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