Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Sr. Eloise Therese

ALPHA MU GAMMA, the national college foreign-language honor society, is holding its annual convention over the next couple of days and marking its 80th anniversary. Unbeknownst to us at the Mount, the group is also honoring the founder of National Foreign Language Week, the Mount's Sister Eloise Therese Mescall, CSJ. There was an unusual instance of archives-on-deadline as I pulled together a batch of photos to send to convention organizers at L.A. City College.

Sister Eloise Therese, who joined the Mount faculty in 1948, chaired the Foreign Languages department off and on for more than a quarter century. In the "off" years she was traveling and studying in the French- and Spanish-speaking worlds, receiving a pile of honorary degrees and even a medal from the French government. Back at the Mount, she worked in the classroom and as an administrator, launching the study abroad program in the 1950s and directing the opening of the Downtown (Doheny) Campus in 1962.

She was president of Alpha Mu Gamma (headquartered at Los Angeles City College, where it remains) when she got the idea to start National Foreign Language Week. With the encouragement of educators, legislators, and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Alpha Mu Gamma launched the festivities in February, 1957. In the photo above, Sister is pointing to the inaugural poster, and given the expression on both their faces, she has probably told her hapless student to give an impromptu endorsement in French.

It's funny that this tidbit about Sister Eloise Therese had to come from Alpha Mu Gamma. An extensive obituary for Sister after her death in May 2001 ran in The Mount magazine. It enumerates many of Sister's accomplishments and suggests many more besides, but overlooks her National Foreign Language Week role.

The next NFLW runs March 5-11, 2012, at L.A. City College. The theme, which Sister would have appreciated, is "You're connected... Now communicate!" That's exactly what she was all about.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Images of the Bel Air Fire

Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux on the eastern
edge of the Chalon Campus sustained damage.
THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE EPIC DISASTER is coming up on November 6. Using the Mount's new image repository software SimpleDL, I've created a gallery of photographs from the Mount Archives. Here's the link.

Running through the end of the year, there is also an exhibit of Archives artifacts from the collection, including photographs, news coverage and the 1962 yearbook.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So, so close

IT'S WELL KNOWN THAT THE BEL AIR FIRE of Nov. 6, 1961, came very, very close to the Mount. What may not be quite as well known is how close -- and how close the College came to being lost.

In fact, the 6 o'clock news that night had Mount St. Mary's College burned to the ground. When they were finally evacuated around noon on that terrifying Monday, resident students were told that the firefighters had given up the College for lost. They gathered that evening in their homes or with friends and listened to the reports, tears streaming down their cheeks.

A dramatic nighttime photo transmitted by United Press International showed the blazing ruins of the Marian Hall of Fine Arts on the west. Rossiter Hall, on the east, had already burned. Surrounded by fire in the smoky, lightless night on the Mount, it was easy to conclude there was nothing left.

Two of the CSJs, away at Notre Dame University working on their doctorates, endured two days of agony, fearing the worst. Local newspapers and national television reported the College's loss but didn't get the name right. Then one of the Sisters got a phone call. Most of the campus had been spared. The letter Sister Mary Brigid Fitzpatrick wrote to Sister Rebecca Doan, telling her of the prayers of the community in South Bend, is in the College Archives, dated Nov. 8, 1961.

We have scores of photos, mostly snapshots, from the days after the fire, but only two or three from the day of the fire. The College community had evacuated by early afternoon, so there were no students or faculty to take pictures at the peak of the disaster. However, I did come across the photo above, taken by person unknown in the late afternoon. The smoke towering just behind Brady Hall tells the story of how close the flames really were.

There are many riveting stories in the jumble of records in the Archives; the Bel Air Fire artifacts are listed in four separate locations in the files. Pulling them all together is a fascinating but sobering process, especially when you see that nice, lush, 50-year-old chaparral just over there in the next canyon. The word miracle was used more than once in 1961, and now, seeing these pictures for the first time, I understand why.

Some of the photographs and other artifacts relating to the Bel Air Fire are on display in the Reading Room of the Charles Willard Coe Memorial Library at Chalon, with additional items in the College Archives. The exhibit will run through December.