The Fire Trail, a Novel: Jessica’s Memories of Nine-Eleven

Chapter 17, Jessica, age 22, grad student, UC Berkeley, 2014:

NYC LibertyOn that same Thursday, about the time that Zachary Aguilar began his run and Anna Aguilar made tea, Jessica Thierry decided she would not return Zachary’s calls from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. She wanted to concentrate on her thesis, and she set to work. She spread out her papers and photos on the counter. She turned on her laptop and checked the national news.

Immediately images of Nine-Eleven filled the screen: the smoke, the imploding towers, the screams. Jessica drew in her breath. She had forgotten the date. Today had been a normal day on campus. She had attended her seminar on research methods and visited the Berkeley Historical Society downtown, all the while haunted by every scruffy straggler, every sinister footstep, every stranger’s glance. The Fire Trail ordeal was recent, she told herself, and the horror would recede with time, but the police sketch that confronted her at the Post Office, the bank, the market, and the library kept the man alive in her thoughts. No wonder she had forgotten the date.

The headlines had been the usual ones; she did not recall a mention of Nine-Eleven in her local news report: Live Oak Park celebrates 100th birthday. State may fine UC Berkeley for violations related to custodian death. Police seek help in solving four-year-old Berkeley murder. Business burglarized on Shattuck Avenue. Fire Trail suspect still at large . . .

Jessica turned to her notes, trying to concentrate, but unable to focus on Berkeley history, as the New York attack flashed through her mind. Her own fears seemed silly. Where had she been on that terrible day? She was nine; Samantha and Ashley, eleven. September 2001 was before Facebook and sexting and selfies. It was before Ashley’s drugs got out of hand and before Samantha’s drowning. It was before she met Dr. Stein in family therapy and learned the two systems of growth, emotion and control, that so changed her. It was before she discovered that knowledge coupled with self-discipline was empowering.

Jessica recalled her mother had picked them up early from school and driven them silently home. Ashley and Samantha were giggling about a boy, and their mother shushed them angrily. And then, at home, the television on, her parents tense. Her father got off work early.

Jessica read through her notes. She opened a new Word document, and typed:

Thesis

presentation sistersThe presence of religious institutions in the late nineteenth century were key to the development of the city of Berkeley, and thus give good reason for government support today. I shall argue this through examination of the work of the Presentation Sisters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its impact on the community of Berkeley. I shall consider the change in the community with the erosion of such religious institutions, changes seen in education, medical care, and public safety, areas of vital interest to city, state, and federal governments. 

Background

Originally settled by the Ohlone tribes, the area that is now Berkeley became home to the first Europeans in 1776 with the arrival of the De Anza Expedition, largely financed by the Catholic Church. This group established the Spanish Presidio of San Francisco, the military defense at the mouth of the Golden Gate. For his services, the soldier Luis Peralta was granted 44,000 acres of land on the coast opposite to San Francisco, contra costa, where he raised cattle. Rancho San Antonio was divided among Peralta’s four sons, and it was Vicente’s and Domingo’s parcels that eventually became the town of Berkeley. The brothers lost most of the land to Gold Rush squatters and died in poverty. Domingo lived from 1795 to 1865, and his house on Codornices Creek was the first non-Ohlone dwelling in Berkeley.

More settlers meant more children. In the early 1850s, Archbishop Joseph S. Alemany invited groups of women
religious to come to California from Europe, including the Daughters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters, Notre Dame de Namur, and the Sisters of Mercy. When the Sisters of the Presentation in Ireland were invited in 1854, they said yes. Five sisters arrived from convents in Midleton and Kilkenny; by the end of the first year three returned home due to illness. Their order was called the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

She glanced at her own family photo. In the nineteenth century families considered children a precious gift since so many died in infancy. They had larger families, for they hadn’t learned how to avoid conception when inconvenient or undesired. She thought of her sisters’ abortions, of the nieces and nephews who hadn’t survived her sisters’ choices. If there was a Heaven, would she meet them there? Reading about the many children of early San Francisco and the nuns sailing from Ireland to teach them was comforting and enriching. In contrast, her own world seemed barren in its celebration of childlessness. 

