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Helen Caldwell Day (Mrs. Jesse Riley)

I WAS BORN ON DECEMBER 3, 1926, AT MARSHALL, TEXAS, where my father was a teacher at a small Negro college, Bishop College. I was one of three children, but we had an older half-sister, my father's daughter by a former marriage, and she also lived with us.

Despite the fact that we were always moving-or perhaps because of it-we were a very close family, for the most part preferring each other's company to that of others. However, we did have many friends, and most of these made ours their second home and the young people were soon calling mother "mother" and daddy "pop."

During these early years, we lived in Missouri, Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee. Sometimes daddy was teaching school, sometimes he was going to school. My first book, Color, Ebony (Sheed, 1961), tells the story of this and all my life until I was twenty-three.

The hardest thing during these years and perhaps the one that made the greatest lasting impression in my life was the divorce of my parents when I was twelve. Because of my own and my brother's hurt, I became firmly convinced from that time on, even though I was a Protestant and of no particular denomination, that marriage is indeed a sacrament, permanent and indissoluble. I think it was this conviction that helped to lead me later into the Catholic Church.

When I was eighteen I went to New York City to study nursing. While there at first I lost what little interest I had in religion. I believed that the only real good was personal integrity, and that whatever you believed was right was right for you; whatever you believed was wrong was wrong for you. However, as I came more and more up against the unchangeable realities-birth, death, suffering, courage and hope in the face of seeming hopelessness-I became more and more unconsciously dissatisfied with this belief. In theory it was perfect; in practice, impossible.

Finally, one day a miracle of grace happened, and out of the clear blue sky, for no reason either he or I can explain, one of the Catholic chaplains there at the hospital, Father Francis Meenan, asked me if I would like to be a Catholic, and I answered yes. He gave me instructions, and in due course of time I was baptized and received into the Church.

Meanwhile, despite my conviction of the sanctity and permanence of marriage, passion had led me into what I knew was an invalid union; but shortly after my conversion, I ended it; so that when the time came to take my baptismal vows, I could make them without reservation. However, later, from this union, I bore a son, Mcclonald Francis.

While I was carrying him, I left nursing school for a time and went to work as an undergraduate nurse.

In my spare time I went everyday down to the Catholic Worker to help as a volunteer for this admirable group dedicated to the reconstruction of a Christian society based on the principles of love and peace and errected through personal sanctity and the daily practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

As my admiration for this group grew I felt more and more drawn to join them. Only concern for my son-I wondered if I had the right to impose voluntary poverty on him, although I might choose it for myself-kept me from joining in this work. These doubts continued for several years. Then Butch, as my son is called, became ill with polio and I with tuberculosis. By the time we both had recovered, my faith had grown enough to resolve my doubts and I decided to open a House of Hospitality in Memphis, similar to the New York House, differing only perhaps in the special needs of the Memphis community. The motive and the spirit, however, were to be the same.

In 1950, with the permission of the chancery, and the help of interested friends, I was able to open the Memphis House. Its special work was to care for the children of working mothers who could not afford to pay for their care, and to provide for women and their children who were in need of shelter. As it developed, actually most of this latter care became shelter for unwed or deserted expectant mothers and the children they already had. The House also served as a center for the study of Catholic Action, and frequently priests or laymen active in the apostolate of the laity came to give us talks. The work of the House was done by myself, the mothers of the children in the house and in the nursery, and by volunteer workers; although in the five years we were open we did have three full-time staff workers.

As in the New York House, the work was interracial both in those who worked and those who helped. The example of interracial living and working here in the heart of the deep south, did more, we believed, to help promote a greater understanding and tolerance than anything we might say. However, we did speak out our beliefs whenever the opportunity presented itself. This latter, especially got us into hot water from time to time, even with those otherwise friendly to the work of the House. My second book, Not Without Tears (Sheed, 1954), tells the story of this work.

While engaged in the work of the House, I was helped from time to time by a young colored man who was a fervent Catholic, deeply interested in helping others and in the other works of the Church. We had been friends for several years, but it was not until I saw his patience with the women and children of the House and his willingness to inconvenience himself for others that I really began to appreciate his fine qualities. In time we grew to love each other, and decided to try to serve God more perfectly together in marriage. So in September of 1955 we were married in the nearby Catholic Church by one of the priests who had long been a good friend to the House.

Together we kept Blessed Martin House open in Memphis until May, 1956, when circumstances made it necessary to close it. Now we are waiting for a baby of our own.

While I was in the sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis, I became acquainted with and later joined a group called The Catholic Union of the Sick in America. This group is one of Catholic Action for the sick by the sick. I have been so impressed by it that my latest book, All the Way to Heaven (Sheed, 1956),is the story of its founding and work.

Many times I have been asked how I came to write or why. As far back as I can remember knowing how to read, I have wanted to write. In Iowa City, Iowa, I first learned to use the Public Library and to choose books for myself with the librarian's help. I was six years old then and I used to fold tablet paper in book form and make up stories for my little brother. I said then that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up; but I probably would have forgotten it, as most such childhood ambitions are forgotten, if my parents had not encouraged me in it and shown faith in me and my efforts as I grew up.

Nevertheless, except for poems and stories for myself or family or friends, which I had no desire to show to others, I never tried to write for publication until I became ill. While in the sanatorium I sold my first article and my first story and began writing what was to become my first book. Until then I had been too lazy to write and kept putting it off to some distant tomorrow. So it was my illness which made me grow up in this as in my faith and in many other ways. I just hope now that I can hold on to the things I gained then and learned then and become a better person and a better Catholic and a better writer because of them.

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