Elizabeth Kilcoyne

Mar 13, 2020

12 min read

A Model Professional of Her Time

Lunch at the Wayside Inn, Sudbury, MA on her 93rd birthday.
Lunch at the Wayside Inn, Sudbury, MA on Martha’s 93rd birthday.

My mother, Martha Walsh, grew up on a farm in Fincherville, Georgia, where she lived with her southern Baptist parents and four older siblings. The farm required hard work and full engagement for the family to eat and survive. It was a place of action. If you didn’t know how to do something, you found out. Everyone was expected to do their part. This attitude is the foundation of Martha’s common sense, and her “can do” spirit.

After graduating from high school, the Nurses Cadet Corp recruited Martha to work in Memphis, TN, during WWII. At a United Service Organization (USO) dance, she met and fell in love with my father, John Kilcoyne, a sailor from Worcester, MA. Mom was nineteen when the war ended. My father and his betrothed took a train from Memphis to Massachusetts to see his hometown and “meet the family.” It was a whole new world: different religions, different cultures, different manners. Mom was Southern Baptist and Dad’s family was Irish Catholic. My paternal grandmother had grown up in Ireland and emigrated to America as a young woman, but that didn’t seem to help her accept my mother. Wanting desperately to fit in with her new family and a culture Martha didn’t yet understand, she agreed to change her name from Martha to Mary and became a Catholic. I have used Martha’s given name in this story because she eventually took her life back.

By 1955, Martha was 29, and she and John built a home in Sterling, MA, with their four young children, Sean, Stephen, Elizabeth, and Martha Jr. Mom felt at home in this small farming town and jumped right in, meeting new people and embracing the Roman Catholic Church. Since leaving her loving family in Georgia, Martha desperately wanted to be part of another family. In the church community, she found warm personal attachments and a sense of belonging. Martha chaired the Veggies and Jam Team of the annual Apple Fiesta for St. Richard’s Parish. Every fall, our home smelled of stewed tomatoes and sweet grapes. Stacks of canning jars and paraffin wax filled the kitchen. When the big event arrived, the women dressed in early 20th-century dresses and hats. The men decked out in a more rugged version, as they were driving buggies and cooking chickens on an open fire pit.

Martha became an officer in the Catholic Women’s Guild and the Children’s Fund Players. When her photo appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette wearing a beige suit and green flowered hat, Martha wrote to a friend, “I finally hit High Society.” Church involvement was Martha and John’s social outlet, which suited them well.

But Martha desired more from the Church teachings. She wanted her children to learn about Jesus, not just memorize the answers in a catechism. Martha wanted their religious foundation to be based on stories from the Bible. Religion was the strength in her life. So, she began teaching Bible stories in catechism classes, which was the beginning of her influence on church teachings.

By 1963, Martha had begun her first paid professional job as a bank teller in Worcester. The family had outgrown the Sterling house; three of us were teenagers and looking for more opportunities for high school and social life. Talk of moving back to Worcester occurred daily. One evening after work, when Martha dropped off medicine to a coworker, she spotted a house for sale. It had a garage for Steve, separate bedrooms for me and my sister Martha Jr., and the perfect location for Sean’s exploring. The house cost $11,000. Mom left a $100 check with the realtor and asked him not cash it until Friday. Two months later, the house was ours. On moving day, I left home from a house in the country and returned on a city bus to Worcester. Still not sure how that worked, I had never been on a city bus before and had to transfer in downtown Worcester. Mom was always confident her children could work out any situation. I was thirteen, and it was the first day of a new school. I want to say I was scared, but the emotional memory has faded.

One thing mom didn’t anticipate with the move back to Worcester was the return to the northern family dynamic. Her mother-in-law had not warmed much in the past eight years, and now they shared the same city. There was no expectation that we get together as a family with Grandma Kilcoyne. My dad took care of visiting with his mother, an arrangement that caused a family schism that lasted for years.

Mom missed her mother deeply, so Grandma Henderson took a bus from Saint Louis, her new home, to Worcester, Massachusetts, to support her daughter. She stayed for six months. Mom was so content while her mother was there. It didn’t matter that her name had changed. Grandma called everybody Baby. Grandma would go anywhere and do anything with us. We loved it. As a teenager, it seemed odd to me that we were closest to the grandmother, who lived over a thousand miles away.

Martha quickly involved herself in the local Church near our new home. She was appointed the director of the Catholic Christian Doctrine (CCD) program because the priest shared her concerns about teaching religion only through memorization of the catechism. In a 1966 interview with the Catholic Free Press, Martha said, “By the time we’re teaching high school students, the Church can expect the greatest response. These are the years in which knowledge turns into personal involvement.” She organized trips to visit the elderly and mentally ill patients in Worcester State Hospital as a way to teach the corporal works of mercy (i.e., feed the hungry, visit the sick, shelter the homeless). Martha believed that knowledge began with interest and questioning. She encouraged teachers to start each class with a rousing question like, “Is there someone in your life who needs your support?” This approach provided students the opportunity to express themselves and become comfortable talking. She organized visits to convents and seminaries to teach religious vocations. Twelfth-grade students participated in planning meetings and other adult activities to lay the foundation for their future leadership roles in the Church. Through these teachings, mom grew in her faith and contribution to the church.

