by Harry E. Winter, OMI
My deep gratitude to Fr. Jim Conyers for asking me to give this short homily.
The celebration of Mary’s Assumption into heaven is especially this year, here, a celebration of women. Women who shared in Mary’s leading us all to her beloved Son, Jesus, our Savior and our Brother and our God. Even as the holy woman Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit to praise Mary, may we all be filled with the Holy Spirit now to find our way through holy women, especially Mary, to Jesus.
First we remember Lynn Spellman, the last descendant in this area of Letitia Preston Floyd, wife of the governor of Virginia John Floyd and a pioneer Catholic feminist.
Lynn and her family, the Lewis-Floyd Family, actually owned this chapel until 1977 , when the bishop in Wheeling discovered that it was here. The chapel had been closed for about 20 years. Bishop Joseph Hodges humbly approached Lynn and Lynn gave him the chapel. Not only that, but she and her daughter Jackie were most fervent members here, attending the Saturday evening Mass. Her husband Jack owned the gas station which used to be just across route 3 from here. He would open the chapel for visitors.
May the young people here use your imaginations. You are here on Christmas Eve, about 1986, Lynn was not in her usual pew for the Christmas Eve Mass. Shortly before Communion, she came into church, and she wasn’t wearing her Christmas clothes. After Mass, Lynn explained that her cattle always picked the most isolated part of the pasture to give birth to their calves.
Lynn died this past May 15. May we remember her with affection and gratitude.
Another woman who greatly influenced this chapel is Mimsie deOlloqui, whose family owned Earlehurst, the lovely home on the right side of the road as you back into Virginia. Her father was Admiral Belanger, and they summered at Earlehurst, inviting the famous Jesuit, Fr. Daniel Lord, SJ, to spend time each summer here, celebrating Mass in this chapel. Mimsie’s wedding on Oct. 18, 1958 was here, and the baptism of her daughter Miriam in May, 1960, was the last baptism here before the chapel fell into disuse.
Miriam was married here on Oct. 9, 1999, the most recent wedding. We hope now there will be more. Mimsie died this past April 27. We remember her as a valiant Catholic woman. (Are any of her family here? Please stand, so people may talk with you after Mass).
Last Saturday, Dr. Jim Glanville (please stand, Jim) and I presented two programs in Blacksburg on Letitia Preston Floyd, our pioneer Catholic feminist and Oblate of Mary evangelizer, who is buried in the cemetery up on the hill, next to her husband, Governor John Floyd. April Danner, the director of Smithfield Plantation, where Letitia Preston Floyd was born, and where one of the talks was given, is standing in the doorway here–April, please raise your hand.
During this Mass we celebrate the two Letitia’s, the mother, and her daughter Letitia Floyd Lewis, who built this chapel for three groups: the Irish immigrants who settled in this area, her black slaves and servants, and her wealthy Catholic family and friends. The fact that these three groups worshipped here and had such influence all over the United States makes us humble today.
One of the Irish immigrants, Thomas H. Stack, became a Jesuit priest and in 1887, the president of Boston College, in Massachusetts. Two of his sisters, Elizabeth and Margaret became nuns, as the little plaque on top of the other two at the back of the church shows. That family has produced priests and nuns right down to our own time.
Letitia herself let her 3 daughters and 3 of her 4 sons become Catholic in their late teens and early twenties. She herself conducted an extensive correspondence with Bishop Vincent Whelan, who baptized her about six months before she died. She took a back seat to nobody for her devotion to her family, to the State of Virginia, to education, and to honesty. The most famous American Cardinal of the Day, James Gibbons of Baltimore, beat a path here to support and encourage the family in their Catholicism.
Each of these women, Lynn Spellman, Mimsie deOlloqui, Letitia Preston Floyd and Letitia Floyd Lewis remind us of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Look again at the first reading. //Our Bible experts tell us that the woman in the Book of Revelation refers both to Mary, and to the Church, the Bride of Christ. Jewish people love to have symbols which picture not just one reality, but several realities.
Part of their fascination with the Holy Bible is trying to figure out what multiple realities a symbol emphasizes. A Catholic sees Mary as the woman clothed with the sun, about to give birth to the male child destined to rule the nations. A beautiful description of the Mother of Jesus.
But a Catholic is not so quick to see this woman also as the Church, the bride of Christ, the mother of His Body, and so the mother of each one of us. Of course the Church, through the Bible and through the Sacraments, makes Christ present to each of us and to the entire world. So in a real way, this woman clothed with the sun is also the Pilgrim Church, on her way to meeting Jesus Our Lord, who is returning in glory. Since each of us is a member of the Body of Christ, we each grow closer through Mary now, and with Mary, to her glorious Son. Each of us, as brothers and sisters of Jesus, are so closely related to Lynn Spellman, to Mimsie deOlloqui, to the two Letitias, and to Mary.
The expression in the Gospel, Mary hastened into the hill country, reminds me of the beauty of the Sweet Springs Valley and hills, where these women all praised God for the material fertility of this valley, and its spiritual fertility. //As we continue our Eucharistic celebration, let us give thanks with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with these strong and valiant women, for helping us to grow closer to our God.