Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966) is the first published work by John Bellairs. The book's first story, "The True History of Saint Fidgeta, Virgin and Martyr" was originally published in the June-July 1965 edition of The Critic.
"The True History of St. Fidgeta, Virgin and Martyr" is a hagiographical study of Saint Fidgeta and gives her all-too-brief story: born a Christian, she attends a pagan grammar school where, in a fit of spiritual shaking, she was slapped to death by a teacher. The remainder of the text provides a written account of facts pertaining to the seven-year-old martyr's iconization in art, apparitions, and stories of her followers, the Order of Faithful Fidgettines.
Chapter 2Pope Paul VI made history in 1965 as the first pope to visit the Western Hemisphere. During the first papal to the United States, Paul VI toured New York City with visits to the United Nations, the World's Fair, and later Mass at Yankee Stadium. The "Prolegomenon To Any Future Visit Of A Pope To America" is a meditation on the event in a series of “notes found in the desk of a New York advertising executive” - essentially a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness ramble that speculates on ways to improve and promote subsequent papal visits.
While the construction of "The Cathedral of Saint Gorboduc" began in the 7th Century, it was only recently completed. This chapter is one part satire on the beautiful cathedrals of old that one would expect to find across Europe and one part amusing examination of a religious shrine.
The Question Box - a method which allows anyone to ask church leaders and elders about the specifics of their Catholic faith - has long been an symbol of the Catholic church's ministry of education. Bellairs's take on such a box is full of crazy questions ("Does the olive in the martini break the Lenten fast, or is it considered part of the drink?") and the rather acid-tongued responses of the box's moderator.
A Short Guide to Catholic Church History is just as it's title says, albeit one derived by Bellairs. The so-called guide covers some of the lesser-known pontiffs, a brief history of the even-briefer Grand Central Schism, and an assortment of miscellaneous church trivia one never knew existed.
The artwork of Marilyn Fitschen takes center stage here as this all-illustrated, comic book-inspired Fable of Goar tells of a certain saint's contentious Christian conversion techniques and how a local bishops suggests involuntary martyrdom.
The Easter Address to the Faculty by the President of a Catholic Women's College serves as an insight int the goings on at a remote Catholic college. There's talk of teachers and news of staff delivered from one all-powerful president.
Bellairs presents a second hagiography and examines the lesser-known Story of Floradora, an alleged victim of Mount Vesuvius's eruption. While her tale is first thought to be somewhat miraculous, Bellairs goes on to illustrate the “evidence” that proved to be the downfall of the "saint who ain't."
The comings and goings during the fourth period of the Third Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican III, are detailed by Nepomuk Prynne in his Letter from Vatican City.
A Chaplet of Devotions, Causes, and Societies to Which the Catholic May Safely Adhere exist solely for those who are unsure of what to make of all the changes coming from the Second Vatican Council.
Geared toward those that teach the young, Mother Ximenes’ Handbook for Grade School Nuns is packed with need-to-know facts about geography, science, and history, and way to remind young Catholics of their place in the church.
The Moist Heart: A Compendium of Private or Public Worship is best described as a short parody of the missal that contains prayers and songs used during Mass . It includes a song, prayers, and suggested text for a sermon.
Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies was written mainly for Catholics with material drawn from my Irish-Catholic childhood. The pieces are satiric and meant to attack abuses within the church. They are also supposed to be funny.
References to Catholicism appear in most of Bellairs's books. Growing up, the Bellairs family ("...devout, traditional Catholics of the pre-Vatican II stripe") attended Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Marshall, with young John a student in their school. Like Lewis Barnavelt and Johnny Dixon, Bellairs was an altar boy growing up and continued this role into his college years at Notre Dame. Later during his time as a student in Chicago, he assisted the chaplains at some weekday masses at the University of Chicago even after he had stopped going to Sunday mass. It was only natural then that bits and pieces of what he read and heard and learned resurfaced in his stories: descriptions of Mass and prayers, life in a Catholic school, the power of the True Cross, or a litany stenciled on tiles in a mausoleum.
Patients of the Saint
As a character, Saint Fidgeta can date her origins back to the early 1960s, somewhere between 1961 and 1963. Bellairs was living in Chicago and "working his butt off" through graduate school in an attempt complete his work for a Ph.D. in literature. He was joined by friends that he had met as undergraduate at Notre Dame, such as Alfred Myers, but making new friends, too, namely Bernard Markwell and Dale Fitschen - and his new bride, Marilyn. These new friends would often find time for get-togethers that celebrated something as important as the competition of a major project or thesis or something as lowbrow as a weekend when "someone had the thirty-five cents for a quart of beer or $1.25 for a jug of Gallo's Red Burgundy wine."
