It was late afternoon on a hot, humid August day, just a short block from Galveston Bay. I drove my truck under the house, an abode elevated to escape the high tide of a hurricane, tired, relieved, but disappointed. Two weeks after the ‘opening’ (as commercial fishermen call the start of the fall shrimp season on Texas’ bays ) the excitement and optimism of the fall season had degenerated into its normal, predictable phase of long days in search of the elusive prey as the profitable catches of the first week receded to a distant memory. But my spirit, like that of all true professional fishermen remained upbeat, buoyed by one’s most valuable asset; hope. Thinking that a ‘norther’ will arrive soon to ‘stir’ the shrimp up, or as I assured myself, “I have not gone up off Dow’s or Beazley’s yet,” drove away my pessimism. As Scarlet informed us in Gone With the Wind, “Tomorrow is a another day.” All would be fine as long as the boat’s engine remained running and the always looming threat of a fall hurricane remained at bay. But as I walked up the two short flights of steps to the front door of my house, I put these concerns in the past or future, to enjoy a few hours of relaxation with the family.
I kicked off my worn-out tennis’ on the welcome mat (I always leave my boots on the boat) and entered the house, one of those Swiss-chalet types with the highly steeped roof originally designed to combat excessive snowfall, though on a house located at 29 degrees north latitude the roof was of little use outside of its aesthetics. Able to scan the whole of the bottom floor in the small two story house I saw Kelly, my attractive young wife of 4 years busy in the kitchen. I walked her way then said “Hey, what’s goin on?”
Turning toward me she replied “Nothing much, just getting something ready for dinner, how did it go?”
After a perfunctory kiss I answered, “Not that much, worked across the bay down south, but never found more than a scratch, a couple of boxes I guess, not more than that, but still a little something. Where are the kids?”
“Well, Dale is down the street and Miles is playing in Dale’s room.”
Dale was my eleven year old stepson and Miles had just turned two. She then hit me with a phrase that always amused her, “Gee, you stink!”
“What a shock, I am a shrimper ya know!” I replied. “OK, I’ll get cleaned up.”
Grabbing a beer out of the refrigerator I walked into Dale’s room where Miles played on the floor with one of Dale’s toy cars. Setting the beer on the floor I took him up in my arms. He felt light as a feather and while I kissed him on the cheek he looked curiously at me with his mother’s brown eyes. “Better put ya down now or you’ll smell as bad as me!” I chuckled to myself.
Emerging from the shower, feeling newly minted and hungering for something to feed my mind beyond the stale radio conversation at work, I plopped down on the couch, one of those wrap around entertainment types that remained from my bachelor days. Feeling fortunate for actually arriving home while the sun was still up, it only being eight in the evening, I reached for the remote relaxed and thankful. “Hey Kelly, how did your day go?” I asked.
“Just another sticky, hot day at the camp” she responded. Kelly worked at the same marina where I kept my shrimp boat.
“When is supper going to be done, it smells good.” I responded, “Do you want me to get Dale in?”
“No he is just next door, play’in with his friend, I’ll yell for him.”
While Kelly slid open a large window next to the kitchen to tell Dale to come in, I turned on the T.V. in search of something interesting. Since the news programs were already over I went from channel to channel, discontented with the television’s level of mindlessness until my eyes scanned a newspaper at the end of the couch. Picking it up I realized that it was not a daily, but one of those regional monthlys dominated by ads. Outside of the one story on the front page and the ever-present editorial designed to catch a potential reader’s attention, it had little in the way of actual content. I ignored the editorial, but was attracted to an old black and white photograph that accompanied it, one which many of us living on the upper Texas coast have seen. The picture was a reprint of ten nuns and ninety three children of various ages on the steps of a large wooden structure just prior to its destruction in the infamous 1900 Storm, named for the year it landed in contrast to today’s custom of identifying hurricanes by female (and more recently male) names. The accompanying text reminded the reader that the height of the hurricane season was upon us and everyone should be making preparations in the off-chance that we get hit. In actuality the official hurricane season began in the spring, but on the Texas Coast the great ones have typically landed during the months of August through October.
