Dear Friends in Christ,
A film released last year has caught my attention and it sounds well worth watching. Starring John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, the movie is called “Stan and Ollie,” and portrays events in the later careers of the outstanding comic duo of Stan Laurel, who lived from1890 to 1965, and Oliver Hardy who lived from1892 to 1957. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1950s and 60s, I enjoyed watching reruns on television of “Laurel and Hardy” films of the 1920s and 30s. The pair made over one hundred short and feature films and had numerous cameo roles in other movies. They were eventually replaced in popularity by other comic teams, such as Abbott and Costello. In time Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis took over the torch as well.
The dry humor, zany antics, perfect timing and witty dialogue of Laurel and Hardy helped lighten up many a rainy Sunday afternoon when I was a youngster. It should be said that the Laurel and Hardy routines were always clean cut and fun, many of them the constructions of Stan Laurel, and intentionally designed to be able to be “shown to a Sunday school class,” as Laurel expressed it. In other words, it was appropriate and enjoyable material for all ages.
A personal link with Laurel and Hardy comes from my own family lore, specifically concerning Oliver Hardy. The connection is with my great-aunt Gertrude Greenwood, one of the twelve siblings of my maternal grandfather, Giles Alvin Greenwood. His sister Gertrude, from around the age of twenty-one, was a professed member of the Catholic Order of Sisters of Charity of Providence, and known in her religious community as “Sister Monica of Jesus.”
Grandpa Greenwood’s family was from Vancouver, Washington, and as a young woman Gertrude joined the Sisters of Providence and remained one of them for the rest of her life. I attended her golden jubilee of religious profession at the Motherhouse of her Congregation, Mount Saint Vincent, in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1970s. Not too many years after her fiftieth anniversary celebration, Sister Monica died.
As I was growing up in Portland, my family usually saw Sister Monica each year at the Greenwood family reunions, held each summer in Vancouver or Portland, the two cities just across the Columbia River from each other. Typically held at a public park, and on a Sunday in July or August, the family gatherings were composed of dozens of Greenwood relatives, including my parents, maternal grandparents, as well as aunts and uncles and their spouses, great-aunts and great-uncles and their spouses, nieces and nephews, grandchildren as well as cousins by the dozens, both first and second. We all enjoyed an afternoon together, which included a pot luck lunch and some form of games or sports after the meal, for all who wished to participate.
Since she didn’t drive, Sister Monica was usually brought to the reunions by one of her brothers, having obtained necessary permission from her religious superiors to reconnect with her close and distant relatives for the annual Sunday picnic. Her arrival at the reunion always drew our attention. Looking like no one else at the picnic, in her distinctive full-length black and white habit of the Sisters of Providence, she greeted all with hugs and laughter. There were no modifications in her garb or a “casual look” for a family reunion, and everyone seemed to take that for granted.
The Sisters of Providence, the Order to which Sister Monica belonged, began in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1843, by Mother Emilie Gamelin, who lived from 1800 to 1851. The Order eventually established many apostolates, including hospitals and schools in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, where Sister Monica had grown up and later joined the Order. They were and also are still present in California, Montana and other western states.
Sister Monica’s community was composed of well-educated women, many of whom were teachers in grade and high schools, and also at colleges and universities. A lot of the sisters were nurses and hospital administrators. I was born in 1952 in a hospital run by the Sisters of Providence, called Saint Vincent’s, which still exists, though in a greatly expanded form and in a different location in Portland.
Sister Monica Greenwood was among the nurses in her Order, assigned to various health care facilities in Washington, Oregon and California, until her retirement in the 1970s. The last place she worked was at Saint Peter Hospital in Olympia, Washington. During some of the 1950s, Sister Monica was assigned to Saint Joseph Hospital in Burbank, California, founded in 1943 and staffed by her sisters. Today the Burbank hospital is known as Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.
All of this is leading up to the fact that among Sister Monica’s patients at Saint Joseph Hospital in Burbank was Oliver Hardy. She had modestly shared this fact one time when my family stopped by to see her one summer in Burbank. We were making our annual family “pilgrimage” to Disneyland in nearby Anaheim, and took the opportunity to see Sister Monica at the Burbank hospital. Oliver Hardy died in 1957, so it must have been around then when we visited Sister Monica in Burbank. Hardy died in North Hollywood, but prior to his death he had received medical treatment under Sister Monica’s care.
I often have wondered what great-aunt Monica and Oliver Hardy talked about while he was in Saint Joseph Hospital. Sister Monica had a great sense of humor, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they joked and laughed. At least I hope that was the case. Coming nearer to death, might the comic Hardy have talked about faith and life after death? What impact did my great-aunt Monica have on “Babe,” as Hardy was often called? I will never know the answers to those questions in this life, and that is fine. I do know that Sister Monica was an inspiration to me growing up and as an adult and a monk, and perhaps she inspired Oliver Hardy as well.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB