Laurine Dichtel, SCN, interviewed by Paschal Maria Fernicola, SCN
Our Dichtel family has German roots. My grandfather, George Adolph Dichtel, was born in Bavaria, Germany on August 11th, 1832. He came to America after serving the required three years in the German army. He arrived in the United States at the beginning of the Civil War. George enlisted in the Union Army in Philadelphia and fought against the Indians in the West during that period. Later, George Adolph was put in charge of a National Cemetery. Eventually, he was transferred to Memphis and employed at the National Cemetery located there.
My father remembered living in Hampton, Virginia and was taught there by an order of Brothers. After my paternal grandfather’s death, my father, George Walbach Dichtel, lived with his mother on Exchange Street in downtown Memphis. He attended Christian Brothers High School and became an electrician.
Regarding my mother’s family, sometime before 1850, Francis Xavier Zimmerman came to America from Germany. This was my maternal grandfather. My maternal grandmother, Caroline Hauser, also emigrated to America from Germany. Both families left Germany so that their sons would not have to be in the military. The two families settled in Fort Madison, Iowa, where Francis and Caroline met and married. My mother, Verene Rose Zimmerman, one of Francis and Caroline’s children, remembered living in Fort Madison, Iowa. After her mother’s death, Verene Rose and her older brother Frank took a train to Memphis to join their sister Carrie, married to Joe Girard. There are interesting stories about Joe Girard. On one occasion the house caught fire. He took out a statue and tried unsuccessfully to take the piano out the front door but forgot to pick up the family money. Much later, after my mother had married and moved to the other side of Memphis, her sister Carrie took the streetcar to our house to visit her every Tuesday.
Left to right, back row: Verene Dichtel, Rozanne Dichtel, George Walbach Dichtel, Mary Carolyn Dichtel; Front row: Wallie Dichtel, Laurine Dichtel, Margaret Dichtel
My parents had six children. Rozanne,named after Daddy’s mother Rozannah, Margaret, Laurine, Wallie (George Jr.), Mary Carolyn, and Frank. My sister Rozanne had been taught by Sister Laurine Moran, SCN, at St. Brigid’s Grade School. Rozanne loved her so that she got my mother to name me after her. I have always loved my name.
With a partner, my father co-owned an electric shop on Fourth and Adams. During the Depression my father never fired any of his shop men. He and his partner just took home less money. A Depression memory I have is that my First Communion veil and stockings were of cotton not silk like my older sister’s had been.
My mother stayed at home, taking care of the six of us, fixing meals, etc. As a young bride she had learned to cook Daddy’s favorite meals from his mother with whom they lived. The German cooking she learned included several kinds of home-made dumplings and noodles.
I remember sitting on my father’s lap as he sat in his big comfortable chair. There was no television, of course, but we had radio. I recall being scared of the radio sitting on the high shelf in the dining room and it talked!.
We went to St. Brigid’s Grade School taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. My favorite teacher was Sister Mary Clotilda Vesper, who taught music after school hours and from whom I took music and organ lessons. She wisely always sent another girl with me when I practiced on the organ in the nearby empty church.
St. Brigid School was on Third Street, close to downtown. Daddy drove us there on his way to work. We walked home, which seemed interminable on hot afternoons. Sometimes, on our way home, we stopped by St. Joseph’s Hospital to visit my father’s sister where she now worked and lived. She and her husband Porgy had lived next to us on Looney Avenue until his death. My widowed aunt had a hard time, crying a great deal, staying with us and sleeping in our dining room. Finally, it was arranged that she would live in a room at the hospital, mending linens. When we stopped by on our way home, she would always find a drink of juice for us. I remember Tee, short for Aunty, had two canary birds, which I’m sure gave her much enjoyment.
Left to right: Carrie Zimmerman, Verene Zimmerman, Annabel Zimmerman, Frank Zimmerman (Verene was Sister Laurine’s mother)
When I was in the eighth grade, the school was moved to a new building on Woodlawn with a new name, Holy Names. It was just across the street from our driveway. My father was on the school board and was outraged to find out that the girls’ bathroom had no dividers. That was fixed immediately. The building had a gymnasium, which was used as a church for a long time until a Church was built on the property. I played the organ from a balcony in that gymnasium church. Aggie Crone, later an SCN, was often there helping me sing.
