Harvest of faith: a McGowan family legacy

by James McGowan, Kenneth McGowan, and Mary McGowan Berzin

Father Kilian says in his Reflections, "I want to be very human, full of fun and joy (even mischief at times) serving people . . . making them happier, lifting their burdens." How aptly that describes our parents.

right: Fr Kilian with grand-nieces and nephews on his birthday, 1998

Our father was a Rhodes Scholar, educator, poet, newspaper publisher and columnist, printing firm president, and political writer for those in high office. Our mother was the most modern of women, intelligent, tender and caring. Prior to her marriage in 1911, she was among the relatively few of her sex to work a full time position.

The Depression Years

John Joseph McGowan married Josephine Kluber Sauer on November 22, 1911. Their twelfth child was born in 1928, just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, and the harsh depression that followed, leaving 12 million Americans unemployed by the year 1932. Their tremendous faith in God and love for each other left them undaunted.

No Bigotry Tolerated

Kilian's "Reflections" recall accurately that no bigotry was tolerated in his family's household. Friendships were based on integrity and fair play; decency, honor and patriotism were taken for granted. It wasn't unusual that during those depression years, access to the fellowship of the McGowan's living room (and just as importantly their kitchen) was the order of the day. No neighbor or stranger in need was denied a helping hand.

The Beginning of World War II

Parents and family no doubt had an impact on Kilian as he pondered whether to use his real estate license to become a real estate magnate like a Donald Trump, or begin a life of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Passionist novice. He was accepted into the Passionists in September 1939. Events that year, however, overwhelmed the entire world -- and our family -- as German armies broke through Poland's borders, beginning World War II.

A Family Called to War

It was somewhat ironic that a family that probably never touched anything more than a toy gun during their growing years would ultimately consider guns and other lethal weapons vital to their personal survival. World War II and the Korean War demanded a country's sacrifice and our family responded. Seven McGowans served in the armed forces. Our three sisters, Mary, Anne and Jane, also made their contribution, working long hours, while managing to keep the family household going.

A Son Gives His Life: George McGowan
To you, mother, I say, don't worry. Some of us will be wounded; others will die...If I am wounded, I'll return to Africa; if I die, I shall see my God. Would you deny me that joy? Lt. George McGowan (Letter to his Mother,1943)

After receiving his commission as a lieutenant, Father Kilian's brother George married Ethel Apgar, his sweetheart of high school days. Six weeks later George and his men invaded the shores of French Morocco. His next assignment was to take part in the invasion of Sicily as a member of the Army's famous Third Division. George won the Silver Star for showing "complete disregard for his personal safety while under enemy artillery fire." His gallantry was credited with saving members of his company from drowning when their landing craft was overturned during the invasion. Later he received a purple heart for a wound sustained in the invasion of Italy. On November 7,1943 George was killed by an enemy howitzer.

When our oldest brother, John, left for overseas duty, he told his mother that he wouldn't be able to write home for six months. He said, "Don't worry, I'll be perfectly safe." Months later we learned that John was one of the first Americans to parachute into occupied France prior to the D-day invasion. He was part of a three-member team working with the French Underground.

Two other brothers, Robert and James, were in the Battle of the Bulge. Bob was with the 78th Infantry Division, which later played a major role in preventing the destruction of the strategic bridge at Remagen. Jim served in an infantry regiment assigned to the Third Armored Division, a division which sustained more causalities than any other American armored division.

Paul was a sergeant in an infantry division that was part of the occupation army in Japan. Kenneth was an Air Force lieutenant who served as a bombardier on a B-24 which was headed for Japan just prior to the Japanese surrender. Richard, a lieutenant, was stationed along the 38th Parallel during the Korean War.

Frank, who died on September 30,1998, a few months after Kilian, would have been the eighth brother to see wartime service but was advised that his work as an engineer manufacturing the Norden Bombsight was more important. The husbands of two of Kilian's three sisters also saw wartime service. Mary was married to T. Edward Berzin, a chief warrant officer in the Air Force's Ninth Division, which participated in the Battle of the Bulge. Jane's husband, Louis Ferrise, was a first lieutenant in a mortar battalion assigned to the Fifth Marine Division in the Pacific Theater.

Finally, there was Anne

Kilian's sister Anne had a war of her own. She was a Maryknoll missionary in Communist China, a task she enjoyed immensely, until she and her superior, Bishop Francis X. Ford, along with four other nuns, were placed under arrest by the communist government, accused of being enemies of the government. Bishop Ford was dragged through the streets and eventually died from injuries suffered in his ordeal. After six months under house arrest, Anne and her colleagues were told to leave the country. When Anne had taken her final vows, she took the name Sister George Marie, in honor of her deceased brother George, and the Blessed Mother.

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