Galveston, as all locations on the Gulf Coast, has had numerous encounters with tropical cyclones, each storm having its own pattern of destruction, dependent upon the storm’s strength, landing location, and ground speed. Galveston Island, a barrier island little more than a glorified sandbar, approximately twenty seven miles long and never more than three miles wide is particularly vulnerable to these storms. It has two openings to Galveston Bay, one on its south and west whose pass is tricky and shallow and one on its north and east end that was acceptable in the nineteenth century to all but the largest ocean going vessels, and a suitable protected deep water wharf. With some of the most profitable cotton growing areas in close proximity, and one of the first rail lines in the state of Texas to carry King Cotton to port, Galveston quickly grew in spite of its susceptibility to hurricanes. For example, Galveston’s first European residents, pirates and freebooters, established a settlement in the 1810’s that was destroyed when a storm inundated the whole of the island in Gulf water. Early settlers told stories of Native Americans dying en masse when they were unfortunately caught unawares on a hunting expedition. The danger of sudden fall storms was one reason why Native Americans never established a permanent presence on the island. Occasional storms had damaged portions of Galveston during the remainder of the nineteenth century, but never to the extent that made residents seriously consider the potential danger. In fact, the city of Galveston had grown throughout the nineteenth century, rivaling even New Orleans as a cotton exporter. This expansion required building farther onto the so-called West End, where sea level elevations were the lowest, sometimes little more than a few feet.
One of the institutions that were established farther west was St. Mary’s Orphanage. It was built just beyond large sand dunes that the Catholic order believed would protect the orphanage from a storm’s tidal surge. The orphanage was originally built to house poor unfortunate children left parentless by periodic, devastating yellow fever epidemics. The location, removed from the plague’s epicenter, seemed to make sense. Two large dormitories separately housed girls and boys where the prevailing southeast breeze and the daily sound of the rhythmic surf created a pleasant environment for the sisters and children. Soon after the haven for the parentless was inaugurated there, part of one of the buildings was destroyed in a storm, though this did not deter the order from remaining in this location, a decision that proved costly.
On September 8, 1900 the orphanage housed ten nuns belonging to the Congregation of the Incarnate Word and ninety-three children. Tide levels began to rise on the afternoon of September 8 as the weather took a decided turn for the worse and the protective sand dunes began to erode at an alarming rate. In response, the sisters moved the children into the strongest and most recently built of the two dorms as the first building quickly succumbed to the storm’s surge. But the move only delayed the inevitable.
The children were escorted to the second floor as the storm raged outside and a few of the children, feeling the building shake, escaped to the roof. To calm the children’s fears the sisters led the children in an old French hymn, Queen of the Waves, a song that calls on the Virgin Mary for protection in face of an angry sea. But soon, as the winds increased to more than 120 miles per hour and the tide rose to 15 feet, massive waves slowly shook the building from its very foundation. At this point the sisters made a sacrificial, but unfortunately disastrous decision.
Fearful that in the building’s inundation they might lose one or more of their precious charges, they ordered the orphanage’s caretaker to retrieve some clothesline rope and divided the children into lots of 6-8 to which they individually tied one group to each sister.
Though the nun’s action was committed out of love and concern, it undoubtedly doomed themselves and the children when the building suddenly gave way during the height of the storm. In the roiling, churning Gulf water, debris and flotsam must have tangled in the clotheslines, and as one or more of the children or nuns were trapped or yielded to drowning, all those tied together in the strings were in turn lost. Only three boys that had moved to the roof survived as they clung to an uprooted tree that had floated by.