Though Holy Names was adding a grade each year to eventually become a four year high school, my father wanted me to go to Sacred Heart High School. This school with grades one through twelve, was located across town and staffed by SCNs. Daddy drove my older sister Margaret, already at Sacred Heart, and me to school in the mornings and we took the streetcar home. My two brothers went to Christian Brothers High School, run by the Christian Brothers. My father had been educated by the Christian Brothers at their school on Adams Street in downtown Memphis many years earlier.
In 1944 when I was seventeen, my mother had a heart attack which would take her life. Daddy called my married sister Rozanne, asking her to bring us all to St. Joseph Hospital that night so we could see our mother the last time. The Saturday before, I had been so busy finishing my Easter outfit that I had not stopped to help her bring in the groceries. Now, three days after Easter – the Solemn High Mass of her funeral – we were climbing up the many steps following her coffin. I remember that in Church, my aunt Carrie told me to put my arm around my little sister who was sitting next to me and needing comfort.
My Aunt Carrie told me once that my mother had hoped I would become a Sister. My aunt’s daughter Blanche was a nun, although I do not recall her community. My father delighted in visiting her whenever our family took a trip, which was often.
The five of us (my oldest sister was married) would pile into the car with my father, and off we went. Once we traveled as far as Canada. On another trip we encountered an army caravan, which meant that we could not pass, but had to move at their speed. That night we went to bed early and got up early the next morning to avoid being behind them. When we got on the road, the army was already ahead of us!
George and Verene Dichtel, Sister Laurine’s parents
I graduated from high school in 1944. Aggie Crone’s mother, a dear friend of my own mother, arranged for her son Walter to take me to the senior prom. Because I had highest honors graduating from Sacred Heart, I received a scholarship to go to Siena College in Memphis, taught by Dominican Sisters, I graduated summa cum laude from college in 1948.
After my mother died I had taken over the kitchen at home, and was responsible for cooking meals for the family. I remember one time I had invited Anne Crone, OFM, a double first cousin to Aggie, to dinner at our house and I served corn on the cob. With Sister Anne’s encircling headgear she could not eat corn on the cob.
After graduation from college, I taught third and then fourth grade at St. Anne’s on Highland. The third grade was separated from the second by a curtain and we taught those two grades in the Church. I found this difficult because the children became unruly. The smaller fourth grade and I were moved to Father Nenon’s front porch, glass-enclosed and sometimes a bit chilly. This worked and I was comfortable there for two years. The students were so much easier to teach in the new situation.
I went to the old Sambucetti home were the Sisters from Holy Names lived to talk to them about entering the convent. Finally, I shared the news with my father. This was the difficult part although I knew that my younger sister was capable of dealing with the cooking at home.
In the novitiate at Nazareth I was happy: I had given myself to God and it seemed to me that God welcomed me.
My first mission was at Sacred Heart Academy in Helena, Arkansas. I taught kindergarten in the morning and music in the afternoon. The children were normal and active. With one set of twins, the boy pounded the table from below until I found out who was doing that. I had not kept him busy enough. Kindergarteners always put on a play. I chose one about bunny rabbits. A difficulty I remember is that just before the play, one little girl came up saying she had to go to the bathroom.
My family was always supportive of my vocation and visited me at Nazareth. My oldest sister came to Helena with her husband and children to visit and my Uncle Frank even stopped by once.
My father died when I was in Helena. I had missed writing him a letter one week. After I had written him the next week, word came of his death. I went into the superior’s office and took out the letter I had deposited there for mailing. Sister Mary Timothy Holland, our superior, seemed disturbed by this but I could not imagine having the letter arrive at my dead father’s house.
This remembrance of attending his funeral comes to mind. Sister was going to send me to Memphis for the funeral with a couple of girls in our boarding school who were traveling to Memphis. Sister Catherine Alma Reilly objected strongly to this. A relative of my family, who had come to Memphis for the funeral, was willing to drive to Helena and take me to Memphis for the funeral. I remember wandering around in our house, grieving. Of course, I did not spend the night at home but at the Sisters’ home. My brother could not take me by myself, so he brought his two little boys in the car with him as companions.
