Thursday, June 6, 2013

The rattlesnake, 'our dear neighbor'

A "modern-day St. Patrick" : Sister Mary Gerald Leahy, CSJ,
with facilities engineer Martin Bullinger in the early 1960s,
helps a visiting rattlesnake to find a safer location.

WE INTRODUCED SISTER MARY GERALD LEAHY the other day and described her impressive career as a biologist. Although insects were her specialty, disease-bearing mosquitoes in particular, she loved biology where she found it, and there was plenty at Chalon.

Take rattlesnakes, for instance. The Mount is planted right in the middle of snake country, surrounded on three sides by dense chaparral. And it's not as though the founders didn't know what they were getting into. Here is an excerpt from a history by one of them, Mother Dolorosa Mannix:
When the real estate agent took us to see the site, there was no road, and the climb had to be made through brush -- sage, mostly, chaparral and sumac. The guide sent his dog on ahead of us, saying, "If there is a rattlesnake in the brush, the dog will bark." We were grateful that the dog did not bark, though we did see rattlers coiled around the branches of the black walnut on the summit.*
That summit, of course, was where the College was built. In spite of 85 years of development in the area, there are still plenty of snakes roaming the hills.

As a biologist, Sister Mary Gerald knew that snakes play an important role in nature's cycles. Fewer snakes would mean more troublesome critters like rabbits nibbling on the landscaping and field mice in Brady Hall. Threatening as they seem, rattlers are good neighbors. When a snake paid a visit, Sr. Mary Gerald was summoned to greet him.

The picture above, found in her papers, shows Sister's technique for handling her reptilian visitor.  As she supervises, chief engineer Martin Bullinger has managed to get the rattlesnake -- which looks to be about 4 feet long -- to clamp his fangs into the end of a long stick. A big, empty glass jar stands ready.  Drop the snake into the jar, quickly pop on the lid, and carefully escort him off campus.

According to unwritten College lore, the only person ever bitten by a rattlesnake at Chalon was one of the Sisters, who was treated at a hospital and released with no ill effects. If it was Sister Mary Gerald, it's a good bet that she didn't mind. She certainly had enough exposure: The View from October 25, 1955, has a front-page picture of Sister handling a somewhat smaller snake by herself. In the caption, she is referred to as "a Modern-Day St. Patrick." 

We think the creature-loving St. Francis of Assisi may be a better comparison. No one will ever rid the Mount of snakes as St. Patrick did in Ireland, but Sister's legacy is at least to remember that they are God's creatures, or as a scientifically minded CSJ might say, our "dear neighbor." Next time you see our neighbor Mr. Snake, be nice -- and think of Sister Mary Gerald.

* Sister M. Dolorosa Mannix, Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles Provincialate Archives, 1927. Quoted in The History of Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles, California, 1925-1975 by Sister Mary Germaine McNeil, CSJ. New York: Vantage Press, 1985. Page 6.



2 comments:

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for writing these posts. Sister Mary was my cousin. (Or, to be more precise, she was my grandmother's first cousin.) I've never seen any of these photos before and am very happy to see them on the web.

    Sister Mary got bitten by all kinds of insects (often on purpose!) and caught parasites on some of her travels, but I never heard of her being bitten by a snake. My grandmother was deathly afraid of rattlesnakes, due to a near-miss in her youth. I'm sure someone would have mentioned it if Sister Mary had ever been hospitalised for a bite.

    Sister Mary was a huge influence on me and such an inspiring presence. It's not surprising to read about her dedication to teaching and research. You may know that when she was teaching at the University of Prague, she had a terrible stroke and it was decided she should return home, where better medical care was available. She did not want to leave suddenly. 'What about my PhD students?' she said. That kind of dedication is inspiring. I hope you write more posts on her.

    When I next see my family, I'll try to find out if we have any photos of her to share.

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