Saturday, August 01, 2009

In Memoriam: Louisa Kirchner, 1915-2009

In the summer of 1997, I was working as a resident assistant at Goddard Hall, one of NYU's traditional residence halls on Washington Square in New York City. The summer position brought with it free room and board as well as a "triple" room all to myself.

That summer, I had hoped to get an internship at GQ magazine. But, due to my lack of formal design and layout experience, my application was rejected. This left my evening job at the NYU alumni phonathon as my only cash-generating employment for June, July and August.

So, I slept in many mornings. I helped to plan Goddard Hall's fall orientation schedule. I planned (and executed) my blow-out of a 21st birthday party on July 26.

And, that hazy summer, I had my first communication with Louisa Kirchner.

It was Sarah LaPlante, in a telephone call from Milwaukee, who made the connection.

Sarah was then serving as the executive director of the National Catholic Student Coalition (NCSC), an association of Catholic college and university students who are active in campus ministry programs around the United States. In 1997, I was chair of NCSC's Northeast Regional Team.

Sarah had been asked to recruit a new Catholic college student or two to go to the United Nations headquarters in New York to attend briefings for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on behalf of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). Thanks to the luck of geography, yours truly was one of the students to get the nod.

Waiting for me at the U.N. was Louisa.

By the time I met her in mid-1997, Dr. Louisa Byles Kirchner, age 82, a retired professor of Spanish at the University of Connecticut, had been laboring on behalf of IMCS and its professional / academic sister organization (called "Pax Romana") for the better part of 60 years. In fact, Louisa was one of the founders of one of NCSC's predecessor organizations, the National Federation of Catholic College Students.

Louisa, and her husband, Ed Kirchner (then aged 85 years), took me and the other Catholic student representatives under their wing. The couple would come to the U.N. multiple times a month from their home in Stamford, CT. They would take the train into Grand Central and then walk over to the U.N. buildings by the East River.

The Kirchners were with us as we sat through NGO briefings, meetings of the various U.N. NGO committees as well as events at the International Catholic Organizations Center on 47th Street upstairs of Holy Family Church. And, Ed and Louisa were sitting behind me in June, 1998, when I made a statement to the U.N. General Assembly Committee of the Whole during the Special Session on the World Drug Problem.

With her small stature, white-gray hair and pants suits of muted colors, Louisa did not immediately strike fear in the hearts of the U.N. bureaucrats. But, she had a strong presence. She was never afraid to ask a hard question in a briefing or remind someone of a proverbial elephant in the room.

After a briefing or meeting, I would love to go to lunch with Louisa and Ed. Often over sandwiches in the cafeteria of the Engineering Societies Building (now the site of the Trump World Tower), we would talk about the Church, international affairs and politics. I remember the day I told Louisa I was a Republican. The feisty proponent of the preferential option for the poor was not amused!

In July, 1998, I moved home to Western Pennsylvania to work in newspapers and politics. But, I stayed in touch with Louisa and Ed for as many years as Louisa was able to e-mail. And, in 2000, we spent a week together in Paris for an international conference of Catholic academics and professionals. (The photos in this post are from that trip.)

Ed died in 2003. Louisa passed away on June 28 of this year. A child of 1915, she would have turned 94 on August 29.

Friday morning, I took that New Haven-line train from Grand Central to Stamford to attend a memorial Mass for Louisa at the Kirchners' old parish, Our Lady Star of the Sea, where she once served as a lector.

At the Mass, it was recalled that Louisa was a great-granddaughter of Peter Delmonico, one of the brothers who founded the famous Delmonico's restaurant, and that she was a niece of Father Thomas Byles, the priest who went down on the Titantic.

Also remembered was Louisa and Ed's wedding in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick's Cathedral in May, 1946. The New York Times report of the nuptials indicated that the wedding ceremony was performed by Paulist Father Joseph McSorley while the Mass was celebrated (and a Papal blessing bestowed) by the Jesuit theologian Father John Courtney Murray.

Joe Kirchner, the youngest of Louisa and Ed's three children, recalled the years his parents spent in Europe after WWII. Ed ran a displaced persons camp while Louisa worked with students and helped to secure scholarships for many of them.

Joe also reported how, in Louisa's final years, she continued to inspire others just by her presence at Sunday Mass. From his eulogy:

"Louisa may have been frail, but she did not want anyone coming down the aisle to bring her communion. She inched her way up, navigating her walker around musical instruments where the aisle narrowed next to the choir to receive God from both the Eucharist and the cup. When people held the door for her or made room in the pew, you could detect a sense of awe in their faces. She may not have been able to articulate it, but people were inspired by the strength of her conviction, every Sunday, inching her way to communion. ... at her core, was her faith."


St Edwards Blog said...

What a beautiful tribute to one very remarkable woman. I am awestruck by all that she did in her life and how she impacted your life... and clearly the lives of many.

Thank you for sharing this with us today.

May Louisa rest in peace.


(PS - oh Paul the most unfortunate ad was at the bottom of this post. I know that you can't control the ads but this one was really inappropriate for this blog and this post. I just thought you would want to know.)

Rookie said...

Louisa was a very special Lady and I feel fortunate to have been her friend and been allowed to be a part of her life. You have captured her spirit in your comments. May she rest in peace. Louisa Kirchner! PRESENTE

Mark Ungemach said...

Thank you so much for writing this!

Louisa and Ed Kirchner were my Godparents, and I can hear Louisa in my mind from time to time. As hard as Louisa might have seemed to some, she was an indefatigable voice of hope and vision. She was "Yes We Can" before President Obama was even born.

At the age of 14, I traveled with Louisa and my parents through France and Spain. I can't imagine what I would have missed without her presence.

May the spirit of Louisa live on in the lives of all who knew her and beyond. It is the spirit of a living Christianity, the likes of which we too seldom see.

Thank you.

-Mark Ungemach