Monday, March 11, 2013

Two gay guys, a nun and a big old house

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This preoccupation with old houses leads to interesting destinations, some down memory lane. That happened Sunday when I got to thinking about this one and went online to look for images.

It is the Max Schmidt-Petersen house in Davenport, not the grandest in the Quad Cities by any means but more notable than some because it is where the now-defunct Marycrest College got started.

And for what it's worth, it also was the site of a magic afternoon during one phase of my (pre- and post-Vietnam) graduate school career involving old friend Bob Dillon (not that Bob Dillon) and our mutual friend, the late and still lamented Sister Jeanette Quinn.

I can see us --- whooping and hollering up and down the grand staircase in the then-empty house, trying the grand bathtub in the grand marbled and tiled upstairs bathroom on for size (no water) and dodging the last occupant of the building, an elderly renegade nun who refused to give up her room somewhere in the attics. The interior, grander than the exterior, was still largely intact.

The old house wasn't as crowded by other buildings then, and the view off the back porch didn't involve sidewalks and a street --- just grass and trees.

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The house, designed by Frederick G. Clausen, was built in the Queen Anne style in 1888 and acquired by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport in 1937. In 1939, the Bishop of Davenport asked the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, then headquartered at Ottumwa Heights, to open a women's college there --- Marycrest --- to complement all-male St. Ambrose. The house at first was the only college building, then became the sisters' residence. By the time we were dancing through its halls, the campus included many buildings and the house had been emptied of people and furniture and was transitioning into other uses.

It was an odd combination then, two gay guys and a nun --- but the University of Iowa was notable for odd combinations like that during the 1960s and this would have been 1969 --- the year of Stonewall and not long after the Second Vatican Council  (John XXIII had died six years earlier), when progressive Catholics still were hopeful.

When I arrived in Iowa City, St. Thomas More --- the west-side church most closely affiliated with students --- was meeting in a giant Quonset hut, replaced by 1969 with an innovative new building that in many ways expressed the spirit of Vatican II. Culturally protestant, I attended my first Mass there, fairly traditional ---  guitars, liturgical dance and radical politics came along a little later.

The School of Journalism, then at the top of its game, had a lively community of Catholic religious types, too, including Fr. John B. Bremner, perhaps the best teacher I've ever had; Fr. Victor Power, who kept getting letters from his aunts encouraging him to come home to Ireland and to God; Sr. Norbert Reuss; and, of course, Sr. Quinn.

Jeanette was a native of Georgetown, just down Highway 34 east of Russell, sacrificed by her family when about 12, as was the custom in some large Irish families then, as a form of offering to God. Educated by the sisters at Ottumwa Heights, she took her vows and worked into her 40s as a teaching nun, knowing no other life.

As parochial schools began to close, however, she found herself at loose ends and was assigned to the University of Iowa to earn a degree in journalism, which was how she ended up in Iowa City. By the time Bob and I drove from Iowa City to Davenport to have lunch with her --- and to play for a while in that big old house --- she had earned her second degree and was working public relations at Marycrest, but was restless. She wanted to teach and was at considerable odds with her mother superior about that.

Not long after that afternoon, everything changed. I went to Vietnam. Bob went back to teaching. Fr. Bremner earned his PhD, moved on to a new job at the University of Kansas, was released from his vows as a priest and married. Vic Power, also released from his vows, went on to earn advanced degrees at the University and became a promising author and playwright.

Jeanette was dispatched to the mother house at Ottumwa Heights to cool her heels, then left the order and found the teaching job she had wanted for many years --- at a community college. She married, too.

Years roared past. By 1990, Marycrest had become insolvent and was sold for $5 million, $3 million of the purchase price representing assumed debt. It became Marycrest International University and then closed entirely during 2002. The campus --- including the Schmidt-Petersen house --- now is the Marycrest Senior Campus, unaffiliated with any religious order.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Davenport filed for bankruptcy during 2006 after losing the first of many anticipated lawsuits filed by those who had been raped as children during previous decades by its priests. Eventually, the diocese paid $37 million to more than 150 victims of sexual abuse and emerged from Chapter 11.

The Diocese sold its innovative St. Thomas More Church on Riverside Drive in Iowa City to the University of Iowa and moved the parish into a machine-shed-like building in Coralville during 2009.

Of the people I've mentioned here, Jeanette died not too long after making several of her dreams come true. She had battled diabetes for many years. John Bremner earned a nationwide reputation among journalists as an educator and "guardian of the newsroom," then died during 1987; (Patrick) Victor Power died during 1988. Just this last fall, my old friend Bob passed in Kansas City, rich in honors as a teacher of journalism and for his service to those living with HIV/AIDS.

And quite frankly, I've been feeling a little left behind.

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