Sister Maria Del Rey Danforth, O.P.
WRITING? I GUESS I HAVE ALWAYS
DONE IT. NOW AND THEN I have taken flyers into other fields-photography,
music, teaching,-but I usually end up in writing as at my home
My first try at journalism
was at the age of nine. It all started when my father bought
a typewriter. One of those ancient Olivers with a double shift.
It had a cute device whereby a pencil could be inserted between
the banks of keys and, by rolling the carriage, a pencil line
was drawn down the paper. This was fascinating! We children were
drawing column rules before we poked a single letter. Columns
suggested a newspaper. So-right off-we started a neighborhood
newspaper. My part in the enterprise was to visit all the homes
around and get subscriptions, two pins for a Lifetime Charter
Subscription; one pin, for a Year Since everyone around was either
mother or near relative of the editorial board, this was not
too hard an assignment. As reward, I was given a job on The Trumpet.
My rise was phenomenal. Within three weeks, I rose from Leg Man
(literally) to Editor-in-Chief, without relinquishing any of
the positions gained on the way up. The reason? The editors,
reporters, copy boys, pressmen and columnists had all evaporated.
They were enthralled with something new-marbles or jump-rope
or playing house- and I was left holding all positions on the
board and sole owner of all those pins I had collected for subscriptions.
A troubled conscience bothered me. I felt I must work off at
least the one-year subscriptions. My heart quailed at the thought
of all those charter subscribers. Just what was their life-expectancy?
Some of them might live for eighty years or more!
So you see, I started out in
journalism under a heavy cloud of debt. I wonder if I shall ever
be able to get into the black! For, even now I am working off
a thousand debts collected since those old neighborhood Trumpet
days. My vocation to Maryknoll, the forbearance of my superiors
to whom I must be quite a trial, so many opportunities to see
fascinating places and peoples,-all of these plus the greatest
of them all, the invitation to spend my life with and for God,
leave me forever and enthusiastically in debt.
In the Trumpet days, I did
a lot of writing on things I knew nothing at all about. Once
I ran a scorching editorial about divorce. It was not so well
received. One of the lifetime subscribers was on the verge of
divorce and she resented a child of ten hurling the Baltimore
Catechism at her in smug self-righteousness. This taught me a
valuable lesson in journalism: Don't try to force the reader
around to your way of thinking. A lassoed steer is sure to buck.
The wise editor knowing his reader's limitations of mind and
perhaps of heart as well, leads him gently around to the right
position. In that way, he wins his point and still does not lose
To make a long story a bit
shorter, I worked on our high school paper at Seton Hill in Greensburg,
Pennsylvania. After a try at piano-playing in Carnegie Institute
of Technology, I took to the typewriter again at the University
of Pittsburgh, majoring in journalism. Here, under Professor
Maulsby, we worked under a stiff but wise regulation. Each semester,
we students had to get 300 inches printed.
That last word is important.
In journalism it is not enough to turn in flawless copy if you
do not have the gumption to see an editor and get him to print
it. He will use it only if it says something of interest to his
readers. This saved us, thanks be to God, from writing reams
about nothing at all. Instead, we dug out stories that were worth
I went to cemeteries and museums
and such dead places and found some little fact that interested
me. For instance, I found the grave of one Joshua Barney once
an Admiral in the Navy. It seemed odd to me that he should be
buried in Pittsburgh, far from the wild sea waves. Looking him
up in the library, I unearthed quite a colorful character. In
the end, old Joshua was spread out in the Sunday Supplement of
The Pittsburgh Press with a full half-inch byline for me-and
this was pure unearned increment-a number of big pictures of
his grave and Joshua in his Admiral's outfit. The Press sent
out a photographer on the story, which redounded to my glory
in the class and added quite a few succulent inches to the total.
However delectable as the inches
might be, they were merely a by-product. My aim was to prove
to hard-boiled editors that I could write. If they got some free
samples, they might be better disposed to hire me when I came
around looking for a job. Remember, those were Depression Days
when jobs did not grow on bushes !