Sister Joseph Leo Durbin had been in Helena for many years. When she retired, there were many animals still there, among them rabbits and grown turkeys. Sister Esther Maria Johnson took care of them. When the young turkeys had to be dipped in some kind of blue medicine, two of us (Sister Esther Maria and I) came to meals with blue hands; it did not readily wash off.
We used these animals for food for ourselves and the boarders. After the ones we needed had been taken and slaughtered, two seminarians – one was Walter Clancy – and the father of Sister Paschal Maria Fernicola helped the Sisters prepare these animals for our deep freezer. I remember Sister Mary Anselma Grimes and I with a dead rabbit carcass held between us. Mr. Fernicola had split the rabbit’s skin around its belly and Sister and I completed the preparation process.
One of my Helena memories is wet-mopping the front hall in the convent with Sister Mary Timothy behind me, telling me if I missed a spot.
Another is that Virginia Zambie was a senior at Sacred Heart Academy and talked to me about coming to the convent. She did enter and later left some years after profession.
I was changed from Helena to Owensboro Catholic High in Kentucky where I stayed two years. There boys were segregated from the girls. One day a radio disappeared from my classroom. When a student told me he had taken it, I suggested that he tell the principal, Father Powers, if my memory is correct. He told the principal who promptly put him out of school.
From Owensboro I went to St. Mary’s Academy in Leonardtown, Maryland. I was only there one year, but it was a memorable year. Located not far from Patuxent River Naval Base, the school had many daughters of Navy families. When the candidate for Untied States president, Robert F. Kennedy, was killed, and the news came over the school’s loudspeaker, many of the girls put their heads down on their desks and cried. Next, I went to Memphis, my hometown and to Sacred Heart, my alma mater. The convent there was crowded.
In the summer of 1967 I received the Masters of Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame, where I studied for six summers.
After two years in Memphis, I went to St. Vincent de Paul School in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a mission I came to cherish. One evening I was directing the church choir at their concert. We had recently made skirts and jackets from our serge habits. At this gathering of the choir, I wore a light blue blouse with tiny lace at the sleeves. One male parishioner said to me, “I never thought I would see a nun with lace.” The students there were very friendly and later, three of them drove to Memphis to see me.
My next mission was LaSalette Academy in Covington, Kentucky. When Sister Barbara Maria Thomas offered us the choice to live in apartments instead of living in a huge house, seven of us opted for that. Three of us were in one apartment in nearby Newport and four of us in a second apartment in the same complex. That meant we drove to school across a bridge, of which there were several. I, from Memphis, was not accustomed to driving on icy roads. One morning I was navigating the icy bridge and a man in the car behind me yelled, “Take your foot off the brake!” That was the beginning of my learning how to drive on ice.
In 1969 Sister Virginia Louise Stocker called to tell me that a new school was being established in Memphis. She paid my way to go there for a supper with other possible teachers for this new school which would be named Memphis Catholic High School. I sat near SCNs and also Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) who were teaching at an African American grade school in the city. My sister Margaret was into Civil Rights and, through her, I knew these BVM sisters.
There was no one convent for the SCNs teaching at this new school. One SCN lived at Little Flower; Sister Mary Imogene Perrin lived at St. Louis Convent in East Memphis; several lived in a small house across from the school’s football field. I went to St. Thomas Convent in South Memphis and lived with the BVM’s in their African American neighborhood.
Memphis Catholic High School brought together the girls from Sacred Heart High School, the boys from Catholic High and the African American students from Father Bertrand. Father Herbert Prescott was the first principal. The second year, Mr. William Hoyt was principal with Sister Mary Kilian Pollard, BVM, and Sister Pauline Abell, SCN, as assistant principals.
The Sacred Heart girls had worn pastel colored dresses for summer uniforms. One day without any discussion, Sister Pauline announced that it was time for summer uniforms. This caused an uproar. Father Bertrand girls could not imagine wearing pastel dresses. Sister Pauline left MCHS after that year.
That first year I had a small study hall. One day a white boy stood up, and asked, “Why are black people so many different shades?” A black girl stood up and said, “If white men had not raped our women, there would not be these many shades.” Certainly, this was an understandable response from her. I could only say, “Please sit down”.