These social events often involved games - such as Ghost or Botticelli - and elicited a story or two from Bellairs. One story in particular that his audience - "being mostly Roman Catholic and Episcopalian and even a couple of ex-seminarians" – begged for more about was the one about the patron saint of the frequently-encountered but seldom-praised sensation of twitching and moving and not sitting still - that is, Saint Fidgeta was born.
His gift for storytelling at these parties made quite an impression:
"...tubby, cherubic, a sort of younger Middle Western version of Chesterton’s Father Brown. John would settle back in a chair, where others reclined on the floor, and, after a muffled snort or two, would give vent to some facetious fantasy that [ended] in a chuckle – but not always."After one such party in early 1963, the Fitschens discussed the popularity of the stories and suggested to Bellairs that he put the story down in writing for possible publication: "John scoffed at the thought, but we could sense a hint of skeptical interest."
By the summer of 1963 Bellairs had departed his studies in Chicago and moved to Winona, Minnesota, to begin teaching at the College of Saint Teresa. Back in Chicago, the stories of Saint Fidgeta were not far from the mind of Marilyn, who had begun doodling a pudgy little girl that was to become the titular saint. Who the caricature resembled was up for debate: Bellairs said Fidgeta looked like a baby Winston Churchill, others thought it resembled John himself. Regardless, the drawings spurred Bellairs to begin typing out the full story, with Dale editing and Marilyn illustrating.
By the spring of 1965 Bellairs was wrapping his second school year at Saint Teresa's - a term which would prove his last in Winona. Sonia Gernes, one of Bellairs's students and later a member of the English faculty at Notre Dame, vividly recalls being read preliminary sections of "Saint Fidgeta" in class:
"I had the sense that this was a rather bold move, since it satirizes both Catholic traditions and persons at Saint Teresa's, namely Sister Camille Bowe, who was the president at the time, but that he didn't have anything to lose. I thought the sections were hilarious, and hearing them was a rather deliciously guilty pleasure for a young nun at the time."At some point in 1965, when the Fitschens thought the story was complete, the manuscript was submitted for consideration in The Critic, the Roman Catholic cultural and literary magazine. Dan Herr, founder and publisher, responded that "against his better judgment" the story of Saint Fidgeta would appear in their summer issue.
Everyone's a Critic
Days before the issue was to be published, I received a call from editor, Joel Wells, concerned that a little slip of her pen produced what may have been taken as representing a female genital organ (we didn't use the word 'clitoris' in those days) and the little angel pushing Fidgeta's swing was deemed unsuitable for the cover of the journal. I offered to edit the drawing but Wells instead asked if the art department had permission to alter the drawing. Thinking they would simply whiteout the offending line, [we] were surprised to find the cherub wearing ink-black shorts.Wells wrote an introduction to the issue, including some brief comments on the genesis of the story of Fidgeta:
"The young lady whose likeness appears at right is Saint Fidgeta. She is the highly fictional saint whose 'Life and Amazing Times' are documented this month by writer John Bellairs and Chicago artist Marilyn Fitschen. Mr. Bellairs is a product of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago's graduate school. For the past two years he has been teaching English at the College of St. Teresa, Winona, Minnesota. He admits that the supplications in the 'Litany of St. Fidgeta' represent his own actual childhood fears generated by overexposure to the grislier aspects of the lives of the saints. What inspired Mrs. Fitschen's drawings is more difficult to say - we were afraid to ask."While The Critic was a bit conservative at that time, it was not as conservative as the national Catholic weekly, America. Its editor, Father Thurston N. Davis, SJ, said the article was, "...a sick, six-page illustrated piece...waste(d) space on triviality, irreverence, or a combination of both."
Other reviews followed:
I would like to compliment Mr. John Bellairs on his humorous story "Saint Fidgeta" which was printed in your June/July issue. It was an excellent satire. I thoroughly believe it should be required reading for all teaching orders of nuns (Louis J. Iasillo; Cliffside Park, New Jersey).
Being a junior in a Catholic women's college and having received all of my education from the parochial school system, I was highly amused by the rich satire and wit contained in Mr. Bellair's [their punctuation, not mine] "Saint Fidgeta" (Geraldine O'Brien; West Orange, New Jersey).
Father Thurston N. Davis S.J., has labeled your "Saint Fidgeta" article correctly (America 6/19): "sick." The ridiculing prayer formulas come close to blasphemy. I am sorry you or the author felt you had to give that kind of a jolt to confidence in the intercession of the saints, or even confidence in prayer. If, as indicated, it was supposed to be a jibe at hagiographers, it misses the point completely. And seriously, what writer of saints' lives today uses this kind of material? (Mark Hegener, O.F.M.; Chicago, Illinois).Then there was Fortunata Caliri who Marilyn says some thought was actually Bellairs writing a letter to protest - "that's the kind of name John made up all the time."
