Friday, February 13, 2009

Foxboro’s 19th Century Professional Baseball Players: Gorman & Sumner

Spring is in the air! Red Sox pitchers and catcher are in training in Fort Myers, Florida. Did you know that Foxboro’s link to professional baseball predates the 20th Century. My friends Small town baseball was the only game in town!... no football, no basketball and no hockey!
In 1895 aspiring local baseball players Richard Leslie Gorman and Earl Adelbert Sumner awaited letters of interest from the minor league baseball teams of a new Southern League that had been established that year. The previous autumn the Foxboro boys of summer forwarded applications to the teams they wanted to play for. The applications included their skills, experience and stats. If impressed a club would invite them for a try out.
On January 23, 1895, there was much celebration in town when the Foxboro Reporter informed the residents that Gorman and Sumner had signed a contract with the Little Rock, Arkansas, baseball club. The former for that of third base and the latter for the outfield.
Gorman was born in Foxboro, Massachusetts in 1867. His parents Richard and Margaret had emigrated from Ireland. His father was a local teamster and his mother worked as a domestic. His older sisters, Annie Leslie and Catherine Frances were both employed in the local straw hat shop. He was 28 years old when he left Foxboro to play his first year in the Southern League.
Sumner was born in Boston in 1872. His parents Charles and Rachel Sumner relocated to Foxboro. His father was also a teamster and associated himself with Eugene Kirby to establish the Foxboro firm of Sumner and Kirby Stables, located on Cocasset Street. Sumner was 23 years old when he left for Little Rock.
It might never be known for sure how two local boys from Foxboro ended up playing for the Little Rock, Arkansas baseball team. One theory is that in 1894 Gorman and Sumner were teammates on the Foxboro baseball club. The Foxboro and Mansfield rivalry was intense then, long before the high school football came on the scene. The Boston Globe reported on a three game series that was played September 20-22, 1894. The average attendance at these games was 900 spectators. Jimmy Manning, a former Boston National League player who was born in Fall River and minor league manager in Kansas City in 1894, may have helped stock the Little Rock team as a favor to manager Frank Thyne. It is possible that someone connected to the minor-league New England League, like Fred Doe who managed New Bedford in 1895 or Tom Hernon (a New Bedford native that played on Manning's KC team) saw Gorman and Sumner play in the Mansfield series and recommended them to Manning, who told Thyne, who signed them to play.
Gorman played third base for the Little Rock Travelers and Nashville Seraphs that 1895 season. The Travelers opened play in the Southern League, joining Atlanta, Georgia; Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville, Tennessee; Evansville, Indiana; Montgomery, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Little Rock team only played 72 games that year and disbanded in July after just seventy-two games of the 137-game season. The team had a losing record, and fan support was poor. Little Rock finished with a 25–47 record and a .347 winning percentage.
Soon after Gorman signed and finished out the season playing for the Nashville Seraphs. The team played its home games at Athletic Park, which would later come to be known as Sulphur Dell. With a distance of 262 feet to the right field wall, it was a notorious hitter's park. In their first and only season of play the Seraphs were managed by George Stallings, who also played as an infielder. Stallings previously managed the Nashville Tigers and would eventually manage the 1914 Boston Braves to a World Series championship. The Seraphs opened up the season with a 17-10 loss against the Evansville Blackbirds.
It is likely that Gorman played in the renown “Glove Game”, on August 10, 1895 , with the Atlanta Crackers. Towards the end of the season, Nashville was in third place behind Evansville and the Atlanta. The race for the Southern League championship, determined by winning percentage, heated up following a disputed call during an August 10 contest at Athletic Park versus Atlanta. Nashville was trailing 8-10 in their last at-bat in the ninth inning. They scored a run and still had men on first and second with their catcher at-bat. He hit a high foul fly back toward the grandstand. As Atlanta's catcher attempted to get under the ball, his foot slipped causing him to miss it. While reaching for the ball, a boy in the stands threw a glove or cap past his head. The umpire ruled this as interference and called batter out, resulting in a 9-10 Seraphs loss. This incident would come to be known as the "Glove Game.
"Following the defeat, Nashville went on a 20-game winning streak, moving them into first place with only a few games left to play. Nashville stood at 65-35 (.650), Evansville, 61-33 (.649), and Atlanta was third at 62-34 (.646). The last day of scheduled play was September 2, but Atlanta played an additional game the following day. The win by Atlanta moved them into a tie with the Seraphs for first place with the same .670 winning percentage.According to Marshall Wright's book, The Southern Association in Baseball 1885-1961, Richard L. Gorman played in 66 games. He had 290 at bats, scored 51 runs, and had 90 hits as a combination of stats between the two teams. Earl Sumner played in 26 games. He had 105 at bats, scored 14 runs, and had 33 hits for Little Rock.
The Nashville Seraphs did not return to play in 1896. That season Richard Gorman played for Montgomery Grays (Alabama). He played mostly at 3rd base, but a few games at short and second as well. His 1896 record was 94 games, 377 at bats, 82 runs, 112 hits, 11 doubles, 3 triples, no HR, 23 stolen bases and a .297 batting average. The 1896 Montgomery Grays finished 6.5 games behind the New Orleans Pelicans for first place. Montgomery star Ed Deady led the Southern League in hits (154) and tied for the league-lead with 371 batting average. Ace pitcher Winford Kellum finished the season 21-5.
There are no photographs of Gorman and Sumner in uniform. However, there is a collection of prints in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. that includes 1909 Little Rock, Nashville and Montgomery baseball players including Harry Sentz, Bill Bernhard and Archie Persons. The uniforms shown in the attached prints are very similar to those worn by Gorman and Sumner.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Familial Love Transcends War, Servitude, Continents and Oceans

