Saint Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square in New Orleans where my maternal grandparents were married.
A number of my friends who are familiar with my life history have urged me from time to time to write my autobiography. I have thus far successfully resisted their urging. However, as I draw closer to the end of my life at age 91 it has occurred to me that there are aspects to my life history that shed light on the mystery of God’s love and providence and sharing some information about those aspects might have some benefit for anyone seeking to make sense out of this crazy world in which we live.
So, trusting in God’s grace to help me avoid anything that might seem like vanity I rely on the wisdom expressed in Psalm 115: Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomine tuo da gloriam, not to us Lord, not to us, but to your name I give glory, and begin this series of autobiographical posts on my Abyssum.org website.
The beginning seems like a good place to begin.
I was born on June 9, 1923, ten feet below sea level, in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother was Mathilde Marie Derbes and my father was Enrique (Henry) Joaquin Gracida.
My mother was the daughter of Josephine Saizan and Numa Joseph Derbes. The Saizan family was part of the French Acadian people who were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1775 and were deported to Louisiana where they settled in the area between Lafayette and Houma. The Derbes family came from Toulon, France in the 18th Century and were officials in the Bonaparte colony of Louisiana. After the Louisiana Purchase by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803 they became American citizens. In the Eighth Century, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Derbes family had probably emigrated to Southern France from Derbe just north of Tarsus the home of Saint Paul. Saint Paul visited Derbe on his First and Second Journeys. Perhaps there is a connection in this with my spiritual life in this since I chose Saint Paul as my Confirmation saint and the Feast of his conversion, January 25, as the date for my ordination as a bishop.
My father was the son of Rafael Gracida Carrizosa and Margarita Marquez. The Gracida family emigrated from Spain in the 18th Century and settled in Oaxaca, Mexico where they became prominent land owners. The Hacienda La Soledad south of Oaxaca was the principal estate of the family. In the second decade of the 20th Century Rafael Gracida fled Oaxaca with his five sons because of religious persecution; his brother, Monsignor Carlos Gracida, was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Oaxaca. Rafael moved first to Merida in Yucatan and then on to New Orleans with his five sons. In New Orleans, Enrique (Henry) my father, met my mother and married her in 1917. in 1918 my grandfather, Rafael, died and was buried in New Orleans. My father never spoke with us of his family in Mexico.
My sister, Carmita, was born in 1918. English and French were the languages spoken in our home since we had no contact with my father’s family. Actually I did not meet my father’s family until 1972 when I was ordained a bishop, having invited them to come to my ordination. However, my father took every opportunity to take his family to restaurants where the cuisine was Mexican and Spanish was spoken. In addition he would paint oil paintings with Aztec and Mayan elements and through questioning of him I learned much about Mexico and its culture.
My first five years were spent in New Orleans. I attended school at the Pierre Gustav Touton Beauregard Elementary School and grew to love New Orleans and my mother’s family. All of the women in my mother’s family were good cooks and so creole and cajun cooking was like ‘mother’s milk’ to me. All my life I have loved to cook and creole/cajun dishes are a special delight for me to cook.
My mother, and all her family, was very pious and faithful in the exercise of the Catholic faith; my father was less so. He had, in the periodic absence of his father who had business interests in the Yucatan and Cuba, been raised by his uncle, Monsignor Carlos Gracida Carrizosa who was something of a strict disciplinarian. Perhaps that is why my father was what one would describe as a “lax Catholic.” My father was a polymath. He was not as gifted as Leonardo da Vinci or Michaelangelo, but he mastered anything he set his mind to: oil painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering, etc. all without a university degree.
In 1928 my father was offered employment as an engineer by the Edgar Zinc Company and we moved to Saint Louis, Missouri where the headquarters of that Company was located.
I fell in love with Saint Louis. I loved visiting Forest Park and it was in its zoo that I probably developed my love of animals that has been such an important part of my life. We lived just a few blocks from Saint Louis Cathedral and it was there that I fell in love with the Church’s Liturgy. After Mass in the Cathedral we would spend the day in Forest Park. Forest Park had an amphitheatre where light opera was performed on the weekends. It was there that I got my first introduction to Texas via the musical play, Rio Rita. Here is the plot that made such an impression on this five-year-old boy.