Martha’s curriculum ideas for youth religious programs attracted the attention of Bishop Bernard Flanagan of Worcester. He was an ardent supporter of the ecumenical movement, which promoted greater cooperation and understanding among Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. This concept came out of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in Rome in the mid-’60s, as did the requirement to celebrate Mass in a country’s native language. The priests would physically face the people in the future to include them in the service. The Church was modernizing its message, and it wanted the world to know.

In 1968, Martha was appointed by the bishop as a leader in the new Vatican II Council. To open the council, Bishop Flanagan celebrated Mass in our home, the first time he celebrated Mass in a private residence, and it was in English! The dining room sparkled with candles and the chandelier. A velvet painting of the last supper hung on the wall, and a fancy white cloth covered the Formica table. We were a lower-middle-class family but always held our heads high and found a way to look sharp. Mom continuously searched for the best deals. She found quality used furniture, which she restored for the house, sometimes spray painting it gold. Crystal chandeliers are not that hard on the family budget when you purchase the floor model or when a crystal or two are missing.

The bishop said that before Vatican II, the Church structure was an inverted pyramid with the Pope on top and the people on the bottom. “Now we think of it as a horizontal line, with each member having something to contribute.” Martha’s career in the Church was an example of this new thinking. She welcomed the opportunity and attention.

The following year, Martha coordinated training for the local Ecumenical Social Action Council. The council included members from the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities. According to Martha: “Our middle class unconsciously holds racist attitudes which can be understood and acknowledged through education and discussion.” Martha was soon asked to be the chairwoman of the Social Action Council.

The church brought out the best in mom. It gave her purpose. Her leadership was recognized when the bishop sent her to Rome in 1970 to participate in a “Future in Education” conference. Her employer, the local bank, would not give Martha time off for this trip, so the bishop offered her a job developing a new homemaker program for Catholic Charities. Martha’s task was to implement a pilot for the first Homemaker-Home Health Aide program for Worcester County. She partnered with the Girls Trade High School in Worcester to develop a homemaker training program that focused on human growth and development, nutrition, safety, and other supports for families in crisis.

Martha’s business card read: Home Care Services, Inc., A DIVISION OF MAID-FOR-A-DAY INT’L., INC. Mom saved every piece of paper from her career, which helps to convey her story because, in her most productive years, I was in college and then off developing my own career.

By 1972, there were 45 certified homemakers, and Martha was the director. That same year, Martha became the first Roman Catholic woman in Massachusetts to join Church Women United (CWU). She described it in the Catholic Free Press as a “national movement” of 28 million Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic women. They worked together to enable women to make their full contribution to society. The organization had been founded in 1941 while the world was at war. Its focus was unity in diversity and working toward a peaceful and just world, specifically for women and children.

While Martha’s children were protesting the Vietnam War and fighting for women’s rights, she was quietly working on social justice issues for women around the world. Recently, I suggested to her that she was a feminist. She responded with attitude, “What’s that?”

Growing up in a lower-middle-class family, purchasing anything beyond basic needs was rare. But Martha was now involved in some high-level meetings and needed a good suit. She found a heavy wool “walking suit” on sale in Filene’s Basement. A walking suit is a three-quarter-length coat with a matching skirt. Martha’s was one shade darker than kelly green with a brown faux fur collar and three large green buttons down the front. She looked fabulous in it and wore it everywhere. Even changing the accessories, it was still green. It didn’t bother her. She felt like a queen in that suit. Martha always had a flair about her.

During these busy church years, Martha took her first college course and was still working full-time for Home Care Services. At home, she was dealing with a failing marriage. Her husband had been unfaithful, and she was at loose ends, not knowing what to do next. That was taken care of by Dad leaving. Divorce was still a severe offense in the Catholic Church, subject to ex-communication unless the marriage was annulled. It never occurred to me that annulment was an option after thirty years of marriage and four children, but Mom had connections and received one quietly.

When Catholic Charities decided that Home Care Services was socially and economically viable, they appointed a permanent director with a bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t Martha. As she said, “I had no letters after my name, just a willingness to do the job!” Martha didn’t burn bridges, though; she moved forward. She accepted the position of Head of Homemakers and Recruitment at a new non-profit agency in Worcester. By this time, she was well known in the field. She had also finished her associate degree requirements in liberal arts at Quinsigamond Community College. On a sunny afternoon in 1973, Martha sat on a football field in her cap and gown, listening to Isaac Asimov discuss “Escape into Reality.” He was the commencement speaker. The next week she signed up to transfer her credits to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. We were so proud of her.

