The McCorkell story continues….
I have inevitably written a lot about myself whilst giving the history of the others in Part II. I may also add that I shall write still more about myself when I enter into the writing of my Memoirs proper. So far what I have done is a mere prelude. The memoirs themselves will be intended for my own Community in the main, and will cover my later studies, and my life-work as a Basilian. There will be no reason to discourage anyone from reading these recollections except that they are not likely to be of interest to non-Basilians. They may in fact be dull-reading.
However, a few reflections on my early years in the bosom of my immediate family, and a few relevant biographical facts will not be out of place as I bring the narrative of Part I to a close. My father’s farm–originally my grandfather’s, was undoubtedly more remote from the busy life of men than it is today. It was then without automobile, television, radio, telephone and even a regular newspaper, whereas today that same farm can boast of frontage on the Trans-Canada highway, and of contact with the outside world by all the mass media and means of travel.
But the farm is no longer in the name of the family, and though there are a few close relatives there is absolutely no one in the entire Township of Mara who bears the name McCorkell. The visitor has to look on tombstones or memorial windows to find it. One is therefore inclined to ask if the whole episode that I have been writing about is not some unsubstantial dream with nothing left of it.
The answer I can give and do give is that the memory of it at least lingers, and that is something precious and enduring. There remains too the record of the members of the family of earlier years who served God and country in dozens of places across the continent. Did they not take something of value with them on which to build? Truly we had a good Christian home. Work well organized for all according to ability and strength was the order of the day. Mother kept a wary eye on the younger kids, and even in her illnesses was instinctively aware of what mischief we might be at. Rosella was at least eyes and ears for her when she could not be about herself. Dad could be counted on to do some spanking when it was needed. Even my older brothers were not averse to keeping me in my place. On one occasion I defied my brother Pete, counting on a fence between us, but he took the fence in one bound and before I could develop speed he overtook and spanked me.
That was a passing physical pain. I recall another pain that is unforgettable utterly. It was a spiritual pain. It was the first prodding of my conscience, always a high moment in a boy’s life. It comes surprisingly early in some lives. I can identify my own experience of it thru a flashback in memory to a time when I was probably three years old. I had been scouting our extensive orchard for red apples (and therefore ripe ones) and found a tree which was in advance of the others. Cunningly I resolved to keep it a secret. My brothers would eat the apples. But my father, observing my unusual reticence, wormed the secret out of me, and told my mother. Both were mildly amused at my childlike guile until suddenly Vince, smelling a rat, brought the whole issue out into the open by asking me point blank if I had found red apples. Thus unexpectedly cornered I lied like a trooper. At that moment the roof fell in on me. I can still see my Dad open wide his eyes and raise his eye brows. I can still hear Mother sputtering incoherently. In their confusion I became aware of God for the first time. I could not put into words what had dawned on me, but I realized dimly that I was in contact with a person and he was dreadfully disappointed in me. I had let him down.
I came to know later that it was the mystery of conscience which I had stumbled upon. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul in the sense that God prompts us to do (or not to do) certain acts. We seem in one sense to be doing it ourselves, but we are somehow aware that it is God doing it in us and with us. That is what makes it right or wrong. To go along with God is to do right, and to be against God is to do wrong. If we love God there is no doubt which choice we shall make.
My days in the country school near home were largely uneventful. One year I lighted the fire in the school stove during the winter months. I went to the meeting of the ratepayers at the annual meeting of the school section, and bid for the job. Of course Mother had pushed me. My bid of $10 was accepted. I never got the money, but it was used to buy a coat and other articles of clothing for me. I did not feel slighted. I think however it was a mistake to do it that way. I should have been given a chance to do the buying myself. That is the way to give a boy a sense of responsibility.
I had Neil Rutherford as a teacher for 6 years. No one could have been better. I liked particularly the practice he had of discontinuing classes and letting us listen to him read for nearly an hour at the end of the school day from an interesting book, a novel of Lickens, or Scott, or one of Ralph Connor’s works of fiction. It was possible to do this since it was an ungraded school. He was a conscientious Protestant, and a loyal British. I suppose he taught me patriotism. He also taught a sense of discipline.
George Mundie was a classmate of mine in this country school. Sixty years later at Vancouver, B.C. he gave me an enlarged picture of the kids of that school as a group with Rutherford in the background. I can identify more than half of them today. The McCorkells, Mundies, McGowans and O’Donnells dominate the group. The picture is simply priceless.
I loved those early years at school I only played hookey once. Rutherford overlooked it and that made me feel mean. I was under the influence of Mike Lavelle in dropping out that particular time. We merely sat on the gate posts at the Lavelle gate and did nothing. It was near the end of June and the Orangemen of Udney were preparing for the 12th of July celebration-every evening we could hear the drums beating. As we sat on the fence gate posts a man drove by with horse and buggy. He knew us and we knew him. He was an Orangeman, but a good friend of my fathers. However, we young truants plotted to taunt him as he passed. He had just said “Good day, boys” when we exclaimed “to hell with King Billy”. He looked surprised, but with the retort “to hell with the Pope” he drove on laughing heartily.
