Annabelle McConnell Melville
EVEN AFTER FINDING A THIRD
BOOK IN PRINT, I AM STILL a little surprised to be considered
an author; and, having been reared a good Protestant, it is especially
edifying to be considered a Catholic author. With an opening
sentence like that, I am almost bound to tell in~ subsequent
ones how I became a Catholic, and then how I became an author,
if such I am.
I became a Catholic, at the
age of twenty-six, owing to four factors. First, through fortunate
accident it happened that the finest intellects I encountered
among my contemporaries were possessed by actively practicing
Catholics. Second, I was given almost a year of instruction in
the Church's teaching by Father Arthur Cunningham, the pastor
of the church in St. Johnsville, New York, where I did my first
five years of high school teaching. Third, I read the Imitation
of Christ. And, finally, I did my master's thesis on the subject
of G. K. Chesterton's philosophy.
The first factor roused my interest; the last three, pursued
simultaneously, brought me to the baptismal font in May, 1936.
As for writing, the story is
almost as brief. One institution and one man were largely responsible.
The institution was the Catholic University of America in Washington,
D. C.; the man was Monsignor John Tracy
Ellis, professor of church history in that institution. My
first book, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, began as a term paper in
one of Monsignor Ellis's courses and emerged as a doctoral dissertation
in 1949. Whatever excellence that work possessed was chiefly
due to the direction of Monsignor Ellis, whose standards of scholarship
have notably influenced the work of anyone who worked under him
or will work under his direction in the future.
Elizabeth Bayley Seton brought
several benefits to her biographer. Not only did I begin to have
entree to the fascinating stores of church history materials
in the United States, but I was also able to see something of
the European connections with our history. In 1951, as a result
of studying the life of a woman whose cause has been proposed
for beatification, I was introduced to the Sacred Congregation
of Rites in Rome and given a glimpse of the process of documenting
such causes. My own work was given Roman approval prior to publication.
In Livorno I had the pleasure of meeting descendants of the Filicchi
family about whom I had written, and saw materials still in their
possession which relate to Washington's administration. At home,
in Emmitsburg, Maryland, I had the supreme satisfaction of discovering
a document relating to Mother Seton that had never before been
used in clarifying her career. On the material side, the Seton
brought me a publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, and a wise editor,
Mr. J. E. G. Hopkins.
My second book stemmed rather
naturally from the first. John Carroll of Baltimore was a contemporary
of Mother Seton's, and I was already at home in the field of
American church history archives. Again the direction of John
Tracy Ellis, the editing of J. E. G. Hopkins, and the kind publishing
of Scribner's gave my work what excellence it possessed. This
time I had the added encouragement of the interest of Archbishop
Patrick A. O'Boyle of Washington, the commendation of the Thomas
More Book Club which selected it for their readers in July, 1955,
and the recognition of the American Catholic Historical Association
which awarded it the John Gilmary Shea prize in December, 1955.
As a result of this interest
in American church history, I began to be asked to lecture to
Catholic groups such as men's clubs, seminaries, Newman clubs,
the Catholic Library Association, etc. One such engagement in
l956 led me to spend a night in a Boston Fire Station! I was
scheduled to speak at a Communion Breakfast in my home town of
Albany, New York, and I started out just as the famous blizzard
of March 16 began. We left the Boston bus station at about five
in the afternoon. At one the next morning we had progressed as
far as the Museum of Fine Arts of Huntington Avenue, just blocks
away, had to be rescued from the bus, and wound up on cots furnished
by the Red Cross at Fire Station 67. I now accept speaking engagements
with the proviso, "weather permitting."
In 1956 the Library Journal
described me as "a new creative writer of 1956," and
that raises the question of how I happened to write a "who-dunnit."
Certainly not because I was abandoning my first love, church
history. In the days when I traveled rather regularly between
Albany and Washington or Baltimore I was an inveterate reader
of mystery novels. In the course of writing the Carroll, there
was one period of almost a year when the manuscript was in the
hands of advisory readers. In order to escape my own impatience
while waiting for the return of the Carroll, I decided to keep
my typing hand in practice by doing something else. "I've
read enough mysteries," I told myself. "Why not try
to write one?" Many years ago I had read somewhere that
amateur writers do well to stick to the scenes they know, so
I chose the little town where I had lived for nine years prior
to 1945, described events that had actually taken place, but
re-arranged them to make a mystery plot. Several people read
it upon completion but none with intent to publish. The Carroll
manuscript came back, I went to work on the revision, and it
was not until publication was under way that I got out the mystery
again to see what, if anything, could be done with it. I still
liked it the way it was first written, so I took another chance,
sent it to the Bruce Publishing Company with apologies that it
was not history, and they decided to risk it. The editing of
Mr. Bernard Wirth cut it down a bit, but it remains substantially
what it was the first time I typed it out in Emmitsburg. The
Catholic Literary Foundation used it for an August selection
in 1956, and my students in the State Teachers College in Bridgewater
read it, I suspect, in preference to my more substantial work.
I have no idea whether fiction
will lure me again or not. At present, I am back with my first
love, busily working on a biography of Boston's first bishop,
John Shavers. This time research took me to France where I have
just finished nine weeks of most happy delving. Hopes are high
that 1958 will see the completed book. But only time, scholarly
readers, editors, and publishers will decide the issue. Meanwhile
I have a very full schedule at the Bridgewater Teachers College
of Massachusetts, and teaching is my true profession.
On the side I dabble in amateur
theatre, when I can be type-cast in middle-aged roles. I putter
over African violets, experiment with cooking, whip up a new
dress when I am desperate for something to wear, continue to
be a devotee of the Boston Symphony, write book reviews for
Books on Trial or the Catholic Historical Review, and try to
keep track of my five godchildren who live in the District of
Columbia, Maryland, New York, and New Hampshire.
As far as details of education
and teaching experience go, ~ think that The American Catholic
Who's Who has most of these.
The only comical thing that
has happened to me as a result of taking up writing occurred
in June of 1956 when Stonehill College of Easton, Massachusetts,
conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws on this budding author.
I misinterpreted the dramatic pause of the reader of my citation,
galloped across the platform midway through his speech, and will
undoubtedly go down in the college history as the only woman
who just couldn't wait for her degree. I certainly disrupted
the dignity of the occasion.
I'm afraid none of this is
very exciting. I'm a pretty run-of-the-mill small town school
teacher and that suits me fine. I like small towns, and I have
always enjoyed teaching. If I can find archives for historical
research nearby, I also enjoy doing some note-taking during my
free time. With the excellent archives of Boston so near my present
teaching position, I am likely to finish another biography. After
that, who can say?