You do your readers a disservice and an insult when you publish this thing called "Saint Fidgeta" in the June/July Critic. It is vulgar, in bad taste, and extremely unfunny. I would call it "sick" except for the fact that to do so would relieve you and the author of responsibility (Fortunata Caliri; Lowell, Massachusetts).Contrary to the thought at the time, Caliri was an assistant professor at Lowell State College as late as 1974.
Bound for Greater Things
Over the next year the story of Saint Fidgeta prompted both adulating praise and canceled subscriptions - though the most surprising response came from Macmillan Publishing Company. An editor, Elizabeth Bartelme, had gotten in touch with Bellairs and asked if he would be interested in composing an additional ten or so stories that, along with the original Fidgeta piece, would be published in one volume. Marilyn would be along for the ride, too, tasked to supply additional illustrations for each new chapter. An oral agreement was made soon thereafter with official contracts arriving in September of 1965 for the production of The Grand Central Schism and Other Parodies for Catholics.
Everyone was under pressure: John would write, Marilyn would draw, and Dale would edit, including making suggestions for an unpublished thirteenth chapter. The text, now presumed lost, would have included a conversation between Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and a number of other greats chatting away in Heaven's Golden Calf Inn. It was scrapped by Bellairs when Bartelme suggested some changes.
"Some deletions of poor material, like the insults between characters, were clunky, and at the very least, the book needed a good finale," notes Dale. "It didn't please him I agreed about these revisions. He didn't receive criticism of his writing gladly and abhorred a rewrite." As a result, Bellairs crabbed about the decision for years.
Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies arrived in June 1966. To celebrate, the administration of the College of Saint Teresa welcomed Bellairs back to campus – along with the Fitschens – for a party celebrating its release. Other reviews were positive,Marilyn recalls, from the New York Times to the Christian Science Monitor, and many other Catholic papers. The book went on to sell 30,000 copies through three printings, though never appearing in paperback. Whether Bellairs knew it or not, the book was a hit around the world: Marilyn notes a story that a copy was found in an abandoned missionary cottage on an island off the coast of Borneo twenty years after it was published. She also met a nun who was a dean at a Catholic college in Montreal who, with other nun-faculty, would sit around at night reading the book aloud and laughing until tears came.
Rise of the Famous Author
Bellairs moved to Mount Carroll, Illinois, in the fall of 1966 to begin teaching at Shimer College. During his first few months on campus he was subject to book signings and speeches, even reading portions of the book that October at a weekly gathering on campus, thereby increasing his popularity with students who were not in his classes.By December, Shimer faculty member John Hirschfield made the recommendation that the following spring’s Humanities II course include Saint Fidgeta as a text. The course, with emphasis on readings from different type of literature of which Fidgeta would represent parody, oddly enough was taught by Bellairs himself. In an article in the Shimer student newspaper, the Excalibur, Bellairs said of the decision, "I always thought that writings books and then requiring them for courses that you teach was a racket. Now I know it is--lust! Greed!"
Apocryphal ApparitionsWarner Johnston, a student of Bellairs at Shimer College, says that when he asked the author about the origins of Saint Fidgeta he was told:
Fidgeta first appeared...during a dramatic reading by flashlight and headlights of a bronze plaque on the side of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.Should this tale be true it radiates with certain irony as Stagg Field (1893-1957) is probably best remembered for its role in a landmark scientific achievement by Enrico Fermi during the Manhattan Project. Chicago Pile-1, the world's first artificial nuclear reactor, was built under the west stands of Stagg Field, which was by then no longer used for football. The first man-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction occurred on December 2, 1942.. A commemorative plaque was unveiled at Stagg Field on Dec. 2, 1952, the occasion of the tenth anniversary of CP-1 going critical; it was saved when the West Stands were demolished in August 1957. A second plaque was bestowed on the site when it received designation as a National Historic Landmark on February 18, 1965. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year. On the 25th anniversary of the nuclear reaction, a 12-foot bronze sculpture, entitled "Nuclear Energy," was dedicated on the site. It is unknown whether when - or really if - this dramatic reading Bellairs alluded to took place as the athletic facility was demolished a few before Bellairs was even a student in Chicago. It wouldn’t be until February 1965 that the site received attention from the National Park Service, which in turn would have been mere months before the story of Saint Fidgeta was published in the Critic. But we’re pretty sure it doesn’t matter.
Another tale as to the saint’s origins was put forth by the book's dedication, noting that Fidgeta first appeared on rainy day in front of the Oriental Institute in Chicago.
Knowing Bellairs's penchant for history and archeology, we find the Oriental Institute a prime location for a manifestation of Saint Fidgeta (and we can only imagine either Bellairs or Markwell rolling on the ground in inspired lunacy at the vision). Still, one could almost interpret the dedication to say some of Fidgeta's origins were the brainchild of Markwell; Bellairs, as they say, took the story and ran with it. Alas that angle of the story, if there ever was one, is gone: Bernard Markwell died in 2003.