The reasoning worked. As soon
as the sheepskin was handed me on Commencement Day, I took my
scrapbook to the editor of The Pittsburgh Press and prevailed
upon the Sunday supplement editor to introduce me. He did just
"This is Ethel Danforth,
Bill," he said, and turned on his heel and left, probably
not able to bear the sight of one tender cub crushed under the
heel of a ruthless editor.
"Oh, yes?" said Bill
to the Sunday editor's retreating back. "Well, what do you
want?" he turned the full weight of his attention upon terrified
me. Sink or swim, do or die, now or never, I plugged into my
little salestalk. The outcome was that ten minutes later I rushed
into a drugstore to the nearest telephone booth and called home.
"I've got a job on The Press!" my mother heard over
the telephone, just as did everyone within fifty yards of the
In spite of the enthusiastic
start, my career on The Press was not brilliant by any means.
Those were depression doldrum days. I covered schools, hotels,
and did feature stories. I interviewed visiting beauty queens,
covered accidents and fires, sat through conventions and school
board meetings, and once, to my intense joy, covered a State
Fair, sampling all the prize-winning recipes and stroking all
the beautiful horses. But the old urge came back again and-again.
God wanted me at Maryknoll and I should be there. In 1933 I entered.
Instead of writing at Maryknoll,
I was put to something better. I read. I read aloud to the community
almost every day. This, I think, is magnificent training for
writing. The flow of different styles, the use of one word rather
than another, the purposeful variety in sentence structures,
become bone of one's bone. I am still one of the refectory readers
in our community. I hope I never loose the job.
I taught in Hawaii for a year
and a half. In the Philippines I stayed eleven years, three of
them in a concentration camp,-the best years of my life in some
ways. In those years I turned again to writing, knowing what
a tremendous story was happening around me and loathe to let
it slide away without record. However, during one of our recurrent
terrors when our Superior and another Sister were taken to the
torture dungeons, I destroyed the manuscript lest it incriminate
In,1947 I returned to the States
for Maryknoll Sisters' publicity work. A year later, back to
the Orient I went on a year's survey of mission work in Japan,
China, Korea, Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines and Western Carolines.
This resulted in Pacific Hopscotch, published by Scribner's in
It was just then that the Communists
were expelling American priests and nuns from China. I collected
their stories and wrote Nun in Red China, a first-person story
published under the name Sister Mary Victoria by McGrawHill in
1953. A jaunt through Latin America covering Peru, Bolivia, Chile,
Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, resulted in In and Out
the Andes, which Scribner's brought out in 1955.
Of course these books were
written on the margins of time; my main work was still the ordinary
channels of publicity. In August, 1954, a young photographer,
George Barris, spent a week at Maryknoll taking pictures for
a story, tracing a young girl through the postulancy and novitiate
It appeared in Cosmopolitan
magazine for December of that year, as "Bernie Becomes a
Nun." However, Mr. Barris had been carried away with his
subject; he took more than a thousand excellent pictures. The
best of these were published in 1956 by Farrar, Straus &
Cudahy in a book likewise entitled Bernie Becomes a Nun, for
which I wrote the text. In this I tried to give the background
common to all women religious, so that a girl entering any order
would know what lay ahead of her.
My latest book to date, Her
Name is Mercy, was published by Scribners in 1957. It is the
story of what seems to me an epic of compassion, the setting
up and operation of a clinic to care for the million or more
refugees in Pusan, Korea, during the recent war over there. We
see the clinic through the eyes of army officials, relief workers,
journalist, the nuns themselves and, of course, the refugees.
No doubt about it, writing
is a little bit of Purgatory. The only thing that drives me to
it-besides my Superiors -is the thought that it might lead souls
to God. Also I hate to see a good story go by the board for want
of someone to put it on paper. I make no pretense of writing
deathless literature. My output is journalism, pure and simple,
today's story told for today. What Tomorrow does with it, I really
don't care. It is meant to serve its purpose Today.