Traipsing around western Pennsylvania and New York state during the War of 1812 without firing a shot in anger probably gave John Dougherty, the first family ancestor in my father’s line to arrive in North America, the idea to settle in that area. He decided on the then pioneer community of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, to hang his hat. He would eventually find his life partner, Mary Brookbank, there as well.
They were married in 1821 by Father Demetrius Gallitzin. Known as The Apostle of the Alleghenies, Gallitzin had been born into privilege. His father held the post of Russian ambassador to the Netherlands and counted Enlightenment luminaries such as Voltaire among his intimate friends. Gallitzin, as a Russian princeling, was said to have been held by the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great. Rejecting his hereditary privilege, Gallitzin along with John and Mary chose the frontier lands around Cambria County, Pennsylvania, to start new lives.
Mary and John raised nine children and saw their clan multiply over their 63 years of married life. They died with in months of each other in 1885. Could they have possibly imagined just how joyously diverse their clan would become?
In 1885 a marriage outside of your religion or ethnic community could divide a family. Even in the 1960s I recall the scandal of an uncle refusing to go to the wedding of his daughter because she had chosen to wed a Mexican American even though they shared the same religion. The birth of his first grandchild finally brought about the reconciliation of my uncle with the young couple.
By the 1970s another uncle faced a challenge, which the family thought he would never make it through. The then exceptional formal wedding of one of his sons to his gay partner broke a number of societal taboos of the day. My uncle managed it very well even when, as the story goes, at the appropriate ‘kiss the bride’ moment in the ceremony my cousin lifted his matching Stetson and a veil fell down!
Well over three decades later on now, our extended family happily holds inter-religious and inter-racial couples in its’ embrace. Many will be gathering just north of New York City on the Hudson River this coming weekend to celebrate another family wedding. We will welcome the transsexual man that my niece has chosen as her life partner into the clan.
Voltaire is quoted as having said, “Love is a canvas furnished by Nature and embroidered by imagination.” Mary and John might have had difficulty imagining all the varied forms our families now take. Change of any kind can be hard to envision or accept.
The Roman Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum or Index of Forbidden Books once included all the many works of Voltaire. It also included a very wide range or authors like Galileo Galilei, John Milton, Victor Hugo, of course, Charles Darwin and even the Polish Saint Faustina Kowalska prior to the church officially recognizing her sanctity.
Times change though and us and our institutions with them. Pope Paul VI abolished the Index of Forbidden Books in 1966. Our slow and at times painful progress towards eliminating the barriers such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation that stand in the way of recognizing and legitimizing our common humanity will continue.
Voltaire also said, “Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.” Love should be seen as the common denominator linking all our families. Not recognizing and honouring the love the binds and strengthens our communities in all its forms surely would be turning our back on the common good.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.