On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government issued an order for the extermination of the Armenian people in their own land, where they had lived for centuries. On that date, writers, composers, intellectuals and priests were rounded up and killed. Their death presaged the murder of an ancient civilization. April 24 is, therefore, commemorated as the date of the unfolding of the Armenian Genocide.

Between the years 1895 and 1923, the Armenian people was subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. As a result, some 600,000 Armenians were killed or died of starvation.

These events may seem to be far removed from local residents, but they are not. Throughout greater Boston and southeastern Massachusetts, the children of first generation Armenians who survived the genocide live among us. This is the story of one of the surviving families and the town that embraced them.

In 1889, Samuel Sakaian, a 24 year old Armenian, left his young wife and children and emigrated to the United States. Several months later, responding to the need for skilled tradesmen in the local manufacturing industries, Sakaian relocated to Foxboro, Massachusetts.

During the ensuing three decades, Sakaian would travel back to Armenia several times in search of his family members who remained in his native land. The archives of the Foxboro Reporter is a window to the past of the heartfelt love and concern of the residents of the town for the adopted son as he journeyed into danger. His final journey was celebrated by the return of his niece who was captured by Arab slave traders and sold into domestic servitude.

In 1894, when word of the fighting between the Turks and Armenians reached Samuel Sakaian, the Foxboro Reporter began recording the unfolding events. On August 24, 1894, in an article titled "Off for the Holy Land," it was reported that "Samuel H. K. Sakaian left Foxboro on Tuesday of this week for Worcester, from whence he will go to New York, and from there he sails on Wednesday, August 29th, for London. From London, England he goes to Paris, France, from Paris to Marseilles, France, and from Marseilles he boards a ship, which will carry him to Antioch, in the Holy Land. At Antioch, he will buy a horse at an expense of about $25, on which he will be obliged to ride for 15 long days before he reaches his home in Central Armenia, near Mount Ararat. At Antioch he will also hire an ass and its owner. On the back of the animal will be carried his carpenter tools, which weigh several hundred pounds. These will be divided and packed in two boxes, each holding about an equal number of pound in order that they may be carried to better advantage. All along the route are located inns, at which travelers purchase necessities for man and beast.

"Samuel has resided in Foxboro for 4 years and it is 4 ½ years since he left his native land. During his absence a daughter 6 ½ years of age has died. He has three brothers and one sister, all married and all residing in the same house with his family. He was 55 days on his journey to this country, but expects to return in 40 days, under increased facilities, and with less delay along the route. During his residence here he has been nearly or quite all the time in the employ of Deacon Thomas B. Bourne, and engaged as a carpenter. He has gained many friends and carries back to his country the best wishes of all who know him. He also carries back a knowledge of various things as done in this country, which will be of great value and lasting benefit to him. He wishes to extend his thanks to Deacon T. B. Bourne, Robert S. Carpenter and their families, and to the many people here who have befriended him either by word or deed. It is a long and tedious journey, which he starts upon, and one beset by more or less danger."

Unfortunately, Sakaian’s journey ended in Marseilles, France, for according to the Foxboro Reporter in September 1895, Sakaian started a second time for Armenia. The article recorded that "Samuel leaves many friends in Foxboro, who have learned to respect him; the prayers and best wishes of many people here accompany him on his long journey, and will be with him after he reaches his home. He has been absent from wife and children 5 years and 7 months, a daughter having died during his absence.

"Once before he started on this journey but met with misfortune before sailing from Europe, and returned to America. He will carry his carpenter tools with him, which he has purchased since his return to America, his first chest of these necessaries having been stolen from him during his previous journey. Samuel wishes us to say that his heart is filled with thankfulness to the people of Foxboro for their many and great kindnesses to him during his stay among us, and we realized that his heart was filled with tender thoughts for our people who had befriended him, which could not be expressed."

Three months later, in December 1895, the Foxboro Reporter informed residents of the town that a letter had been received by Sakaian’s former employer, Thomas B. Bourne. In the article, Bourne stated that Sakaian was in Marseilles, France, "in company with quite a body of his countrymen, all being detained there on account of the terrible ravages, which are taking place in Armenia, in which over 18,000 of his people, have been massacred. It is impossible for any of them to get passports to proceed. Samuel does not know whether his family are alive or dead, as no word of any kind has been received from them. The nearest post-office has been visited by marauders, and their fearful work of murder has been going on there. He still retains his chest of carpenter tools, and will probably be able to find something to do in this line to pay for his expenses." The article went on to mention that Sakaian "was followed from Foxboro by many prayers, and kind wishes, and it would be a comfort for him to know that he has still a warm place in the hearts of many in this town."