IllustrationsFitschen's illustrations mark some of her first published artwork. "This book was my very first attempt at caricature and I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but Dale would make suggestions when I got too realistic. I found the hardest part was using the same character in different drawings and making it look like the same character. The cherub preceding the first page - and on the cover - is Saint Fidgeta. She was not consciously modeled after John, but everyone who saw it swore it was."
If you look carefully at the drawings throughout chapter one you will find a tiny “MF” scrawled in corners. "They were put there before submitting the whole work to The Critic. When we learned that they were going into a book, I never thought to sign any others, nor remove the initials from the first chapter."
I would like to thank my friends, Dale and Marilyn Fitschen, for all their help. They suffered through endless readings from the Urtext and gave me many suggestions and ideas. I would also like to thank my friend Bernard Kent Markwell, to whom St. Fidgeta first appeared on rainy day in front of the Oriental Institute in Chicago. He was struck to the ground by the vision, and after he had rolled about for a bit, he got up and told me what he had seen. He also gave me many ideas: in fact, if you do not like some part of this book, you may attribute it to him.
John Bellairs, December 1965.
Alicia Armstrong called it a spoof of some old time Catholic practices - "a spoof that was bound to come in this era of thought and self-criticism in Catholic circles. For this reason, the book has sociological and historical significance. It is very doubtful that it would have been written or published five years ago."
"I personally believe, right or wrong, that Fidgeta opened a small floodgate that led to many other little inside religious satirical works, Protestant, Episcopal, as well as Catholic," adds Dale. "Titles such as Do Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up, Late Night Catechism, which still runs in Chicago and elsewhere, and Nunsense, among others."
Bellairs appeared to fondly recall his debut. At the end of his life, and a dozen-and-a-half books later, when asked how his career got started he answered that he "wrote an article making fun of an imaginary saint and it appeared in a Catholic magazine. An editor at...Macmillan asked me to expand it into a book, which sold 20,000 copies."
Ralph Brown, a consultant based in the Minnesota area, read the original story of Saint Fidgeta in the Critic and found it "roll-on-the-floor hilarious". Though he admitted to not having seen the story in decades, in 2010 he said he still paid tribute to the saint in his own way:
"I teach a course on facilitation skills – how to run meetings so people participate, things get done and time isn’t wasted. It once occurred to me there isn’t a patron saint for facilitators, one of the few occupations or activities still in need of one. As the Church is, or at least ought to be, engaged in more pressing matters, I took it upon myself to proclaim one. It seemed to me that dear Saint Fidgeta is as likely a candidate as any other. Not being real is an obstacle, perhaps, but minor at most as the same holds true for many of her erstwhile contemporaries. In my course preparation instructions to colleagues who also teach the course I’ve included this:
Softly say a prayer to Saint Fidgeta, patron saint of facilitators (and restless and unmanageable children). When your session has gone too long, Saint Fidgeta alerts you by making your participants mimic her classical motions.
Dear Saint Fidgeta, patroness of all that is innocent and protectress against those who would speak without end, look down upon our humble gathering and bless us with your belief in brevity and guide us in our effort to manage the unmanageable. Instill in us the sacred signs of fervor and motion so that we may know when our time has come. Bring us to breaks with divine frequency. Amen."
- ↑ "Something About the Author" - Volume II, p. 20. Anne Commire, ed. (1971).
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Correspondence with Marilyn Fitschen.
- ↑ Correspondence with John Drew.
- ↑ Correspondence with Sonia Gernes.
- ↑ "With Humble Pride." Joel Wells, "The Critic" (Vol. XXXIII, Number 6; June-July 1965).
- ↑ "Lowell State College Salaries". The Lowell Sun (Jun. 3, 1975).
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 Correspondence with Dale Fitschen.
- ↑ Correspondence with Patricia Thomas (2002).
- ↑ "Hirschfield chooses piece; Bellairs, filled with lust"; The Excalibur (Dec. 12, 1966).
- ↑ Correspondence with Warner W. Johnston.
- ↑ Wikipedia: Stagg Field
- ↑ Wikipedia: Chicago Pile-1
- ↑ "First Self-Sustaining Nuclear Reaction, Site of"; National Register of Historic Places (Oct. 15, 1966).
- ↑ "Book Spoofs Catholic Attitudes"; The Milwaukee Journal (Oct. 1, 1966).
- ↑ "Author's Imagination Stuck at 10." Haverhill Eagle-Tribune, November 25, 1990.
- ↑ Bellairsia "Fidgeta, Patron Saint of Facilitators" (Aug. 20, 2010).
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