For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. ... ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
In times of financial crisis, the corporal works of mercy, inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, become all the more important. And we have certainly had our share of financial downfalls over the past three years.
While experts tell us the Great Recession is officially over, many of the Americans who are still experiencing unemployment and uncertainty about their housing situations are not exactly breathing a sigh of relief.
Perhaps they are gaining a better understanding of what life was like during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment, bread lines and rationing were everyday facts of life for many Americans.
In order to see how Catholics helped one another during the Great Depression, and how they are doing so now, OSV recently asked readers to share their stories of how charitable giving played a part in getting people through.
Here are some responses:
Loving our neighbors
We live in a small, rural community, and helping our neighbors is a way of life.
Food seems to always be first on the list of needs, or it may be help with heating a home. We have different church groups who gather and store clothing and household goods for as needed distribution. Our food-bank drives are very successful, and the pantry is full and, incidentally, is being used more than it has been [in the past].
My mother had given me a book, “Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression of the 1930s.” I am amazed and truly inspired by the folks who endured that period of history. I hope to take a lesson from them, and hope to become even half as resourceful as they were. I am not sure I know how to “use it up, wear it out, make it last,” as was their motto!
Sue Malon, evia email
Lessons in perseverance
I do not have any personal memories of the Great Depression because I was born at the end of World War II, but my parents were teens during the Great Depression, and these are the memories they’ve shared.
My mother, Dorothy, who passed away in July 2010, was a remarkable woman. I always told her that her greatest qualities were her faith and her sense of humor. Through her greatest difficulties she always remarked, “It’s the man upstairs who’s in charge, and he’ll help me through!” It was evident to me as a teen that this is where she drew her strength, as she was a young widow with nine children. My father died suddenly, and she was faced with being the breadwinner for all of us. I think it was her experience of living through the Great Depression that gave her the faith and courage to care for all of us.
My mother went to a Catholic high school in Philadelphia and graduated in 1934. She had wanted to go to college, but financially her parents could not afford it. My grandparents were also industrious and ingenious. They owned a neighborhood restaurant.
In 1929, because of the Depression, they lost their home and restaurant. My grandmother was not discouraged. As my grandfather found employment in textile mills, my grandmother set up a restaurant in a rented storefront. She also found another home to rent.
I’m sure my grandparents didn’t make a big profit from the restaurant because the parish priest would daily send some struggling families to the restaurant, and Grandmom would make a meal for them. Mom also bragged how Grandmom was a wonderful seamstress. Grandmom used her sewing talent to make dresses for her four daughters.
Even though the Depression years brought a scarcity of material items, there was an abundance of virtues lived by my grandparents. I believe my mother was able to persevere through many difficult times because she witnessed the faithfulness and gratitude of her parents to the “man upstairs”!
Susan Reynolds, Cheltenham, Pa.
Charity began at home
I’m 78 years old, and my spouse of 55 years is 76. We were raised on farms in the same neighborhood about 40 miles west of Minneapolis. Our values were shaped by the Depression. Our list of essentials, even today, is much shorter than the next two generations.
During the Depression, charity, and what we now call welfare, was very localized and spontaneous. I don’t recall the word “entitlement” discussed. It was impossible to become dependent. I don’t recall anyone in our neighborhood going without food. Most of the people in our neighborhood heated their homes with wood. We recall our fathers knowing who was running out of wood and would deliver free wood (with a team of horses) to them, even, or especially, in a blizzard. We had a wood lot on our farms and always had a little extra.
Our cash flow was in very small amounts. Debt was avoided. If we entered into debt, it was with a handshake, and the merchant knew we would pay when a specific asset, hogs or chickens, were sold. I can recall at the time, the merchant would say, “I’ll write it down.” I believe people were happy and much less envious of others back in the Depression.
Russ and Martha Paumen, Maple Lake, Minn.
Getting by in tight times
I was born in 1920, so I was a preteen and teenager growing up and attending high school during those years. I knew there was a Depression going on, but I just thought that was the way that it always was — that there wasn’t always a job for anyone that wanted one. My dad was out of work for several years, and one of the red-letter days was when my mom, who worked at the local paper mill, came home and told my dad that the superintendent had told her to tell my dad to come to the mill because he had a job for him. Things were really cheap. We rented houses around our little village, and the rents usually ran about $8-$10 a month. You could buy a one-pound Baby Ruth candy bar for a dime. If you had a dime.
My parents always were able to provide, and my mom was a great cook. When we finally were able to buy a house for $500, the local bank wouldn’t lend my parents the money because they had no money to pay down. They finally found some local person who had the money and borrowed from him. We always had a garden, and Mom canned everything. Now my family doesn’t understand why I prefer canned food to fresh.
Daniel Handley, Plainwell, Mich.
Hard lessons — then and now
Depression brought long lines for food and cigarettes. My mother, a Chicago teacher, was paid in scrip. People were kinder then. The People Store in Roseland, Ill., would accept my mother’s scrip. She told me that a lot more people went to our local Catholic Church, St. Willibrord, now closed. St. Willibrord Parish paid the tuition for all its schoolchildren. That’s when everyone learned to save and not spend everything. Married families moved back home to live with their parents.
My grandparents came from Holland for economic and religious freedom. Even during the Depression, they knew the United States was a great country and rejoiced for the religious freedom.
Our recession brought surprise to many people who have never saved money — hard lessons never learned from their parents. I have not seen more people in church. The older people are helping the young, who feel they are entitled. Thank the Lord that my family believes in the teachings of the Catholic Church and knows we have to take what is thrown at us, but we are all working to do the most important thing anyone can do, at any time, and that is to save our immortal souls.
Marianne Mangan, Burr Ridge, Ill.
Church came first
Here is the story of my grandmother, Annie McDermott.
Annie lived with her husband, James, and her eight children in the mostly Irish portion of Mahoning County, Ohio. It was a hugely Catholic neighborhood.
James was an engineer on the P&O Railroad. Annie, like most mothers of the time, stayed at home. James was one of the few people in the community who had a job during the Depression. His neighbors who worked for the steel mills were mostly out of work. As a result, those who usually contributed to the local convent could not. So Annie did. When she did her shopping, she bought extra for the nuns. When the hobos came around looking for food, Annie gave them work to do, and a hot plate of food. And when the local parish priest needed a new roof on the church, he organized the out-of-work men to do the labor, and Annie organized the women to make two hot meals for the men. What was left over each day of work, Annie asked the women to take it home. After all, they had children to feed. And Annie would go home and scrape together whatever meal she could make with what she had in the house.
You see, for Annie McDermott, first was the Church. Second was those in need. Third was her family. She was last. She worked tirelessly for her community.
Donna Piscitelli, Alexandria, Va.