Friday, September 9, 2011

Meeting Fr. Corby's Family - Stories and Letters and Relatives

There are a great number of joys in being a writer, especially one who writes about history (and I can assure that the money, what little of it there is, is not one of them!).

Two of my favorites are: 1) what you might call "cross-pollination": learning and sharing information with others interested in the same subject, often in ways you'd never thought of; and 2) my favorite favorite: interactions with readers.

As you'll learn below, both of these joys were fulfilled this week and at the same time when I received a kind note from a reader, made all the more special because he has a very special connection to people I have been researcing and writing about for years now. They were also kind enough to share a letter - from 1892 - that is posted below.

Some background first:

Anyone who has read my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), or is at all familiar with the school's role in the Civil War, knows that Fr. William Corby plays a large part in that story. He has been the subject of several posts on this blog (for example,

Just as interesting as Fr. Corby's own story is that of other members of his family, which are also closely connected with the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary's Academy, and the Congregation of the Holy Cross:

Fr. Corby was the son of Daniel Corby (1798-1875). A native of Ireland, Daniel arrived in North America at the age of 24. He first landed in Quebec and proceeded to Montreal where he met and married Miss Elizabeth Stapleton. Two years later he moved his young family to Detroit, where he became very successful in the real estate business. He was very notable in Catholic circles of Michigan and Detroit where he supported the construction of hospitals and churches.

A memorial article in The Michigan Catholic in 1886 declared that "there was not a charitable work commenced in his lifetime that he did not aid generously and continuously."

The Michigan Catholic article also noted some details of his family life:

"His life was not without affliction and trials.
Five of his children were carried to the tomb in early years; his wife who shared his early struggles and who bore him a large family died in 1842. He remarried in 1844 Margaret, widow of John Walters, sister of General John McManman, now deceased. Of his children, two are in the religious state. His eldest daughter is Sister Mary Ambrose of the Convent of St. Mary's Academy, Notre Dame, Ind. His eldest son is a distinguished ecclesiastic, Rev. W. Corby, C.S.C., of Notre Dame University, of which institution he is an ex-President...Michael T. Corby, A.M., resident of Chicago; John and Thomas, his remaining sons, reside at Connor's Creek. His daughters, Teresa, wife of Cornelius Corbett, Supt. of the W. U. Telegraph Co., and Miss Minnie Corby, are residents of Detroit."

Daniel Corby was especially associated with two churches in Detroit: St. Mary's and St. Joseph's (a "daughter" church of St. Mary's). Indeed, Daniel was referred to in the Michigan catholic article as "the fiscal agent of St. Joseph, for he cashed the many drafts of this saint, so frequently appealed to, with a liberality unparalleled."

St. Joseph's parish in Detroit has a wonderful website (here), with an equally wonderful and interesting section (here), where I learned in the parish's "History Corner" that "Some of [Daniel Corby's] 12 children became parishioners then and some of his descendants are still members of St. Joseph Church today."

You can imagine how excited and honored I was that Mr. Patrick Degens - one of the descendants of Daniel Corby and author of the "History Corner" - sent me the following e-mail in the past few days:

"I had to buy your book when I saw the frontice page on "McNamara's Blog" (note; you can see Patrick McNamara's kind review of my book here) . My great grand uncle was Father William Corby."

WOW! Patrick goes on to relate some wonderful family stories and history related to Fr. Corby and his extended family:

"My father was the youngest of 16 children, He was born in 1895. One of his older sisters lived with us when I was growing up and she remembered Father Corby when he came to Detroit to visit the family when she was a very small girl. She said he asked her if she knew who he was and she answered that she did. When he said, 'Who am I?' She told me she said; 'God.' She added that she was very small."

What a wonderful story, and it undoubtedly warmed the heart of Fr. Corby, known widely for his geniality and humor.

Mr. Degens continued:

"My grandmother attended St. Marys Academy at South Bend when Father Corby's sister was the head mistress there, Mother Ambrose. I have a letter that she wrote to my grandmother that came with a large box of muslin she had sent to my grandmother for making sheets. She asked for prayers from all the children for herself. It was a very touching letter. My grandmother was invited to Notre Dame for the dedication of the statue there of Father Corby. She went by train and attended the ceremonies. I never knew any of my grandparents as they had all passed before I was born."

In a later e-mail, Patrick kindly shared the content of that letter from Sr. Mary Ambrose, with the following notes on his family:

"My grandmother was the daughter of Thomas McManman and Elizabeth Corby McManman (1826-1874). Elizabeth was the first born child of Daniel Corby (1798-1875) and Elizabeth Stapleton Corby (1808-1842), also Father William (1833-1897) Corby's parents. Their sister, Mary Agnes (b.1829) became a Holy Cross nun taking the name of Sister Mary Ambrose. The following is a letter she wrote to my grandmother Elizabeth McManman Degens (1854-1934).
Note that in the letter below, Winnie was a half sister to Father William and Sister Ambrose"

And now for the letter:

St. Joseph Academy
South Bend - Ind
June 5, 1892

My Dear Libbie,

I have been promising myself the pleasure of answering Your letter - written after your visit - and will devote My free time this after noon in discharging this pleasant duty. Your visit was a real treat. Only too short. If I had you and Winnie back after you had gone I would not let you go until after Easter. I felt very lonely after you left. I was glad that you enjoyed your trip to Chicago and that yourself and Michael had the pleasure of meeting. Michael enjoyed the visit very much and so did Father.

I received your postal. Was sorry to hear that you had been ill, but hope that you are better. Were the things I sent of any use to you did you make the sheets and pillow covers? How is Winnie, did she leave the Wayace - I would like to know her address as I wish to write her. You Detroit people are not very generous about letters we have to be satisfied with one in a year in some cases three and five years.

The school year is fast drawing to a close, in less than three weeks we will be free and be assured that I am very glad. We will close the house and all go to St. Marys for the vacation. Our retreat will take place the 2d of July and the Priests retreat on the 9th. We will depend on your good prayers for us during that time. I have great faith in the prayers of Children. Have your little Children say a Hail Mary every day from the 2d to the 14th of July. What consolation our holy Religion gives us. We can ever be united in God by means of prayer and obtaining from each other the countless blessings. The month of Our Blessed Mother is over. The Devotion was observed in all the churches. The May processions were very fine.

I was at St. Mary's for the Dedication of St. Angela's Hall and the Closing of the Month of May. There were eight Priests from Notre Dame. Father Corby preached, the procession was grand Two hundred Pupils and about two hundred and fifty Sisters.

Has there been any rain in Michigan. There has been constant rain here for five weeks. It is clear today and be assured we enjoy the sunshine. I am anxious to hear from you and to know how Winnie is. Love also to the Children from me.

Remember in your prayers
Your Affectionate
Sister M Ambrose

Thank you, Mr. Degens; it was an honor and a privilege to hear from you!

As if that wasn't enough: in another twist, Patrick also shared:

"My cousin John Carey, also a Corby descendant, writes the History Column for the Washington Times and he also represents Father Corby at the annual gathering at Gettysburg. He is retired from a career in the Navy. His grandfather was Father Corby's brother, Tom. Actually his half brother. Another kindred spirit in the world of history."

Kindred spirits, indeed!

As it turns out, not knowing that Patrick and John were related, John Carey had corresponded with me earlier this spring and summer. John is graduate of Notre Dame (1976) and a Commander, United States Navy (Ret.). You can find some of his past Washington Times history pieces as well as other writing at his "Civil War Stories of Inspiration" blog here.

Is it any wonder that this is my FAVORITE part of writing?