Soon after, in February 1896, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that a "meeting in town hall Monday evening to raise money for suffering Armenia was fairly attended. Rev. J. W. Flagg presided. The speaker of the evening was Rev. E. P. Allen of Portland, Maine, who was a missionary at Harpoot, Turkey. His lecture was intensely interesting, and a generous collection was taken."

Several weeks later, on March 14, 1896, the Foxboro Reporter mentioned that Sakaian had safely arrived again in Foxboro from Marseilles, France. The article went on to state that Sakaian’s arrival "was closely followed by a registered letter, from his home in Armenia, receiving it on Saturday. It was the fourth, which has been received by him, out of seven letters written to him by his people. The others have probably been intercepted. He wrote fifteen letters from France to his home and to those acquainted with his people in other parts of Turkey. Nearly all of these have doubtless failed to reach their destination.

"The letter received Saturday was, as stated, forwarded to him from France, where he left his address upon leaving for his last journey back to the United States. It was written on Wednesday, January 15th and stated that his wife and son, his three brothers and their families, 15 persons in all, were alive. This was cheering news to Samuel although the letter received was written nearly two months ago."

Sakaian remained in town for several more years, but in 1900 he left Foxboro for his native Armenia. But 10 years later, on June 25, 1910, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that "Samuel Sakaian, who again arrived in this country from Armenia a week ago and who has once again settled in Foxboro, will bring his wife and other members of his family here as soon as he secures the necessary funds for them to make the long journey. Samuel has been absent ten years. He has four children living of the ten children born to them. One of these is a soldier in the army of his country. He with his wife also desire to come to America, but considerable money is required to secure his release from the army. Samuel has had varied and sad experiences since he left Foxboro, and at times has been in imminent danger of losing his life at the hands of the treacherous and wily Turks. He says he never desires to return to his native land, and life will seem worth living when his family are again here."

Apparently Sakaian’s family never arrived in Foxboro, for almost a decade later on July 19, 1919, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that Sakaian had received his passport and that he was traveling to Armenia "to locate if possible his wife and family, not a word from whom has he heard for years." The article also mentioned that "...He had a large number of relatives and has always held the opinion that many of them were victims during the Armenian massacre. He is undecided as to his future labors, but may devote his remaining year to the interests of his Armenian country and people."

On November 29, 1919, the Foxboro Reporter recorded that "The many friends of Samuel K. H. Sakaian will be pleased to learn that he has reached his native land in safety. We present our readers with a letter received from him by Thomas B. Bourne, dated Constantinople, October 20th, which is as follows: ‘I am in Constantinople. New York to Constantinople twenty-one days on the water. We had a nice journey, nice food, nice bed; everything was good. My fare from New York was $305. My health is good. By and by I will go to the English Consul to show my passport. Went to the American Consul, but he told me to go to the English Consul, because everything is in English powers hands. I think I will stay here this winter, but sometime I will see the English Consul to get advice to go to Aleppo. I found my brother’s daughter. All the Armenian people have been without any clothing: all women, girls and boys, have been undressed: nothing to cover themselves. I do not want to write all the things, and I am not able to write. Thousands die of hunger and thirst, and many of them throw themselves into the river and kill themselves. I am sorry I am not able to write long letters, but I hope you will be satisfied. Best regards to you all. You cannot send any letters to me now.’"

Apparently Foxboro residents were unaware of Sakaian’s whereabouts for the next three and a half years. It was not until May 1923 that he returned to Foxboro and told his incredible story. As recorded in the May 12, 1923 Foxboro Reporter, "Mr. Samuel Sakaian, a former resident of Foxboro, returned Wednesday after a sojourn of almost four years in Turkey. Mr. Sakaian left here in June 1919. The ‘Black Arrow’, on which he sailed, left New York on September 26, 1919 and was 22 days on the way to Constantinople." He experienced numerous difficulties in securing passports for passage both ways, notwithstanding the fact that he was an American Citizen; it had become practically impossible for an Armenian to live in Turkey. His plan was to go to Harpoot in Asia Minor to locate his family. When he arrived, he learned that all members of his family, numbering 25 in all, which included his four brothers and their families, had been "sent down South"—in other words, massacred by the Turks. Mr. Sakaian does not want us to think, however, that all Turks are cruel as he tells us that some are humane. In a small village, called Kuckuk Chekmeja, which is just outside of Constantinople, he found a few remaining relatives, who used to live there years and years ago.
One of his cousins had been shipped South to Aleppo by the Turks and there met one of his nieces, who had been claimed in the desert by an Arab. The procedure was to ship all Armenians to the desert where the Arabs overtook them and seized the girls and young women, all others being massacred or left to die of starvation and thirst. To quote Mr. Sakaian, "My niece, who comes from Harpoot, was shipped with the others to the desert by the Turks. There a crowd of Arabs came and took the girls. My niece, at that time only fifteen years old, was taken with two other girls by an Arabian and kept by him for three years. Fortunately, he was very kind, gave them work in the kitchen and did not trouble them. When the Armistice was signed, and everything was under English control, the Arab asked the girls whether they wanted to stay in his house or go into English hands. The girls wanted to go, so he took them over to the English. There, the refugees were in one large building, under English hands. There my niece met her uncle (above mentioned) who did not recognize her at first, as she was a little girl the last time they had met. She remembered him and told him of her experiences and thus were reunited. They were both sent to Constantinople by the English representatives and there I found her, the only one I have left. She was penniless and had only on robe which an Arab had given her to wear. I left her passage money and expect her to reach Foxboro some time next month where she will make her home with me."