Rio Rita is a 1927 stage musical with a book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, and produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. This musical united Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey as a comedy team and made them famous.
Rio Rita may be said to be one of the last, great, “light musical comedies” or “Follies-based” type of musical. With the introduction of Show Boat, later in 1927—as well as the subsequent introduction of George Gershwin‘s musicals that year and thought the early 30’s — the American musical became much more a dramatically cohesive “musical play”. This form reached its maturity in the Rodgers and Hammerstein productions, beginning with Oklahoma! and culminating with South Pacific.
The captain of the Texas Rangers, Jim Stewart, is in San Lucar Mexico on the Rio Grande, in disguise in order to catch the notorious bandit Kinkajou. While there he falls in love with Rita Ferguson, an Irish-American-Mexican girl who sings in the local hotel after being displaced from her family ranch along with her brother Roberto.
General Esteban, the Governor of the San Lucar District, also loves Rita and hates all gringos. He hatches a plot to set Jim and Rita at odds by making Rita doubt both her own brother, who may be the Kinkajou, and Jim, who may be spying on her brother through her.
Amid all of this intrigue, Chick Bean, a soap salesman, and Dolly, an American cabaret girl, arrive in San Lucar and get married. Unbeknownst to Dolly, Chick also went to Mexico to obtain a quick divorce from his unfaithful first wife, Katie. But then hours after Chick and Dolly are wed Ed Lovett, a lawyer of dubious reputation, informs Chick that his divorce is not recognized by the U.S. Government. Complications ensue.
We only lived in Saint Louis for a year and then my father was transferred to the the Edgar Zinc Company office in Cherryvale, Kansas, located in the southeastern corner of Kansas near both Arkansas and Oklahoma. The year we lived in Cherryvale was one of the happiest years of my life. For the first time I lived in a rural setting and after living in New Orleans and Saint Louis it was wonderful. Some members of the Clements family lived in Cherryvale and so I came to know of Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. My happiest years have been spent in rural settings as opposed to city life.
In 1930 the depression really hit hard and the Edgar Zinc Company went bankrupt and my family moved to Houston and then Texas City, Texas where my father found employment with Pan American Refining Corporation, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of Indiana. I finished my elementary and high school education in the public schools if Texas City. Texas City at that time had a population of less than 2,000 people and so I was again in a rural setting. I joined the boy scouts, became an altar boy in our mission church and began to think about becoming a priest, but by the time I graduated from Central High School in 1941 I had become too interested in girls to think about the priesthood.
As the Valedictorian of my class I was accepted as one of the 400 students matriculated at Rice University in 1942 and began my study of architectural engineering. At that time Rice taught architectural engineering with a heavy reliance on the Beaux Art system of study which consisted of a whole year of reproducing ink drawings of Greek temples. I was bored stiff. I wanted to design and build contemporary buildings, not eclectic recreation of classic Greek and Roman architectural monuments. After the war, even though I loved Rice University for its excellence, I chose to not return there to resume my architectural studies.
Since the United States was now at war I knew that I would be drafted into the infantry before long and so I chose to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve as a student since I hoped to be able to fly in the war. In the summer of 1943 my studies at Rice were interrupted when I was called to active duty and after processing at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio the Army sent me to the Infantry Training Camp at Mineral Wells, Texas where I barely survived 18 weeks of infantry basic training in the Texas heat of July, August and September of 1943. In the 18th week of my infantry basic training, an Army Air Corps officer ‘miraculously’ came looking for me and the mistake in my assignment to the infantry was corrected and I was transferred to the Air Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. God is good, this was the first of many interventions in my life by divine providence which gradually led me to understand that God expected something of me in return.
Eventually I ended up at the Kingman Arizona Air Base learning gunnery in B-17 bombers. From Kingman I joined my bomber crew in Florida and after some months of training there, in January 1945 we flew a brand new B-17 Bomber from Savannah, Georgia to Prestwick, Scotland by way of Maine, Newfoundland, Laborador, Greenland, and Iceland. In England we joined the Eighth Air Force 303rd Bomb Group (H) in Molesworth, 359th Squadron.
In my next post I will write about my experience in the Second World War with the Eighth Air Force.