There were many problems the first few years. Gradually the students grew comfortable with each other. A few years later, I remember that when the bell rang for change of classes, students were late to class because they enjoyed chatting between classes, black and white together. I remember Mr. Hoyt on the loudspeaker, “If you can’t hear me, get where you can.”
When I was living in my hometown, Memphis one of my brothers and his wife divorced. They were the parents of seven children. She took the three girls and he kept the four boys. At one point the youngest boy got in trouble and his counselor said he could not return to his home unless there were changes. My sister Margaret and I agreed to go and stay at their home because my brother’s job often took him out of town. Once as I was returning to my brother’s house, I saw two of his sons sitting on the roof of the house. I had informed White Station High School that I was in charge of Randy, the youngest of the four boys. One day I got a call from the school that Randy was ill and wanted to go home. I had two free periods together at MCHS so I drove out and checked on him. I told the school officials that I felt that Randy was not ill. Randy told me later that the school checked on him every period to see that he was in school. I am not sure that I made any real change in the living conditions at my brother’s house, but I slowed things down a bit. After two years there, I went back to live with the BVM’s on Trigg Avenue.
Sister Mary Kilian Pollard became very ill. Because during the day all of the Sisters went to their various schools and tasks, Mr.Hoyt went to the Diocesan Office and inquired about renting Apartment #11 at 38 N. Idlewild. That way, we Sisters who were on staff at MCHS could check on Sister Mary Killian during the day. Idlewild was a small, dead end street across from Memphis Catholic so crossing traffic was not a problem. He got the apartment for Sister Mary Kilian and me. I could walk across the parking lot and check on her during the school day. Sisters Jackie Cramer and Nic Catrambone, BVMs, came to work at MCHS and they also lived in one of the apartments on Idlewild.
When Sister Mary Kilian died, the Diocese made other arrangements for the apartment complex. They decided that only priests would be allowed to live there. I needed to find a residence. My sister Mary Carolyn told me not to live somewhere that I did not know anybody. Kathleen Benjamin, a former SCN living with Nardine Aquadro, SCN, called me and told me there was an empty apartment across from theirs. So I moved to Oakmont Place, just down the street from where my deceased sister Margaret had lived. I retired from MCHS in 2009. The apartments on Oakmont had been fine, but soon a different element seemed to be present. In the apartment just above mine, there was a great deal of activity. I looked around for a better environment. Nardine, Kathleen and I moved to an apartment on Ardwick Drive, farther east. After we moved there, we found that SCN Grace Saia and Jeanine Jaster lived in separate apartments near ours.
One evening Nardine said she needed to go to the hospital and asked me to accompany with her. Sadly, she returned with the diagnosis of cancer. Nardine’s life became a series of chemotherapy treatments, visits to West Clinic in Midtown, and radiation treatments.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Benjamin had a contact in upper state New York. This lady’s mother had taken care of Kathleen’s mother. So Nardine made arrangements for Kathleen to go there. The lady’s son drove to Memphis one day, picked up Kathleen and her belongings, and drove back to upper New York State the next day. Kathleen is still there and I occasionally call or write to her.
Nardine grew progressively worse. She went to Methodist Hospital, then finally to Methodist Hospice, where she died on December 31, 2013. After her death, I got a telephone call, telling me not to go into Nardine’s room. That seemed ridiculous, since I lived there. A male relative of Nardine’s had a key and came into my apartment, cleaning out Nardine’s room while I was there. I had the house key changed the next day.
Sister Trudy Foster, SCN, was a wonderful help during Nardine’s illness and death. She made all the necessary arrangements and I am most grateful to her.
In January, 2014, Jeanine Jaster SCN drove me to Nazareth KY, where I live today. At Nazareth, I feel protected and cared for; I am grateful to be here.
Around the Thanksgiving holiday, Janet Hilley, a niece who lives in Cincinnati, drives to Nazareth, picks me up, and drives to Memphis where we stay with Diane Esterman, another niece. There, at an open house event, relatives come and visit with me. I enjoy seeing everyone!
I am eighty nine at this writing. So far, I have no serious health problems. I belong to the Women’s Health Initiative which I joined long ago in Memphis, and am reminded to walk many steps daily and do small exercises. I am grateful to God for my life, my family, and my vocation.
Sister Laurine wrote her own story with guidance from Sister Paschal Maria Fernicola.