"The girl was shipped by the Turks South together with thousands and thousands of women and children from the villages, cities and towns. On their march thru the desert, they passed the dead bodies of hundreds of fellow countrymen who had been massacred. The Turks did not give them a chance to take their own children with them. Women, who had their babies with them, stopped to rest by the road and were killed as they sat there, for they stopped the progress of the march. Many children and women died of thirst, when they were driven into the desert. The girl’s mother had no water for days and when they came at last to water, she drank too much of it and died. The same fate befell thousands of other women."

Mr. Sakaian stayed in Constantinople for three years, waiting for a chance to go to Harpoot. After the Greeks had driven the Turks back and Smyrna was burned, the Turks got power enough to drive all foreigners of every nationality out of Constantinople. Many Americans, English, Italian and French were rushed out of Constantinople by train and boat.

After the foreigners were driven out of Constantinople, there was very little disturbance, so Mr. Sakaian was told by the American Consul that he could stay longer if he wished but that it would be better to come back to America. He experienced many difficulties in securing the passport as it was taken from him by the Turkish government on the grounds that it "was against International Law" for Mr. Sakaian to become an American citizen without notifying the Turkish Consul in this country.

In order that Mr. Sakaian might get safely aboard the steamer for New York, he was referred to the American Ambassador, who, when the appointed time came, had his "qavas" or military orderly escort him to his ship. Mr. Sakaian states that he is glad to be back in Foxboro again, and that he proposes to stay this time.

Samuel’s niece, Alma Sakaian’s voyage to America was beset with the immigration complications and quotas that were common in the post-WWI era. On October 6, 1923, the Foxboro Reporter, in an article titled "Mr. Sakaian Misses Ship Diverted From New York To Providence: Armenian Immigrant is Finally Admitted," recorded the odyssey for the local residents. "Samuel Sakaian, a resident of this town for over 30 years but a native of Armenia, visited several months in his native land where he learned that all his family had been massacred except a niece, Alma Sakaian. He returned last Spring leaving money with the American Consul in Constantinople for the passage later of his niece. She arrived at Ellis Island on July, 1st and was one of over 10,000 aliens that arrived that day in New York harbor. Unfortunately, by the time she was to debark from the ship the monthly quotas for Albania, Greece, Turkey, "other Asia" and Syria had been reached and she was sent back to Europe and her money refunded. Massachusetts Congressman Louis Adams Frothingham took up the matter and she was allowed an entrance. She took passage again on the steamship Canada due to arrive in New York last Monday. This vessel was diverted to Providence where it docked on Sunday. Samuel Sakaian went to New York on Monday to meet his niece. She landed in Providence on Sunday and came to Attleboro where she was taken care of on Monday night by the Y.W.C.A. and finally arrived here safely on Tuesday."

Alma Sakaian was 21 years old when she arrived in Foxboro in 1923. She was born in Arghan, Turkey, in 1902. Several months after arriving in Foxboro, she married Archie Shahabian, an Armenian who also was born in the village of Arghan in 1885. Like Sakaian, Shahabian had emigrated to the United States and moved to Foxboro in 1904. Archie and Alma married in 1924 and lived in Foxboro for the rest of their lives. Archie died in 1975 and Alma passed away in 1982.

Several years after the death of her husband, Alma agreed to be interviewed by a local reporter, George Patisteas. For the first time, Alma recalled publicly her recollections of the events that transpired 60 years earlier. On November 9, 1978, the Foxboro Reporter recorded her story. "...Alma Sakaian was born in the town of Arghan, the youngest in a family of eight children, it was not the best of times. On the verge of the First World War, nationalism was running at a fever pitch. Instigated by years of fighting that resulted in about 200,000 Armenian deaths, the Turks were once again growing resentful of their country’s sizable minority.

"What followed as a result were a number of purges of small hamlets and towns throughout the country that began in Alma’s hometown when she was eight. At that time, out-of-town Turkish soldiers, prodded by the Germans, blindfolded and shot all the male members of her church over the age of 16. The group included Alma’s two brothers, father and an uncle… After the Arghan massacre took place, Turkish harassment of the Armenians continued until a more organized purge began one month later. The Armenian members of the community, Alma recalls, were uprooted from their homes and told to take only what could be carried on their backs and donkeys or horses. Herded from their homes, the refugees were soon stripped of their animals as well, as they headed into the deserts of Mesopotamia.

