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
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
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
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
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.