Search for Books by:  


Bookshop | Contact Us | Home


Join Our E-Mail Announcement List!

Sister Maria Del Rey Danforth, O.P.

WRITING? I GUESS I HAVE ALWAYS DONE IT. NOW AND THEN I have taken flyers into other fields-photography, music, teaching,-but I usually end up in writing as at my home base.

My first try at journalism was at the age of nine. It all started when my father bought a typewriter. One of those ancient Olivers with a double shift. It had a cute device whereby a pencil could be inserted between the banks of keys and, by rolling the carriage, a pencil line was drawn down the paper. This was fascinating! We children were drawing column rules before we poked a single letter. Columns suggested a newspaper. So-right off-we started a neighborhood newspaper. My part in the enterprise was to visit all the homes around and get subscriptions, two pins for a Lifetime Charter Subscription; one pin, for a Year Since everyone around was either mother or near relative of the editorial board, this was not too hard an assignment. As reward, I was given a job on The Trumpet. My rise was phenomenal. Within three weeks, I rose from Leg Man (literally) to Editor-in-Chief, without relinquishing any of the positions gained on the way up. The reason? The editors, reporters, copy boys, pressmen and columnists had all evaporated. They were enthralled with something new-marbles or jump-rope or playing house- and I was left holding all positions on the board and sole owner of all those pins I had collected for subscriptions. A troubled conscience bothered me. I felt I must work off at least the one-year subscriptions. My heart quailed at the thought of all those charter subscribers. Just what was their life-expectancy? Some of them might live for eighty years or more!

So you see, I started out in journalism under a heavy cloud of debt. I wonder if I shall ever be able to get into the black! For, even now I am working off a thousand debts collected since those old neighborhood Trumpet days. My vocation to Maryknoll, the forbearance of my superiors to whom I must be quite a trial, so many opportunities to see fascinating places and peoples,-all of these plus the greatest of them all, the invitation to spend my life with and for God, leave me forever and enthusiastically in debt.

In the Trumpet days, I did a lot of writing on things I knew nothing at all about. Once I ran a scorching editorial about divorce. It was not so well received. One of the lifetime subscribers was on the verge of divorce and she resented a child of ten hurling the Baltimore Catechism at her in smug self-righteousness. This taught me a valuable lesson in journalism: Don't try to force the reader around to your way of thinking. A lassoed steer is sure to buck. The wise editor knowing his reader's limitations of mind and perhaps of heart as well, leads him gently around to the right position. In that way, he wins his point and still does not lose the subscriber.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I worked on our high school paper at Seton Hill in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. After a try at piano-playing in Carnegie Institute of Technology, I took to the typewriter again at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in journalism. Here, under Professor Maulsby, we worked under a stiff but wise regulation. Each semester, we students had to get 300 inches printed.

That last word is important. In journalism it is not enough to turn in flawless copy if you do not have the gumption to see an editor and get him to print it. He will use it only if it says something of interest to his readers. This saved us, thanks be to God, from writing reams about nothing at all. Instead, we dug out stories that were worth printing.

I went to cemeteries and museums and such dead places and found some little fact that interested me. For instance, I found the grave of one Joshua Barney once an Admiral in the Navy. It seemed odd to me that he should be buried in Pittsburgh, far from the wild sea waves. Looking him up in the library, I unearthed quite a colorful character. In the end, old Joshua was spread out in the Sunday Supplement of The Pittsburgh Press with a full half-inch byline for me-and this was pure unearned increment-a number of big pictures of his grave and Joshua in his Admiral's outfit. The Press sent out a photographer on the story, which redounded to my glory in the class and added quite a few succulent inches to the total.

However delectable as the inches might be, they were merely a by-product. My aim was to prove to hard-boiled editors that I could write. If they got some free samples, they might be better disposed to hire me when I came around looking for a job. Remember, those were Depression Days when jobs did not grow on bushes !

The reasoning worked. As soon as the sheepskin was handed me on Commencement Day, I took my scrapbook to the editor of The Pittsburgh Press and prevailed upon the Sunday supplement editor to introduce me. He did just that.

"This is Ethel Danforth, Bill," he said, and turned on his heel and left, probably not able to bear the sight of one tender cub crushed under the heel of a ruthless editor.

"Oh, yes?" said Bill to the Sunday editor's retreating back. "Well, what do you want?" he turned the full weight of his attention upon terrified me. Sink or swim, do or die, now or never, I plugged into my little salestalk. The outcome was that ten minutes later I rushed into a drugstore to the nearest telephone booth and called home. "I've got a job on The Press!" my mother heard over the telephone, just as did everyone within fifty yards of the booth.

In spite of the enthusiastic start, my career on The Press was not brilliant by any means. Those were depression doldrum days. I covered schools, hotels, and did feature stories. I interviewed visiting beauty queens, covered accidents and fires, sat through conventions and school board meetings, and once, to my intense joy, covered a State Fair, sampling all the prize-winning recipes and stroking all the beautiful horses. But the old urge came back again and-again. God wanted me at Maryknoll and I should be there. In 1933 I entered.

Instead of writing at Maryknoll, I was put to something better. I read. I read aloud to the community almost every day. This, I think, is magnificent training for writing. The flow of different styles, the use of one word rather than another, the purposeful variety in sentence structures, become bone of one's bone. I am still one of the refectory readers in our community. I hope I never loose the job.

I taught in Hawaii for a year and a half. In the Philippines I stayed eleven years, three of them in a concentration camp,-the best years of my life in some ways. In those years I turned again to writing, knowing what a tremendous story was happening around me and loathe to let it slide away without record. However, during one of our recurrent terrors when our Superior and another Sister were taken to the torture dungeons, I destroyed the manuscript lest it incriminate us all.

In,1947 I returned to the States for Maryknoll Sisters' publicity work. A year later, back to the Orient I went on a year's survey of mission work in Japan, China, Korea, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines and Western Carolines. This resulted in Pacific Hopscotch, published by Scribner's in 1951.

It was just then that the Communists were expelling American priests and nuns from China. I collected their stories and wrote Nun in Red China, a first-person story published under the name Sister Mary Victoria by McGrawHill in 1953. A jaunt through Latin America covering Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, resulted in In and Out the Andes, which Scribner's brought out in 1955.

Of course these books were written on the margins of time; my main work was still the ordinary channels of publicity. In August, 1954, a young photographer, George Barris, spent a week at Maryknoll taking pictures for a story, tracing a young girl through the postulancy and novitiate here.

It appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine for December of that year, as "Bernie Becomes a Nun." However, Mr. Barris had been carried away with his subject; he took more than a thousand excellent pictures. The best of these were published in 1956 by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy in a book likewise entitled Bernie Becomes a Nun, for which I wrote the text. In this I tried to give the background common to all women religious, so that a girl entering any order would know what lay ahead of her.

My latest book to date, Her Name is Mercy, was published by Scribners in 1957. It is the story of what seems to me an epic of compassion, the setting up and operation of a clinic to care for the million or more refugees in Pusan, Korea, during the recent war over there. We see the clinic through the eyes of army officials, relief workers, journalist, the nuns themselves and, of course, the refugees.

No doubt about it, writing is a little bit of Purgatory. The only thing that drives me to it-besides my Superiors -is the thought that it might lead souls to God. Also I hate to see a good story go by the board for want of someone to put it on paper. I make no pretense of writing deathless literature. My output is journalism, pure and simple, today's story told for today. What Tomorrow does with it, I really don't care. It is meant to serve its purpose Today.

Bookshop | Contact Us | Home