"The reason for the hostility between the two groups of people was singular: religion. The Turks believed in the word of Muhammed. The Armenians followed the teachings of Christ.
"Lagging behind the caravan of refugees because she was attending to her younger brother, Alma was beaten by a Turkish soldier with a ball and chain, as was her brother. The beating was so severe that the two were left for dead, even though she was still alive.

"What Alma witnessed next, however, was worse than the beating: 10,000-15,000 Armenian refugees, including her mother and brother were being burned in their shelters while soldiers stood guard ready to shoot any person trying to escape. All remaining members of her family were killed in the blaze save for her two older sisters, who had married and moved to Russia before the purges began."

Alone in the deserts of Arabia, where the Armenians had been herded, Alma was picked up by Arab slave traders and deposited in the household of a rich sultan and his wife, where she became personal maid to the lady of the house. Her name and origin was then placed in area newspapers, including the Boston Globe. It was in that paper that Samuel Sakaian, while visiting a friend in Watertown, was told of Alma. Sakaian stayed with his niece for four years, married, then decided to return to Foxboro. Because of his marital status, immigration officials recommended he leave his niece and then send for her a few months afterward.

Alma’s attempts at emigrating, however, were a bona-fide disaster. Aboard a Greek ship that docked in Ellis Island in New York, she and about 50 other Armenians were denied entry because of filled quotas. The boat returned across the Atlantic, not to her home but to the home of the ship.

In Greece for a month with little money, Alma managed to scrape by until it was time for another try. However, when custom officials looked at her passport, taken early in Alma’s life, they balked, thinking it was a forgery. They were convinced that the woman they saw was not the child of the picture, even though only a couple of years had elapsed. "If you were in my place, you’d look older, too," Alma recalls telling them. Allowed to proceed, she this time landed in Providence. Unable to speak a word of English except "Foxboro" and "Sam", Alma found her way to town with the assistance of helpful attendants and train conductors.

After residing in Foxboro for a few months she met Archie Shahabian and they were married soon after in 1924. Archie, like Alma, was a former resident of Arghan. Archie had come to this country as a stowaway to escape what he correctly predicted would be bloodshed in his native land. Alma and Archie Shahabian raised two sons in Foxboro, John and George. George recently passed away and John lives in California.

The Sakaian/Shahabian story, as recorded in the Foxboro Reporter archives, makes very personal an international story of remembrance that may seem at times to be far removed from our local events and memories.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Priest Aboard the Doomed USS Indianapolis: Lt. Rev. Thomas M. Conway

Lt. (Rev.) Thomas M. Conway, a 37-year-old Navy Chaplain from Buffalo, New York, was sleeping soundly on July 31, 1945, on board the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser. At 12:14 a.m. the first torpedo from the Japanese submarine, I-58, blew away the bow of the ship. An instant later the second struck near midship on the starboard side, the resulting explosion split the ship to the keel, knocking out all electric power. Within 12 minutes the unescorted cruiser slipped beneath the surface of the Philippine Sea, midway between Guam and Leyte Gulf.

Of 1,196 men on board, approximately 900 men made it into the water. Few life rafts were released; the majority of the survivors wore the standard kapok life jacket and life belts. The ship was never missed, and by the time the survivors were spotted by accident four days later, only 316 men were still alive.

Over the past 51 years there have been many books and articles published about the greatest naval disaster after Pearl Harbor. Among the survivors several men were awarded commendations for their heroic actions. Among those lost at sea, a few tales of heroism remain to be told.

For three nights Fr. Conway, a Catholic priest, swam to the aid of his shipmates, reassuring the increasingly dehydrated and delirious men with prayers until he himself expired, the last Catholic chaplain to die in WWII. Like many stories of heroism, Fr. Conway was commemorated in simple ways among his friends and shipmates. As time moves on, and generations pass away, many stories of history are lost, and sometimes they are rediscovered.

Conway was born on April 5, 1908, in Waterbury, Conn. He was the oldest of three children born to Irish immigrants, Thomas F. and Margaret (Meade). Fr. Conway attended Lasalette Junior Seminary, in Hartford, Conn. In 1928, he enrolled at Niagara University (New York) and received an A.B. degree in 1930. On June 8, 1931, Conway enrolled in Our Lady of Angels Seminary, on the campus of Niagara University. May 26, 1934, he was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., in St. Michael’s Cathedral, Springfield, Mass.

For the next eight years Fr. Conway served as a curate in the parishes of St. Rose of Lima, All Saints, St. Teresa, St. Nicholas and finally St. Brigid. Former parishioners recall that Fr. Conway’s favorite pastime was to navigate Lake Erie in his little sailboat, a common sight parked along side the rectory during the week. He is remembered as a “man’s man” – a priest in touch with and sympathetic to the blue-collar realities of his parishioners living among the Erie Canal neighborhoods.

On Sept.17, 1942, Fr. Conway enlisted in U.S. Navy, commissioned a chaplain. A few days before leaving on active duty, Fr. Conway recorded a voice message on a 78 rpm recorder to a dear friend, Mary Noe. He called her ‘mom.’ She had eight children, one also a Buffalo priest. The Noe’s were family and home to Fr. Conway.

