Monday, March 26, 2012

Life at a Higher Altitude

Railroad station, Belen, New Mexico
As a young woman growing up in Irish Catholic Chicago, AgnesTully found her parish to be a center of social activity as well as religious instruction. That was the same experience for many young Irish immigrants and their families in Chicago. Agnes’ particular parish—now no longer in existence—was St. Anne’s church.

Like her mother before her, Agnes eventually found herself writing letters to nuns and priests and others in religious service. Perhaps this was as a sort of ministry that a lay person could perform: to aid and encourage those who had given their life to service in the Church. Perhaps it was just something she enjoyed doing, or something she did merely to follow in her mother’s footsteps. I am not sure.

At any rate, in 1909, Agnes is continuing a correspondence with someone from Tucson who signs his name simply, “Dan E. Reilly.” I do not know who this man is, although I can infer much from the first few paragraphs of his letter. He is evidently someone familiar with both Agnes’ current parish and that of her older married sister in Ohio. Whether he is familiar with the New Lexington community through family associations, personal experience, or through the Catholic organizations there, I don’t know.

Another puzzle involves the unstated reason for his concern over Agnes’ wellbeing. Is the writer a kindly father figure helping Agnes bridge the gap left from the loss of her own father? Why was she—a young woman—so run down? Agnes, who was a talented violinist, toured with a small musical group in her younger years. Perhaps the strain of too much travel had affected her health. And yet, there is that mysterious reference to “forgetting one that is not worthy,” alluding to the possibility of a more immediate emotional, interpersonal strain. What could that mean?

While giving such enigmatic references to Agnes’ current life situation, the writer himself is an unknown. In this next segment of his letter, we find he is in the territory that has not yet become the state of Arizona. He is evidently there for health reasons. Could that be due to tuberculosis? If he was originally from Chicago, could the crowded living quarters and poor health care of the time be what contributed to his ailing condition? Or was his faltering health due to some other Chicago epidemic?

The writer mentions, as his health is now on the mend, that he will be moving to the part of that United States territory soon to become the state of New Mexico. While it sounds like he will be serving as a substitute for a pastor of a church in the little town of Belen, does that mean he is himself a priest? Or someone qualified to take over administrative duties only on the pastor’s behalf?

The more questions the letter generates, the more I want to know about this stranger who is evidently not a stranger to people whom we call family.

            Well my girlie I am pleased to report privately as I did publicly in the calendar that I am getting along very nicely. Aside from two or three serious set backs of nervous prostration my health has surely improved during my nine [?] weeks stay in this climate. 

Rather than let the nervousness get a firm hold on me my next move shall be according to the advice of doctors, to a higher altitude.
            Consequently after May 29 you will find me at Belen New Mexico a quaint little city in the Rio Grande Valley about 5000 feet above sea level 32 miles from Albuquerque. The pastor a lovely soul is going blind + I will have charge of the place as long as he shall see fit to be away for operation + treatment.

Photograph, above right: The Belen, New Mexico, railroad station in 1925; courtesy the National Archives via Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. A true mystery man... Do Catholic's use the term "pastor"? This makes me wrinkle my brow.

  2. " the calendar" does sound like a church bulletin. Interesting language if he is a priest. :)

  3. has an interesting link between the Church in Belen, NM and Chicago... albeit, slightly later..


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