Friday, December 30, 2011

Three Lights Went out in December

About 12 years ago.  I was Church Moderator.  We had just done a modest capital drive to remodel and refurnish the Church School space in the basement.  We dedicated the main room to Helen Wright, Mae Vieregg's  best friend and a church institution in her own right who died in her late '90's.  Mae shared her memories.

It has been an emotional month for the members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Woodstock.  Not only did we deal with, in the middle of an otherwise joyous Holiday Season, with a series of “lasts” as we counted down to leaving our church home of 106 years, but three of those dearest to us died.  None of the deaths were totally unexpected—the folks were known to be ill or in one case extremely elderly—but the each left holes in our hearts.

The first to go was Joan Coleman.  She had bravely and remarkably cheerfully been dealing with liver cancer—almost always a death sentence—for more than two years.  A small round woman with an infectious smile she was always at the side of her tall, lean, shambling husband Bob with his shock of white hair.  They truly cared for each other, nurturing each other through different health problems. 

A childless couple, they found room in their home for the dogs they loved and the occasional human stray.  Years ago they took in a local high school boy thrown out of his home when he announced that he was Gay.  They became his surrogate parents and eventually sent him off into the world much loved.  Naturally, they formed the McHenry County chapter of PFLAG which met in the church.  Later one of our members in late middle age, a single woman, lost her condo when the factory she worked in closed.  Sandra could only find part time work a Target.  Facing homelessness, Joan and Bob took her in, too.

The two of them worked closely with me and the Rev. Dan Larsen on various social justice projects.  Joan frequently spoke in church, often sharing a reading.  She died a couple of weeks ago in Hospice care and surrounded by love.  A memorial service will be held Saturday, January 14 at the new church building in McHenry.

Joe Blanco was never a member of the congregation.  But he was a very close friend of the church.  After suffering a nearly fatal heart attack and receiving a heart transplant in his early 50’s, Joe retired from a very successful business career to spend the rest of his life in service to others.  

I first met him when he was Chair of the McHenry Country Human Relations Commission.  Rev. Larsen and I, as part of what became the Interfaith Council for Social Justice, had worked hard to get local governments to set up such bodies.  We hoped that they would actually function to improve relations between racial, ethnic, and religious communities and address issues like discrimination in housing.  It turned out we were wrong.  Neither the County nor the municipalities were willing to give the fledgling commissions any authority and wanted to use them only for window dressing.  Despite the massive indifference of the County government, Joe tried to make the Commission work.

He started attending service at church and singing in the choir.  Dan recognized his enormous organizational skills and recruited him to become site manager for the PADS homeless shelter that used our building every Wednesday nights.  For seven years he managed and motivated the small army of volunteers need to staff and feed upwards of 50 guests a week. 
He also became unofficial business manager of the Frothy Boys, the men’s a cappela group carved out of the choir and led by Tom Steffens.  He arranged for local appearances that raised money for a number of causes along with visits to nursing homes and the like.  In fact, the day before Joe died he was singing with the Frothy Boys at just such a nursing home.  The news of his death on Christmas Eve was front page news in the Northwest Herald with a photo of Joe greeting a resident.

Joe worked with Harold Rail, Werner Ellmann, and Dan Larsen to found Principled Minds, an organization which puts on anti-bullying campaigns in schools and coordinates or participates in other social justice causes.  He returned to work part time as an instructor at McHenry County College disadvantaged, disabled, and challenged students.  And he did it all with enthusiasm and skill.  Joe wanted a more traditional Christian worship than we could offer and he joined a local Episcopal Church, but he never gave up giving time to UUCW causes and activities.

Joe knew he was having heart problems again and had been hospitalized a couple of times recently.  He was only 63 when he died suddenly and was buried by his family a couple of days ago in his downstate home town Peru.  There will be a local memorial later.

But maybe the loss I felt deepest was Mae Vieregg.  Mae was both the oldest member of the congregation and the longest term member.  She was 98.  She joined the church in 1948 as a young mother.  Thursday night at our farewell service we looked at a picture of the Ladies Evening League taken in 1953—more than a dozen matrons lined up behind a generous table.  Mae, the junior member, was all the way to the right of the line, her dark hair contrasting with the mostly white and grey.  She was tiny then.  She got tinier.

Mae and her husband Bob operated Vieregg’s Family Restaurant just a block down Dean Street from the church on the Square.  They raised a family—four boys, I think—in a large Victorian house a few blocks away.  Bob rang the church bell every Sunday.  That’s a job that fell to me years later.  I think it helped Mae take a shine to me even though she did not always approve of my more radical ideas.  Mae volunteered at everything.  The kids grew up in the church, got married, and as children do, moved away.

When Bob died about 30 years ago, Mae sold the restaurant to the folks who operate it now as Angelo’s.  She gave the almost new commercial range to the congregation around which built a nice kitchen in the basement making the many church suppers and the funeral dinners fed by the ladies of the Friendly Aid usually led by Mae.  She live alone in her big house, walked to Church every Sunday or drove in her big Buick and was often at meetings two or three nights a week.  Her life centered on the congregation and its people.

Folks remember Mae for being “Feisty” and blunt spoken.  A lot attributed it to age.  Not so.  Mae would no more suffer a fool at 30 than she did at 90.  She was always ready to stand up in church and speak her piece. 
When Dan Larsen first came on as minister, Mae was on the Church Council.  It took her a while to warm up to the new minister.  And Dan was, frankly a little frightened of her.  Eventually he won her over, though.  He visited her in her nursing home three days before she died.

Mae was best known as the defender of the Congregationalist heritage of the church.  Most folks thought she was an unreconstructed Congregationalist herself.  But when I was working on my history of the congregation, she told me, “I’m a Christian, but I was always more of a Universalist myself.  It’s just that the Unitarians came in and swept everyone else aside.  It was the Congregationalists church and the Unitarians stole it.”  

Despite this, with less than five members of the church still identifying with the United Church of Christ when the congregation held its vote to sever its ties to the UCC, she cast her vote in the unanimous decision.  “It was time, and they gave us respect.”  As she hoped the congregation kept it name as Congregational Unitarian Church, “But they will probably wait until I die to change it.”  Actually, we did not wait quite that long, although it took almost a dozen years to become the UUCW.

I think Mae and I grew fond of each other because she was born the same year as both of my late parents—1913—and I was the same age as her youngest son.  She even grew to like my poetry, forgive me for being a Democrat—she was a life-long Republican of the vanished progressive stamp.  Just before the 2008 election she pulled me aside after church and said, “You were right about that war.  I’m voting for Obama.

Mae was pretty much unstoppable until she tripped and fell leaving church one Sunday.  She banged her head pretty good and was bleeding.  The paramedics arrived she told them in no uncertain terms, “I tripped on the city sidewalk, not on the Church steps.”  But she was back in the pews within a few weeks.  Two years ago, however, she broke her pelvis and had to leave her big old home to move into an assisted living apartment after she got out of the nursing home.  She came back to Church to worship when she could walk well again, there was no snow or ice, and when she could get a ride.

She spoke up at the summer Congregational Meeting that accepted the donation of the new building.  Surprisingly, she did not oppose the move, especially if it would help attract new young families.  But her heart would always be in the old building.  Mae attended her last service here in November.  She slipped away the day after Christmas.  I am convinced she chose to go before the congregation left the building.

A memorial service will be held in February.

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