The record, though scratched and distorted, preserves most of the farewell message. He prefaces the message with these words: “Well, Ma, your Sailor Boy is going to dedicate a very special number to you, a very, very special mom. I’d like you to excuse the singing. It’s not so hot. Remember, it is always the thought behind it that counts ... ”

Fr. Conway sings two verses of the song I Threw a Kiss into the Ocean. The song was written a few months earlier by Irving Berlin for the U.S. Navy Relief; made popular by Benny Goodman accompanied by Peggy Lee. He sings,

“I spoke last night to the ocean
spoke last night to the sea
And from the ocean a voice came back
‘Twas my Blue Jacket answering me
Ship Ahoy, ship ahoy
I can hear you, Sailor Boy
I spoke last night to the ocean
I spoke last night to the sea
And from the ocean a voice came back
‘Twas my soul love answering me”
** The true words to the second verse should have repeated Blue Jacket, but Conway inserts ‘soul love.'

Conway asks, “Well Ma, how’d you like it? I’ve wrote that I’ve missed you when I’m gone and now I’m going to miss you.” The rest of the record is difficult to transcribe, but his message can be gleaned. Fr. Conway fondly talks about “ ... All the Friday evenings after confession ... the many guests and ... supper ... you were never concerned with that ... I liked it ... It’s a great place to come into ... What have you got to eat?” His last audible words: “So, don’t miss me. I’ll be back. Remember me in your prayers and I’ll remember you ... So goodbye mom.”

Fr. Conway served at Naval stations along the East Coast and in 1943 was transferred to the Pacific. For several months he served on the USS Medusa, and on Aug. 25, 1944, Fr. Conway was assigned to the USS Indianapolis.July 30, 1945, was a typical Sunday for Fr. Conway. He celebrated the Catholic Mass and later conducted a Protestant service. It was known that Fr. Conway could usually be found in the ship’s library or his room for confession or just someone to talk to. A few minutes past midnight Fr. Conway was bobbing among the burning oil, debris, chaos and voices of the 900 survivors.

Fr. Conway's actions are vividly recalled by several of the survivors. Frank J. Centazzo recently wrote, “Father Conway was in every way a messenger of our Lord. He loved his work no matter what the challenge. He was respected and loved by all his shipmates. I was in the group with Father Conway. ... I saw him go from one small group to another. Getting the shipmates to join in prayer and asking them not to give up hope of being rescued. He kept working until he was exhausted. I remember on the third day late in the afternoon when he approached me and Paul McGiness. He was thrashing the water and Paul and I held him so he could rest a few hours. Later, he managed to get away from us and we never saw him again. Father Conway was successful in his mission to provide spiritual strength to all of us. He made us believe that we would be rescued. He gave us hope and the will to endure. His work was exhausting and he finally succumbed in the evening of the third day. He will be remembered by all of the survivors for all of his work while on board the ‘Indy’ and especially three days in the ocean.”

Lewis L. Haynes, Captain, Medical Corps, USN, recalled in an article for the Saturday Evening Post (Aug. 6, 1955), “ ... All thoughts of rescue are gone, and our twisted reasoning has come to accept this as our life until the end is reached. A life with nothing but the sky, a shimmering horizon and endless wastes of water. Beyond this we dare not imagine.“

But we have not lost everything. To the contrary, we have found one comfort – a strong belief to which we cling. God seems very close. Much of our feeling is strengthened by the chaplain, who moves from one group to another to pray with the men. The chaplain, a priest, is not a strong man physically, yet his courage and goodness seem to have no limit. I wonder about him, for the night is particularly difficult and most of us suffer from chills, fever and delirium.

“The moon has been up for some time when I hear a cry for help. It is Mac, the sailor who has given so much to so many. When I swim to him, Mac is supporting the chaplain, who is delirious. ‘Doctor – you’ll just have to relieve me for awhile!’ Mac gasps. ‘I – I can’t hold him any longer!’ I take the chaplain from him; thrust my arm through the chaplain’s life jacket so that I may hold him securely through his wild thrashing. Then I look around for Mac, for I know he needs help. He is completely exhausted, his head forward, his nose in the water. Mac! Mac! I call. There is no answer – and the last I see of Mac is his head sinking lower and lower as he drifts away in the moonlight."

“The chaplain’s delirium mounts; his struggles almost too much for me. He cries a strange gibberish – some of the words are Latin – but in a little while he sinks into a coma. The only sound is the slap of water against us as I wait for the end. When it comes, the moon is high, golden overhead. I say a prayer and let him drift away, along the path to follow Mac. ... ”

Fr. William F. Frawley, was a chaplain at Base Hospital #20, Peleliu Island where the majority of survivors were taken for medical attention. Though there was a government news blackout about the incident, Fr. Frawley writes a letter to Archdiocese of Military Services, dated August 5, one day after the rescue. He writes, “The true facts concerning the death of Fr. Thomas Conway ... He along with about eight hundred others, got off the ship into the water when the explosions occurred. On the evening of the third day in the water, completely exhausted, he drowned. All the survivors who were brought to our Base Hospital have the highest praise for him. They report that he had been aboard the cruiser for the past year; that he had done much to improve the ship’s facilities; that he treated the personnel indiscriminately, devoting as much attention as possible to the non-Catholics; that on the Sunday preceding the disaster two mess halls were needed to take care of the overflow crowd at general services; that he spoke on the parable of the Pharisee and publican, likening them to two sailors appearing before the captain of the ship; that, while in the water he went about from group to group organizing prayer groups ... Fr. Conway spent his leave flying to the homes of nine boys who had been killed by a suicide plane which struck the ship near Okinawa (that is the reason the ship was on its way from the States. It had been reconditioned and left the States on 16 July and was hit somewhere between Guam and Leyte on 30 July at 0010.) ...”

