The Mabel Files: A Christmas Gift of Faith

Tom and Lizzie Minns rarely had much to spend on each other at Christmas during their long and frugal marriage. The blind couple had always used what little money they had managed to save from their Wheeling confectioneries for modest little gifts for their daughter Mabel: a doll baby one year, a tiny fragile gold ring the next, and so on into Mabel’s adulthood. Rather than gifts to each other, Tom and Lizzie took their enjoyment out of the simple Wheeling traditions of the season. But in 1946, Lizzie bestowed upon her husband a Christmas present that he never anticipated but would treasure more than any gift he had ever received.

The roots of Lizzie’s gift reached all the way back to their marriage in 1917, when old-fashioned Appalachian protestant stubbornness smashed hard into Catholic Church doctrine.

Lizzie Reese and her entire family were members of the United Brethren Church. It was an evangelical Christian denomination that had the distinction of being the first American denomination that was not transplanted from Europe. It was formed in 1800 and had its roots in the German reformed communities of 18th Century Pennsylvania and spread quickly throughout Appalachia. While pioneering in some regards – it allowed women to preach as early as the 1850s – it was conservative in many other areas. For example, the congregations’ capacity to understand and accept other religions was practically non-existent.

That’s why, when Tom showed up in Buckhannon to court Lizzie in 1916, her family was reluctant to embrace the short, sightless, Catholic Irishman from up north. In addition to being skeptical that a blind couple could make it on their own, they didn’t know much about Catholics like Tom.

St. Alphonsus Church

An inside view of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Center Wheeling

Photo from the Ohio County Public Library

On the religion front, decades of isolation led them to be wary. Lizzie’s father, Solomon Reese, had a history of being overprotective of his blind daughter and let her go to the School for the Blind in Romney with great reluctance. That is where Lizzie met this upstart blind boy who now wanted to take her away with a marriage proposal. It could have been his obvious independent streak that allowed him to prosper on his own in a sighted world, his penchant for hard work, his obvious devotion to Lizzie, or his way of charming the females in the family with complimentary banter, but by some positive conduct Tom had become a full-fledged member of the Reese family and won all the acceptance and approval the marriage required.

As a dedicated life-long Catholic with deep roots in the church, Tom faced his own set of problems by wanting to marry a Protestant girl. Tom feared some kind of church retribution but, upon consultation with his parish priest in Wheeling, was pleasantly surprised to learn that all he really needed to do to remain in good stead with the church was to have his marriage blessed after the fact by a priest and appropriately witnessed.

Since Lizzie insisted on a wedding in her home church and Tom had the assurance from his priest that all would be well, they were married in Lizzie’s Buckhannon, West Virginia United Brethren Church and then began their married life in Wheeling. However, when Tom and Lizzie returned to his home parish— St. Alphonsus in Center Wheeling—to receive the blessing for their new marriage, a new parish priest put up an insurmountable barrier when he advised them that unless Lizzie formally agreed to raise their children as Catholics, their marriage would not be recognized and he would not be welcome to participate in the church.

St. Al's from Website

St. Alphonsus Church today

Photo from stalswheeling.org

On the day in 1917 when they met with the priest in Wheeling, Lizzie removed the little dark glasses that hid an eye that had been discolored and rendered useless by disease and an empty socket where the other eye had once been before a 19th century surgeon removed it. She ran her fingertips across the bridge of her nose in anguished contemplation of the priest’s words. Tom shifted nervously and tapped his bamboo cane on the polished wood floor of the Rectory building’s front hallway. The priest stood motionless awaiting the young couple’s answer.

Lizzie’s legs felt weak and she asked to sit down. The priest guided her to a nearby chair and Tom placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Perhaps you need some time to think about it,” the priest offered.

“No,” she said softly not sure how her words would be received by her new husband. “I’m sorry Thomas. I can’t agree. You have always been more independent than me. I will rely on our children and I don’t think I could bear not sharing such a big part of their life. I was raised to believe that church life is important. I can’t be a Catholic and I don’t want our children to have that separation from me.”

Tom let her answer sink in before wiping away a little tear that Lizzie never saw and then taking her by the hand and pulling her to her feet.



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“I understand,” he said softly. “Thank you Father for your time. We will be going now.”

On the way home, Tom told Lizzie that he respected her opinion and that her stand did not diminish his love for her or his commitment to their marriage.

Tom began his exile from the church, but he never turned his back on his religion. He still prayed with his Rosary every day and observed all the rules of the church. Lizzie, for her part, respected his religious practices and always made it a habit of cooking meatless meals on Fridays—usually a macaroni and cheese specialty she baked in a casserole that attracted many friends to the couple’s home.

Tom never complained of his situation, argued with Lizzie, or made her feel uncomfortable over her decision. But, he missed attending Mass and the fellowship of his church.

The Christmas season in 1946 began as usual with the Wheeling Christmas Parade. As they had done since Mabel’s childhood, Tom, Lizzie, and Mabel took up vigil at the same spot on Market Street and huddled on the sidewalk amid a mass of humanity to witness the annual parade. This time, however, Mabel’s new husband George was a part of the entourage.

