Cloud of Witnesses: Josephine Cullen

When I was a curate in Our Wall Street parish, Josephine Cullen was the housekeeper. After more than 30 years working there, she moved uptown to the same job in the Church of Our Saviour, where I sometimes visited her for tea—her Celtic penicillin that sustained her until death in 2003. Neither of us had any notion that soon I would be appointed pastor of that parish.

Josephine had come from Ireland in the 1940s and went to work in the new church built on historic Cedar and William Streets for the financial district. She dutifully made the long descent from the rectory above the church to answer the doorbell as it frequently was rung by ragged men hoping for a sandwich. On a day when the bell had rung too often, she barked an unfeeling greeting on the primitive intercom and was told, “This is Cardinal Spellman.” She was not easily fooled. Voices, sometimes slurred, had identified themselves as presidents and archangels. “You tramp. If you’re the cardinal, you should be speaking to the monsignor.” So Monsignor Piggott took charge and soon enough told Josephine that it was indeed himself. His eminence was admitted, with an Italian clergyman, as Josephine withdrew to her room. The cardinal asked for her, who knelt and kissed his ring. “Are you the young lady who called me a tramp? I have been called far worse.” He then introduced Monsignor Montini who wanted to see the fine new church that was a war memorial. That a future pope had stood in her kitchen was ever after invoked as just cause not to replace the cracking linoleum.

Like many of her race, she was not silent on matters of significance or insignificance, nor was she incapable of spinning her syntax into fine symmetries of speech. Frustrated with the unkempt condition of my desk, she declared with affected resignation that the only difference between my sitting room and the Titanic was that “they had a band.” She was unusual among her peers in holding the political Kennedy family in contempt, and she even forced me once into an uncharacteristic posture of defending Senator Edward Kennedy when she ascribed the various orthopedic problems in his family to “the life they lead.”

In this and in many other ways she was of a highly original mind, and while her tendency to detect a cloud around every silver lining inoculated her against enthusiasm, much of her outward sullenness was calculated for effect. It cannot be said that she seduced others by her culinary adventures; her favorite cheese was processed and the rest of the menu ran from A to B. Nor was her dining room baroque: Its principle decoration was a pair of wooden salt and pepper shakers labeled “Souvenir of Miami.” An Advent wreath of undying plastic lay mournfully 48 weeks of the year in front of a notice that said Jesus Unseen was listening to every table conversation. Josephine had excellent hearing, too.

Modern replacements for the thinning ranks of old-style rectory house-keepers cannot match the gentle pride, one rosary from snobbery, with which Josephine never served the household of less than a Domestic Prelate. The virtuous woman is not afraid of the snow, “for all her household are clothed with scarlet” (Proverbs 31:21), and for Josephine that was a monsignorial color. This did not detach her from the more soberly dressed curates to whom she was balm when they shared with her a grievance.

Josephine kept a long list of intentions and told her beads with the same dispatch with which she cleaned house. Not given to piety of the sentimental schools, she let her feelings be known loudly and broadly when a Filipino woman of far distant piety removed a finger from the Lourdes statue that Josephine had donated.

There is an oral tradition of a housekeeper in a venerable Manhattan parish who parted the velvet curtains behind the altar early one morning and announced to the sparse faithful: “There will be no Mass this morning. The pastor is not feeling so fine. And as a matter of fact, I’m not feeling so fine myself.” She then bowed and withdrew, slowly closing the curtains like Sarah Bernhardt dying in Cleopatra. On earth such women never were paid the price above rubies that Sacred Scripture calculates them to be, but if they were like Josephine, they had their consolations. An instinctive pessimism, rooted in the tests of a toilsome reality, may see with surprise at the Great Assize that higher clouds do indeed have silver linings, and among them it is easy to think that Josephine will not be out of place.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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