Several books have been written about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, including In Harm’s Way (2001) by Doug Stanton and Ordeal by Sea (1963) by Thomas Helms. Fr. Conway’s presence as a priest on the ship and among the survivors in the water is gleaned.

Stanton writes, “The boys usually confided in Father Conway. During the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, most of them had been scared out of their wits. ... As the kamikazes dove at the ships, the boys cried out from their battle stations for the kind priest. ... Fr. Conway, in his early thirties, was relentless and fearless in his duty. Once, while saying Mass, battle stations had been called suddenly, and the astute Father shouted out, ‘Bless us all, boys! And give them hell!’ The boys loved him for this. He was a priest, it was true, but he was a priest with grit. ... (Conway) spent the bleak early morning hours swimming back and forth among these terrified crew members, sometimes dragging loners back to the growing mass ... the priest also never stopped swimming among the boys, hearing their confessions and administering Last Rites.”

Helms writes, “Father Thomas Michael Conway swam from group to group, never stopping to rest, praying with the men, encouraging those who were frightened, trying to reason with the maddened. His faith and his prayers gave solace to many ... Father Conway, like Ensign Park, Seaman Rich and many others, burned himself out keeping up a constant patrol among the men, ministering to the dying, talking reason into others who had become momentarily deranged and calming the frightened with prayers until all at once he reached the limit of his endurance, and his life drained away.”

Father Thomas Michael Conway’s story had been lost to history. After publication of my research Lt. Rev. Thomas M. Conway inducted as a member of the Silas Bronson Library’s Waterbury (CT) Hall of Fame. On May 20, 2006, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec dedicated the Father Thomas Conway Memorial at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park on Saturday, and in July 2007 he was inducted into the Inaugural Class of the Niagara University Legacy-Alumni of Distinction.

Fr. Thomas Michael Conway’s story is only one example of the untold and unrecorded lives of compassion and heroism sewn into the fabric of our nation’s collective memory. How many more?

Please visit  UPDATED RESEARCH and PICTURES and plus unsuccessful application to posthumously award Navy Chaplain Lieutenant Thomas M. Conway with the Navy Cross, America’s second highest military decoration for valor. AT 2017 72nd ANNIVERSARY USS INDIANAPOLIS  

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

History of Oak Bluffs Annual Grand Illumination Night

Carpenter Cottage 1869
Every August the Annual Grand Illumination Night takes place in the Campground in Oak Bluffs. The event, with its traditional Oriental paper lanterns ornately hung outside the many gingerbread cottages that line the Oak Bluffs campground, is a renowned Martha's Vineyard event. The historical fact is, though the Grand Illumination is currently intimately associated with the Campground, the mid-19th century religious-inclined Campground residents did not participate in the secular event. In fact, they put up a picket fence to try to wall themselves off from the world that had risen up around them.

Carpenter Cottage 2015
The organizer of the idea of the Illumination event was Erastus P. Carpenter, a businessman who hailed from Foxboro. As president of the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company he and his business associates transformed the area of Edgartown. This would become the town of Cottage City, later to be named Oak Bluffs. Under his direction Oak Bluffs witnessed the building of the Arcade, the Pagoda, the Union Chapel, the Martha's Vineyard Railroad, and the Sea View Hotel, as well as Waban, Naushon, Niantic, and Ocean Parks. Additionally, during this same era E.P. Carpenter erected hotels in Katama, Nantucket, and Shelter Island Park.

E.P. Carpenter, long and favorably known to the people of Norfolk County in connection with the straw-hat manufacture of the county, was the pioneer of this new enterprise. In his obituary in the Foxboro Reporter, dated February 8, 1902, he is remembered as "...a rather small man, with bright dark eyes, always well dressed in a way that commanded business confidence, and he had schemes which were not only grandly imaginative but soberly attainable as well." During the summers of 1864 and 1865, he occupied a cottage within the Camp-Meeting grounds, and was desirous of purchasing a site for permanent occupancy; but as this was against the rules of the Association, he in 1866 bought a lot outside of the grounds. The following year, in conjunction with other gentlemen, he purchased a large tract of wood and cleared land, southeast of the property of the Camp-Meeting Association, consisting of about 75 acres of land. He formed a joint stock company, the association consisting of Captain Shubael Lyman Norton, former owner of the land, Captain Ira Darrow, Captain Grafton Norton Collins, and William Bradley, all from Edgartown, and William S. Hills from Boston. In his "Martha's Vineyard Summer Resort," Henry Beetle Hough wrote of E.P. Carpenter during this era, " was he who set the new company in motion, took the proprietorship and plain outlook of Captain Norton, and the accumulation of whaling capital, added the ferment of his own promotional spirit, and merged them into a land company which knew a boom when it saw one."