Martha graduated from Quinsigamond summa cum laude but was not eligible for the Alpha Nu Omega Honor Society because she was an evening division student. Martha said to the dean of students, “Are you telling me that I don’t qualify for the honor society because I attended classes at night instead of during the day? During the day I work.” She went on politely but firmly to inform the dean that she would take this unfair practice to the state Department of Education, and Washington DC if necessary. Dean Farrell wrote to the director of the Alpha Nu Omega Honor Society, saying, “Certainly, during this period of advancement, liberation, and equality, we should not be so discriminatory as to allow only Day Division students the right of earning membership.” Martha and other qualifying evening division students received a letter soon after congratulating them on their academic achievement and membership in the Alpha Nu Omega Honor Society.

Working full-time and attending school, Martha took advantage of every opportunity to complete her degree. The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) was a great help to her. This program granted students college credits for previous coursework and life experience. Martha pushed the envelope on this one. She spent many nights and weekends sitting at our kitchen table, teaching herself biology, Spanish, history, English, math, and other subjects. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1974.

The UMass Continuing Education (CE) News wrote a front-page article titled “Non-Traditionalism Pays Off in Degrees,” featuring Martha and other CE students. The News wrote about Martha, “As a social worker, she saw what the problems were; as a teacher, she hopes to help inner-city children, plagued with institutional racism, gain skills that will prevent later problems.” There is also a mention of her hoping to join the UMass cheerleaders, further evidence of her optimism and “can do” spirit.

Martha loved student teaching at the Belmont Community School in Worcester. She hoped to continue after graduation, but at 47, she was competing with many younger graduates and didn’t land a full-time teaching position.

Once again, Martha moved forward; she took the state civil service social worker exam. With her high score, she landed a job at the Department of Revenue, collecting past-due child support from absent parents. She spent much of her time in court processing claims against mostly fathers who were not supporting their children. One court day, a man was protesting a traffic violation when Martha recognized him. She signaled to the judge that he was “one of hers.” The man never had a chance; the judge impounded his motorcycle and bank accounts and put him in jail.

The Child Support Enforcement Unit was making progress, but not enough; the judges had too many criminal cases on the docket to handle child support cases. By 1984, Martha was the head of the Unit and vowed to increase collections for the children, but she needed more access to judges. Impressed by her commitment, the deputy commissioner got a judge dedicated to the Unit. The support payments started rolling in. Then-Governor Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation recognizing the Unit’s collections of $50 million during 1986.

During these years, Martha married Robert Walsh. Bob worked at Draper Labs in Cambridge and they commuted to work together every day. In 1987 they retired and flew off to Florida to enjoy the “good life” of golf and social engagements.

When Bob died suddenly, Martha searched for ways to keep engaged. She spent time at church, in her garden and with her many friends. She needed more. A new venture was brewing. She met a family who owned a snow cone cart; the brand name was “SnoIce SoNice.” Martha was 70 years old. She decided to buy it; that was the easy part. The cart needed to be trailered behind her car to the prime locations to sell the cones. She purchased a “lady’s trailer hitch,” requiring no lifting and proceeded on her way. Martha had a great time selling snow cones at festivals and the local baseball park. During a visit to Florida, my daughter and I joined her selling snow cones. A young boy was standing in front of the cart. Mom asked if he wanted a cone. He had no money. She told him about a new flavor she was testing and asked if the boy would taste it for her. He loved it!

During bike week in Daytona Beach, she dressed in her sequined blouse and decided to add a little “extra kick” to the snow cones. The bikers were lining up to try this delicacy and get their photo with the queen herself. Martha always dressed smartly, whether she was working in the garden, going to church, or selling snow cones to bikers.

Her energy and enthusiasm for life never seemed to wane. When her grandchildren were in high school, she took them on a trip anywhere they dreamed of going. She wanted them to see the world. Their dreams included China, London, Paris, Italy, and a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

Being a farm girl stayed with Martha through the years. She had fabulous vegetable and flower gardens when her children were young, using the same techniques that worked in Georgia. When she was 75, she moved to a house with the classic Florida “sandpit” as the back yard, and a seven-foot prickly pear cactus as the centerpiece. Martha took the challenge; she composted all her food and plant material and mixed it with the sand and strips of newspaper. While waiting for the dirt to materialize, she built a fish pond, places to sit in the shade, and a patio to entertain guests. A few years later, Martha was living off her garden. The best-growing fruits and vegetables were watermelon, broccoli, onions, and green peppers. To the uninitiated, it was a primitive operation, but she got joy and purpose from this land.

At the time of this writing, Martha is ninety-three. She is back up north with her family and has returned to her roots as a Baptist. Martha always said, “It doesn’t matter what church you attend, as long as Jesus is present!”

This story was a finalist in the 2019 Adelaide Literary Magazine contest for Best Essay.

Freelance Writer, Adjunct Faculty Suffolk University, Business Consultant. Find me at ElizabethKilcoyne.Net

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