not a good liar to be honest. No child of an alcoholic is. We’re straight up, honest people.

“Oh, Pat and I?” I said uncomfortably. “We’re headed out….”

“Where to in a coat, hat and gloves with the children? It almost looks like you’re going to Sunday mass!”

“Oh, yes, we do look formal, don’t we?”

“You’re not going to Ash Wednesday services?”

“We are.”

All Purgatory broke lose with that news, Sister. Jack was furious, he didn’t like that I was sneaking out with his children to do something like this. He was certainly an old-fashioned Catholic and all, but to go to Ash Wednesday in Washington DC while he was President of the United States? While he was professing to be separation of Church and State even though he was a faithful Catholic? He didn’t like this at all.

“You’re what?” he sputtered, loosening his tie.

“We are going to the Basilica for ashes, all for of us. Actually six of us with the Secret Service.”

“Without my permission?

“We need your permission to go?”

“Why, yes, they are my children too.”

“I understand..but I just want the children to get ashes, just as we did when we were children. It was meaningful to me as a child, and this is something I want for John-John and Carolyn.”

“They’re so young! They will never remember. They’re too young, besides, it’s not helpful when I’m trying to show there’s a separation of church and state during my presidency.”

“It’s about you?”

“No….but appearances, count, Jackie. Reporters and photographers will see you. Take your picture. It will not be a private event at all. Why not just have a priest come here and give ashes?”

“You wouldn’t like that either. What would people think?”

And so it went, Sister. Dreadfully. Poor Pat had to listen to it all. She eventually just left.

And the  day ended. No ashes. I felt so disappointed. I had wanted to share this experience with my children, my youth, the part of my childhood that I want to relive through them without the alcoholism. It was not to be. Sadly.

So Lent started with resentment and bitterness toward my husband. I’m not proud of that, Sister. If I could go to confession that would be my sin. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been too long since I last went to confession.

You know all things and you know that I love you when I’m not in love with myself.

Hopefully, Lent will improve in the next letter I sent to you, Sister. I trust your Lent is off to a good start. I envision you getting ashes and then heading to the local pub to secretly celebrate.

Warmly yours,

Jackie Kennedy

 

The Mystery of the Haunted Mid Century Modern Home: It’s Not A Big Deal, part 2

Helvetica typeface, 1957

continued from Part 1:

“You’re a nun but not an exorcist?”

Apple stood at the entryway, confused. She stared at this woman who was the epitome of 1950s religious chic garb in her habit and veil. She had a roly poly face not unlike Santa’s. In fact, she could have been Mrs. Claus’ sister with those ruddy cheeks, twinkly eyes and grey hair peeking from her veil.

“That’s right,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Sister Barbara from St. Ita’s. I’m not an exorcist but I have experience working with spirits. May I come in?”

Sister extended her business card with her name, title. And her specialty: Counselor to the Real and Spirit World.”

“Well, all right,” Apple said, warily. “Just for a little while. Just what order did you say you were with?”

“BVMs, Blessed Virgin Mary.”

Sister Barbara stepped into the vestibule, gazing at the vintage Sputnik chandelier overhead. Gazed at the 1950s abstract artwork on the wall. “Your home is so beautiful, I grew up in a house with similar chandelier,” she said in awe. “Your neighborhood reminds me of where I grew up.”

Apple ushered her into the living room. Sister sat on a the bright orange wave chaise. Sister Barbara stared at the vintage Zenith record player console. “We had one just like that when I was a little girl,” she gushed.

Apple sat across from sister. How could this woman dressed in black help her? She looked like she could fly right up and away like the Flying Nun, the television show.

“You are right to be suspicious. What is your name again?”

Sister repeated her name again. She told Apple about her work at St. Ita’s, working as a principal in the school, playing the church organ on Sundays. Her calling as a spiritual counselor of the other-worldly variety, how it evolved from calls to the rectory for an exorcist.

“Unfortunately, there is only one exorcist recognized by the archdiocese. One only for the entire Chicago area. He is very busy as you can imagine since he must cover so much territory and there a growing number of old houses possessed by spirits.

“I step into on occasion to help with the overflow on ad hoc basis. I help evaluate whether there is a genuine spiritual emergency.”

She paused, cleared her throat and tugged at her habit.

“I would say your house is possessed by friendly spirits. They mean well. You might not like to hear what I have to say about getting rid of your friendly spirits. My intuition and reading of these two spirits tells me you need to attend Mass every Sunday. Your ghosts will not go away until then. They’re concerned you are not headed toward Heaven.

“They themselves are in Purgatory, If you can commit to Sunday Mass for the rest of your earthly existence, they will leave you alone and they themselves will go to Heaven.”

“What?” Apple said. She stood up as if to get a glass of water and fainted.

The Mystery of the Haunted Mid Century Modern Home: It’s Not a Big Deal

1955 cigarette ad

Apple and Forest Graham were the least likely couple on earth to call an exorcist.

Born in the late 80s, they never attended church ever. They were baptized, their parents had been Catholic at one point. They think, but they’re not sure. Both Apple and Forest never even really read the Bible – Forest didn’t know that Sampson and Delilah was a Biblical story – he thought it originated in Hollywood.

But these two knew a thing or two about the Exorcist. They had seen the original 1970s movie at college and then the remake.

These two became convinced they needed an exorcist soon after they moved into their suburban Mid-Century Modern home. They were so excited to be owners of this 1955 International Style house – a unique residence in a sea of ranch homes.

But the ranch homes were slowly disappearing as the McMansions encroached. In fact, two weeks after the Grahams moved in, demolition began on a ranch house next door.

They could hear the jack hammers and the rumble of the backward bobbling bobcats as they unpacked their boxes.

Nearly immediately they noticed cigarette smoke in their home. It was as if someone were in their home lighting up. It would suddenly start, stop with no trace of a smell. Nearly every day that happened. Sometime was distinctly pipe smoke – that was most often in the garage, sometimes in the living room or even the carport. The cigarette smoke tended to be in the guest room, kitchen, master bedroom and the basement.

The sudden cigarette smoke was at first annoying. They told construction workers not to smoke near their home. They complied.

It was clear that the construction workers were not the problem when the smoke continued late at night and on weekends.

When Apple shared the odd incidents with a friend at work. “Maybe you have a couple of chain-smoking ghosts in your home, “ she laughed. “You might need to call an exorcist.”

Apple froze and immediately texted her her husband at work, “Our house is HAUNTED!”

She was hysterical. Forest had to call her and calm her down. “Our house is not haunted,” he said encouragingly. “It’s not that old. Ghosts only haunt Victorians and older houses. It’s not a big deal.”

Yet it became clear these chain-smoking ghosts were a big deal. The cigarette and pipe smoking needed to stop immediately. The Grahams were trying to have a baby and second-hand smoke – even of the ghostly variety – was not helping their plans.

So Apple called the local Catholic Church for an exorcist. She left a voicemail. She instantly felt silly. Who would believe her?

But an hour later, a nun in a veil and a habit rang the doorbell.

“You called,” she said calmly when Apple answered the door. “I’m not an exorcist, but i think I can help.”

End of Part One

(Part Two will appear in two weeks. )