The company retained Robert Morris Copeland, a landscape architect from Boston to design the first plan for the Oak Bluffs Company. He employed the same intricate plan of curving roads from the rural cemeteries that he had designed in the Boston area. Rural cemeteries, with trees shadowing little lots strung along curving roads were popular in many American cemeteries but especially in the Boston area, largely because of Mount Auburn, in Cambridge.

It was in the July 5, 1867, edition of The Vineyard Gazette that the company placed its first advertisement for the newly named resort of "Oak Bluffs." The advertisement read, "Home By The Seaside, Oak Bluffs. A New Summer Resort. One Thousand Lots for Sale. The Martha's Vineyard Land and Wharf Company, having purchased the beautiful grove together with a large tract of land, adjoining the Wesleyan Camp Ground, offer for sale, within the reach of all, lots in their beautiful grounds, called Oak Bluffs..." The company sold over 800 lots in the first three years.

But many of the summer residents of the religious Camp Ground were unhappy with the success of this secular enterprise. In fact, historian Chris Stoddard wrote, "In the eyes of many of the people attending the camp meeting, this new group took on the form of the devil and a threat to the more serious nature of the camp meeting." ("A Centennial History of Cottage City.") The May 23, 1868, edition of the Vineyard Gazette reported, "...during the present year the number of cottages erected on 'this side of the fence,' will fully equal, if not exceed those in Wesleyan Grove.... The High Board Fence - between the grounds of the Camp Meetingers [sic] and Oak Bluffers now in process of construction. We can think that the Camp Meeting Association will never regret this proceeding but once, and that regret will be for all time. It is carrying matters a little too far, and smacks somewhat strongly of Phariseeism."

In less than seven years after the Civil War, the town of Oak Bluffs as it would be recognized today was built. The development encircled the original Camp Ground where the cottages now stood and so the main street was called Circuit Avenue. Describing the public reaction to this series of events, a historian wrote, "Inside the Camp Ground all was neighborly and hushed. Outside, quite suddenly, all was clamor and commerce - a town of skating rinks, merry-go-rounds, theatres, and hotels. It was all so contrary to the spiritual business that drew the first pilgrims there, and so bewildering to them. Eventually they put up a picket fence to try to wall themselves off from the world that had risen up around them. The speculation and energy that created the town of Oak Bluffs still animates the spirit of the place today. And though the fence did not last, the Camp Ground, right in the middle of it all, has managed to remain a place of almost miraculous stillness and peace in the midst of the bustle" (The Vineyard Gazette).

It was on Saturday evening, August 14, 1869, in the midst of this bustle that the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company sponsored the first Illumination Night. The Vineyard Gazette reported the events, "The illumination and fireworks at 'Oak Bluffs,' on Saturday evening last, was a very fine affair. Chinese and Japanese lanterns were displayed in abundance, suspended from cottages and trees. There was a good variety in the pieces at the fireworks. The Foxboro Brass Band, brought here by the liberality of E.P. Carpenter, Esq., of Foxboro, discoursed fine music for the occasion. Several thousands of people of both sexes were out to see and hear." The initial festivity was called Governor's Day in honor of Governor William Claflin who was on hand for the fete. Over the ensuing years, the Gazette referred to the annual event as the "Illumination," and the identification remains to this day.

The event became more popular each summer. During the summer of 1873 the Gazette reported on the "Illumination at Oak Bluffs. " Once again entertainment was provided by for by E.P. Carpenter and the Foxboro Brass Band. Among the notables present were Vice-President Henry Wilson, and Governor Henry Howard of Rhode Island. The following year, President Ulysses S. Grant presided at the event. In an article titled, "The Illumination," the Gazette reported, "In the evening the President and Party were driven around the principal avenues on the Bluffs, to witness the illumination and display of fire-works which had been gotten in his honor. The procession headed by the Foxboro Brass Band... The whole city was ablaze, or rather the Bluff's 'ward.' The cottages of E.P. Carpenter, Dr. Tucker, the Holmans, and others on Narragansett Avenue, and a host of others all challenged the enthusiastic admiration of the multitude of spectators."

Several decades removed from these events, the eulogist at E.P. Carpenter's funeral memorialized him with these words, "If you would see his monument, look around you." This statement is a poignant reminder that even though many of the physical monuments erected during our lives will outlive the names of the builders, the values and traditions that caused them to be built are memorialized in the celebrations of the living.

The monument that is annual Grand Illumination has been celebrated for more than 137 years. The early Illuminations added to the alarm of the people 'inside the fence' of the encroaching ideas of 'commercialization' and a change to their quiet, isolated way of life. With the passage of time, the wooden fence that once physically shunned out the lights and festivities of the Illumination has become like a pond ripple that each year carries anew the light and joy to all who wade into its waters.

More story & pictures at