The leaves rustled outside, and Jessica turned with renewed determination to her text. Who were these Presentation Sisters, after all?

nano2The Foundress

Nano (Honora) Nagle (1718-1784) founded the Sisters of the Presentation. Cousin to the statesman Edmund Burke, she was born into a wealthy Norman-Irish family in County Cork, Ireland. When the young Nano visited the tenants on her family estate, she was troubled by their poverty and lack of education. She began a life of prayer and good works to help their children. She opened a school in 1754 in Cork City and six more schools over the next fifteen years. She cared for the poor and built homes for the elderly. She became known as the Lady of the Lantern, for she visited the sick, the elderly, the lonely, and the poor in the slums. She lived among them, spending her fortune on their education and care. In 1775 she founded a community of women religious, sisters who would continue her work. She died of tuberculosis in 1784. 

The Sisters of the Presentation have continued Nano Nagle’s work throughout the world in Ireland, England, the Americas, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Papua, New Guinea, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Palestine.

Such goodness, Jessica thought. Did such goodness exist today? It appeared so, in spite of today’s creed of self. What was the source of their goodness? Jessica intuited the source was faith in God, as though God empowered them to be good. Is that what Father Nate meant by “cult creates culture”?

The University of California

UCB HISTORYIn 1866 the private College of California in Oakland, led by Congregational minister Henry Durant, taught a classical core curriculum modeled on Yale and Harvard. The trustees decided on a new site alongside Strawberry Creek in the foothills of the Contra Costa Range.

It is said that, at Founders’ Rock, a group of College of California men watched two ships standing out to sea through the Golden Gate. One of them, Frederick Billings, thought of the lines of the Anglo-Irish Anglican Bishop George Berkeley, “westward the course of empire takes its way,” and suggested that the town and college site be named for the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish philosopher.

Bishop BerkeleyBishop Berkeley (1685-1753) had spent four years in New England and had written a poem, “The Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” the last stanza being:

“Westward the course of empire takes its way;/The first four acts already past,/A fifth shall close the drama with the day;/Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

Although he never saw Berkeley, he was correct about the course of the British Empire taking its way westward to the New World and on to the coast of California. America was, after all, the child of England and thus the child of classical education in the English language, with studies in Latin, Greek, history, English, mathematics, natural history, and later, modern languages.

America’s colonial colleges had been founded by religious institutions: Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth by Puritans (Congregationalists), Princeton by Presbyterians, the College of William and Mary, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania by Anglicans, Brown by Baptists, Rutgers by the Dutch Reformed. The University of California at Berkeley, a century later, was no exception. The degree of religious influence varied and lessened over time, but the drive to achieve and to educate the young was a key aspect of Christianity. This “course of empire” was driven by Christian assumptions and worldviews and, of course, was meant to reflect the positive aspects of empire: peace, law and order, public health, and a solid education in the liberal arts, all considered necessary for democracy to thrive.

UCB HISTORY2While much has been said about the negative aspects of British colonialism, it cannot be denied that wherever the empire found itself, it worked untiringly to better the population to the degree it knew how. And the British heritage, the heritage of the West, is one of learning, law, and charity, seeds planted by Christianity. It is a legacy of freedom that flowers throughout the world on every continent among all races and is no longer unique to the Western world, but characteristic of the “Anglosphere.”

Jessica considered her words. There was, and remained today, a thin but necessary line between Church and State. Yet if credit were not given to the Western tradition, if the next generation were not taught the ideals of democracy and free speech, American culture could lose the benefits of their precious tradition of liberty and law. That would be a tragedy indeed.

Christine Sunderland, The Fire Trail (eLectio Publishing, 2016, 135-143)

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