In August 2018, during Older Student Registration, students Carol Chester and Gail Johnston, with guidance from Joanne Jaber Gauvin from the Urban Action Institute, initiated the Older Student Writing Project (OSWP). The goal of the project was to collect personal essays written by older students and to have them printed in a university publication. The purpose of the project was to highlight the work of older students, showing that they add to the diversity of the WSU community.
By Rev. Catherine H. Reed
On July 11, 1973, my younger sister Ollie and my mother were victims of an arson fire that took the lives of ten of the 53 residents in the rooming house on 728 Main Street here in Worcester.
My mother was rescued by the firefighters. However, my sister panicked and jumped from the third floor onto the concrete sidewalk.
My mother survived with just the clothes on her back. She said later she did not mind losing everything, but it was hard to lose pictures of us she had saved for years. My sister was not as fortunate. She was taken to the hospital in serious condition, which got worse as the days and weeks went by. My sister suffered through a stroke, many operations, and months of
hospitalization. We were told her condition would not get better. Finally, she was transferred to Rutland State Hospital.
From the time of the fire to the day of her death, my sister was bedridden, unable to speak, move, or feed herself. Once a young, beautiful woman of 42, she was reduced to a shell without the use of her limbs or speech. I watched her go from 136 pounds to 68 pounds.
The rest of the family was having a hard time coping with the sight of her lying in bed. My mother, my brother, and my children would be in tears when they visited. As the oldest sibling, I took responsibility for decision making and visits to the hospital. I took driving lessons and bought my first car, a 1972 Toyota Corolla.
In the beginning, Ollie did not know who I was. Gradually, she began to smile, and her whole face would light up when she saw me. Running out of things to say, I began to sing hymns to her. Whenever I sang, she would smile. My singing brought a smile to other patients, so I began singing to them as well.
I plea bargained with God. I cried and complained to God, asking why this happened. I honestly believed Ollie would be healed. I talked Ollie’s doctor into letting me take Ollie to a healing service at a church. I could not believe it when she was not healed.
Nevertheless, I continued my trip to the hospital every Sunday after church for almost four years. One Sunday afternoon, however, weariness took over. I did not know how I could make that trip anymore. I was ready to give up. Then I thought about Ollie lying in bed all this time and pulled myself together. I thought about how beautiful she looked when she smiled at me during my visits.
After my visit that day, I drove up to Mount Wachusett and sat on the mountain for a long time. I was weary and could not talk. While on the mountain, I saw a beautiful sunset. I left the mountain knowing I could hold on and do whatever it took to help Ollie. Two days later, Ollie’s doctor called me. Ollie had died. I thought the doctor was mistaken. I had been at the hospital two days earlier, and she had been fine. At that point, I knew the sunset on Wachusett Mountain had been God’s way of preparing me for Ollie’s death.
After Ollie’s death in 1977, I began going to hospitals and rest homes, visiting with and singing to the residents. This led to a hunger for me to do God’s work. During the next several years, I graduated from Hartford Seminary Black Ministries Certificate Program, Kaleo School of Ministry in Woburn, and Clark University in Worcester. I also attended Boston University School of Theology and graduated from Clinical Pastoral Education (Chaplaincy Training program) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
In 1996, at the age of 66, I was ordained. This was followed by positions in Clark University Campus Ministry, as first Protestant Chaplain at the College of the Holy Cross, and currently as Associate Pastor at John Street Baptist Church in Worcester.
All of this has happened to a person who, at one time, was too shy to read an announcement in church. I only regret that it took my sister’s ordeal to prepare me for answering a call to ordained ministry. I’m sure my sister is now watching over me and smiling.
Rev. Catherine Reed is an ordained minister and poet. She is the author of three books of poetry—Crossing Boundaries, Between Midnight and Dawn, and Sankofa. She is Associate Pastor at John Street Baptist Church in Worcester and former Protestant Chaplain at College of the Holy Cross. She is a mother, grandmother, and great- grandmother. She claims, “Ministry keeps me grounded, poetry helps me dream, and my family keeps me real.”