I wrote and passed the Entrance in 1902. I had at the time only a mild interest in studies however, under a new teacher who was less effective than Rutherford I made little progress. He taught us soccer however and played with us. Athletic games are good for boys. I wrote a government examination under his direction at this time. It was about grade IX. I failed, and that was good for me. It was perhaps my first inkling that life was not a bed of roses. I had little interest in going to high school. No one ever did in our area. It meant living in Orillia since there was no bus to take students from the farms. Living in Orillia cost money. I had heard about St. Michael’s College, but Dad thought it was too expensive. However when I repeated the government examination in 1903 and passed it, Dad decided to send me to high school.
He took me there at the beginning of September and persuaded Principal Dickson to try me in second year. I had the advantage of being ahead of that class in Mathematics, English and History, but very much behind in Latin and French. I was lost for the fall term but gradually caught up and went into third year in regular time. Finally I went into fourth year or Upper School and cleared the entrance to the College of Education in 1907.
There were advantages in going to high school in Orillia. It was a good experience for me to know something about public education before beginning my career in schools under a Catholic system. It was valuable to me also to meet in my Orillia classes certain students whose friendships were invaluable to me in later years. There was Frank O’Leary, who became a war hero and later a prominent physician in St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. There was likewise Ross Sheppard who eventually became superintendent of schools in Edmonton, Alberta.
Sheppard and I had been the closest of friends in our final year at Orillia. He was a star athlete, and was later to become a member of the Canadian Olympic team at Paris. It is little wonder that he was the idol of the boys at Orillia. My friendship with him opened up more than one door of opportunity for me, notably the prestigious office of president of the literacy society, which he side-stepped himself in order to make me his candidate. I did not ever think of the possibility of his withdrawing in my favour, much less ask him to do so. He simply saw that my religion would be a big handicap in the campaign for office, and his sense of justice prompted him to counteract it by throwing into the scales the full weight of his own popularity. Curiously enough we drifted apart after leaving Orillia. We naturally enrolled in different colleges at the University of Toronto (He was not Catholic) and we saw nothing of each other till our common graduation in 1911. He then told me that he was going to Berkley on a scholarship for the study of astronomy. That sounded like a breaking of contact forever, and so that thought of him never again crossed my mind until forty years later I saw the name prominently displayed on the façade of a truly magnificent school in Edmonton. A telephone call brought us back together again for an evening of reminiscence, and we repeated that reunion annually until his death five years later. He was one of the noblest men I ever knew, and is often in my prayers.
As stated earlier, I went to the College of Education in 1907-08. It was my first year in the big city, though not one quarter what it is today in size. I lived at the home of Mrs. O’Malley on Spadina Avenue. She was a family connection by marriage, being the sister of my step grandfather Pat Mangan. One of her daughters was also a student at the College of Education. It was Irene O’Malley, who has since become a Sister of St. Joseph and a top flight college teacher for many years. The O’Malley home was in St. Basil’s Parish and in going to Mass I had my first contact with St. Michael’s College.
The course of studies I was taking prepared me to teach at any level up to and including junior college. I had realized for some time that this would be my last year on my father’s payroll, as it were. He made that clear. I knew that he had to do something for Ignatius, and later for Philomena, the youngest in our family. So I looked forward to teaching in order to support any future plans I might make. Towards the end of that year of teacher-in-training, I toyed with the idea of getting a school in the Canadian West. The same romantic yearning for the wider world that had drawn Pete and Vince to the middle West was making itself felt in my sould too. But I knew Jack Sheridan of Brechin and Jack Perry of Orillia at St. Michael’s College, and I naturally called to see them, merely out of friendship. One of them introduced me to the Superior of St. Michael’s College, Father Nicholas Roche, C.S.B., and outstanding personality. When he got the story of my background and of my hopes he knew that I was the person he wanted for the staff of the High School at St. Michael’s College. So at his suggestion I decided against the West. It is interesting to speculate what might have been my future if I had gone to a school in Saskatchewan or Alberta.
At St. Michael’s I was able to teach in the high school section of the larger institution which is known as St. Michael’s College, and which is an integral part of the University of Toronto. The high school and College classes being in the same building I was able to double up, as it were, and take my university course, whilst committed to a program of high school teaching. I had to restrict my choice of university subjects somewhat in order to have time to give to teaching, but on the other hand I was able to save three years all told, and to begin studies immediately preparatory to the priesthood as early as 1911. Any deficiency in my background due to my preoccupation with teaching was amply made up in graduate studies after my ordination.
It is therefore clear that Divine Providence was directing my life from an early period. I had hoped from the beginning to become a priest, and never completely abandoned it even when the way seemed blocked, or when some alternative choice of a calling made more than a passing appeal to me. Prepared ultimately to earn my way by teaching, St. Michael’s College afforded me the opportunity on terms I could manage, and at that point no alternative choice made any sense.
All my school years were happy years, once I had made a start. I would not wish to have missed my Orillia years, but still less would I wish to have missed my university years at St. Michael’s College. It was there that my vocation to the priesthood became more clearly defined as a vocation to religious life in the Community of St. Basil.