Market Street Parade, 1959

A parade in Wheeling around the same era as the 1946 Christmas Parade that Tom, Lizzie, and Mabel attended

Photo from the Ohio County  Public Library

Back when she was a child, Mabel, from her perch atop Tom’s shoulders would, in her high-pitched child’s voice, describe every unit that marched by loud enough for her parents to hear. But, the biggest excitement of all was when she would happily announce with clapping little hands and yelps of delight that Santa had arrived on a huge float. Now, as an adult, she still relished her role as her parents’ very own color commentator.

The next Christmas tradition on the family’s list involved journeys into the heart of a Wheeling Christmas. In the coming weeks, as she had done nearly all her life, Mabel accompanied her parents on holiday-themed excursions. They rarely bought anything. The trips were mainly intended to experience Christmas in their special city. Mabel led each parent on separate trips through the spectacularly decorated department stores like Stone and Thomas and Stifel’s. She excitedly described every detail to them noting the tinsel decorations and red and green ribbons that adorned the big round columns at Stone and Thomas, the Christmas costumes worn by store clerks, the bell ringing of the cheerful Salvation Army volunteers, and the display windows that fed her imagination of the magic of Christmas. The hectic commotion that thousands of shoppers created on the streets of Wheeling was an experience the Mabel would talk about for the rest of her life.

Stifel & Taylor's

The Stifel & Taylor’s Value City Department Store on Main Street

Photo from the Ohio County Public Library Archives, the Kahn Collection

 

But in 1946, Lizzie had other ideas for her Christmas walk with Mabel. Instead of heading up town, she asked Mabel to walk with her to the Rectory of St. Alphonsus where she made arrangements for her special gift to Tom. She had learned through friends that there was a new priest at the parish as well as new interpretations of circumstances.

In her meeting with the priest, Lizzie was told that in a simple ceremony, the couple’s wedding could indeed be blessed and Tom could be reinstated in the church to which he had remained loyal. And, since Mabel was now an adult and there would be no new children, rules about their rearing in the church were moot.

A week later, Mabel walked Tom out of their Wood Street house for what he believed would be their traditional Christmas exploration of downtown Wheeling. His uncanny sense of direction told him that they were headed to another destination altogether. Soon, they were entering the Rectory building. Mabel was impressed by the spotless polished wood, extensive Christmas decorations and the heavy scent of pine.

“What’s this all about Mabel,” Tom asked in confusion.

“It’s a special Christmas gift for you Thomas,” he heard Lizzie say. George had driven her to the rectory on his way to work at the post office. “This is the day we get married in your church so you can come home again.”

Mabel would say later that it was the first time she had ever seen her father become speechless. The priest appeared from his study, greeted the threesome warmly, gently offered his elbow to Tom and guided him to a spot in front of a warm crackling fire in the rectory’s parlor. Mabel guided Lizzie to a spot at Tom’s side.

What followed was a brief and beautiful ceremony that blessed Tom and Lizzie’s marriage and returned Tom to the church he had longed to rejoin for three decades. And, Mabel was the formal witness of her own parents’ wedding ceremony.

Wedding Pic from Website

A wedding ceremony at St. Alphonsus Church

Photo from stalswheeling.org

After the ceremony, Tom embraced Lizzie and whispered in her ear.

“No gift you could ever give me could match this,” he said with a voice the cracked with emotion. “You are, and have always been since the first day we met, the light of my life. You make me strong. You make me love life and you make our life together happier than I could ever have imagined.”

Lizzie had no words of her own to match the sentiments of her husband. All she could do was hold him close and stroke his shiny bald head and kiss his cheek—expressions that, after 31 years of marriage, Tom knew to be genuine tokens of her deep affection.

Mabel was on her second hanky.

After leaving the rectory, the trio headed two blocks south on Market Street to wrap up another important Christmas tradition—selection of family Christmas tree at Centre Market. Every year, for as long as Mabel could remember, she would accompany her father to the Market House where vendors sold freshly harvested Christmas trees.

Center_Market_Wheeling_WV (800x600)

Centre Market today is still a holiday destination filled with shops, eateries, and businesses.

“Take your time and choose carefully Mabel,” Tom would tell his daughter every year as he gently held her elbow and walked between rows and rows of trees. He relished the smell of fresh pine and the sounds of pine tree needles crunching under his feet and the Christmas music that local musicians played to accentuate the holiday spirit of the Market House. The tree Mabel chose had to be big, but not too big for Tom to carry or drag behind him on their walk home. It usually took several complete tours of all the vendors had to offer before Mabel would make her decision.

Her choice was always announced with the same words every year: “Oh this one Daddy. This one is perfect.”

The search in 1946 was no different except Lizzie was with them this year and George was there too with the family’s big old Hudson automobile to make transport of the family tree easier than ever before.

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Since George’s return from the war, the two couples had reveled in their new house on Wood Street, George’s new job as a letter carrier, Tom’s new telemarketing business, and the joy of the two most prosperous Christmases that they had ever known. Lizzie’s special gift to Tom in 1946 was just the beginning of the happiest times of their lives together.

And Tom never missed another Mass at St. Alphonsus.



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