The nuns along with the children they gave their lives for, were found in the aftermath of the devastation in various places on the island while the bodies of two of the sisters, Raphael and Genevieve along with eleven of their children were incredibly discovered many miles away on the mainland at Texas City. Only heaven itself knows with what terror they perished. Every September 8 the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word memorialize the sacrifice of their sisters, and the hapless children that drowned with them, by singing the hymn that the nuns sang with their charges that fateful night over a century ago. But, back to my house.
As Dale scrambled into the house I got up, moved around the couch carrying the paper with me to a glass-topped table just off the kitchen where Kelly was seated, waiting for supper to finish. I pulled out a chair and set down next to her, placing the paper between us, hoping for a little conversation, for she certainly looked better that anything on the television. I noticed that Miles had walked, or shall I say, waddled in his little simian-like way, reminiscent of all toddlers, into the kitchen looking for his mom and dad. A beautiful towhead, Miles was a child in the midst of his clumsy, oafish, but endearing phase of childhood development. He fascinated me with his wonder at the world around him and a curiosity made dangerous when coupled with a naiveté unusual even for a small child as young as he was. But this innocence endeared him to his mother, brother and father in an unusually strong bond. And though he was intuitively intelligent, the little boy seemed not overly concerned about his lack of mobility or his latent ability to talk, for his vocabulary included little more than a few monosyllabic words. Seeing us seated at the table he slowly made his way toward us.
“Hey little budster, watcha doin?” I asked Miles as he approached.
But the lad said nothing, just headed between Kelly and myself. Miles grabbed for the paper, but as he was unable to reach it, I slid the paper to the edge where the little child could peer at it. But as he was not tall enough to see, I sat him on my lap and moved the paper over to where he could spy it, though why he was interested in it, neither my wife or I could imagine. Looking down at the old picture, he slowly, intently, silently, and deliberately studied the old photo, and then stretching out his little hand, and leaning forward, he extended his diminutive little index finger until it almost touched the paper directly at the middle of the photo, and said forthright in his juvenile gibberish with near total dispassion two simple words, “They’re angels.”
The words initially glanced off my mind as I gave a furtive look toward my wife and then back at Miles, “What was that?” I asked suspiciously. “You mean the ladies dressed in black with the funny hats?” I clarified, thinking that the little tike had mistaken the nuns for something he might have seen in a cartoon or book. Our family was not Catholic.
“No” he replied emphatically, “them” as he pointed again, this time actually touching the paper where the children made up the whole of the photograph’s center. Looking up at me incredulously, Mile’s face expressed astonishment that I did not recognize what he saw, as if he had only stated the obvious.
I could only reply with stupid simplicity “Wow.”
My wife, light years more spiritual and psychic than I, leaned toward me as I looked at her inquisitively. “What the heck Kelly! he’s never even said the word ‘angel’ before nor any word even close to that, what is he saying, what does he mean? He’s not even two?”
“It’s very simple James” she casually replied, “Think of where Miles has just come from, he recognizes them.” Then she added a sad postscript, “But in time he won’t remember them or anything of his past he knows now, this world will wash it away.”
The ten nuns and their ‘angels’ circa 1900
St. Mary's Angels
For in the resurrection they
neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. Matthew 22:30
Queen of the Waves
Queen of the Waves, look forth across the ocean
From north to south, from east to stormy west,
See how the waters with tumultuous motion.
But fear we not, tho' storm clouds round us
gather, thou art uor Mother and thy little Child
Is the all Merciful, our loving Brother
God of the sea and of the tempest wild.
Help, then sweet Queen, in our exceeding
By thy seven griefs, in pity Lady Save;
Think of the Babe that slept within the manger
And help us now, dear Lady of the Wave.
Up to the shrine we look and see the glimmer
Thy votive lamp sheds down on us afar;
Light of our eyes, oh let it ne'er grow dimmer,
Till in the sky we hail the morning star.
Then joyful hearts shall kneel around thine altar
And grateful psalms reecho down the nave;
Never our faith in they sweet power can falter,
Mother of God, our Lady of the Wave.