Pauline and the Train Ride from New Orleans to Chicago
By David R. Weiss, based on the recollections of my Great Uncle Dick Fischer, who heard the story from Pauline (his mother) herself. It reminded me immediately of the tales spun by Huck Finn every time he needed to be someone other than himself.
My great-grandmother, Pauline, was born in 1890 in Chicago to a German Lutheran family. Tragically, her mother died in childbirth—along with her twin sister, Magdalene. So she was raised mostly by relatives in Chicago.
Her father was a well-to-do businessman. He made his money in the window business, being the person who would sell the windows to large office buildings. Eventually he wound up down in New Orleans, where he became something of an important “man about town.” In fact, when President McKinley visited New Orleans in 1901, he was part of the color guard of dignities that escorted the President through town. Somewhere in the family there’s an aerial photo of President McKinley and his horse-mounted escorts in which my great-great grandfather Spring appears.
While in New Orleans he met and married a Catholic woman and together they sent for Pauline, who was 6-7 years old at the time to come join them in New Orleans. She came down and lived with them for about 2 years. She attended (and lived at) the Sacred Heart Academy, a very nice boarding school, and during the summers she lived with them at home. By all accounts she got along fine with her stepmother, but she was NOT happy attending a Catholic school. It felt to her like she was being asked to betray her Lutheran faith.
This was an era when “Catholic” and “Lutheran” were fierce rivalries and very mistrustful of each other. She felt so bad about being “turned” Catholic against her will at this boarding school that she made plans to run away, back to her relatives in Chicago. She saved up her allowance money until she had enough to buy a train ticket from New Orleans to Chicago.
When she was only 8-9 years old she bought a ticket and boarded a train without telling anyone of her plan. But just as the train was getting ready to depart a pair of Catholic nuns who’d also boarded the train noticed Pauline—a young girl all by herself—and they asked her why she was traveling alone.
Well, Pauline knew that if she told them the whole truth she’d be turned in as a runaway and sent back to her father and stepmother … and to the Sacred Heart Academy. So she invented a slightly different “truth” that worked very well.
Flipping the facts exactly opposite, he explained that some years ago her Catholic mother and sister had died up in Chicago and that her father had recently married a Lutheran wife down here in New Orleans and had brought her down here to raise her up Lutheran. She confessed that she was running away because she had Catholic family back in Chicago that would raise her up right in the Catholic faith.
Well, these Catholic nuns were only too happy to help a “Catholic” girl run away! They kept her company the whole ride up to Chicago (they were riding the train on to Milwaukee). They even paid for all her meals and made sure no one bothered her. At the Chicago train station they blessed her for her courage and bid her well. And then Pauline quickly found her way back to her Lutheran relatives who did raise her up right, but in the Lutheran faith.
Pauline successfully made her “escape” from New Orleans because, like Huck Finn, she knew how to think quick on her feet and tell the “truth” that needed to be told in that moment. She kept in touch with both of the Catholic nuns by mail; one of the nuns lived to be 101 and remained a pen pal to Pauline until she died.
Years into their correspondence, Pauline eventually confided the whole truth to both nuns. There were no hard feelings; by then the friendship they’d come to share was stronger than the faith that they did not. It’s a humorous tale of mischief and adventure, but it reminds us, too, that the real merit of our differences is always best seen when framed by friendship.
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This post is part of an occasional series of family history vignettes that I’m working on.