Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966) is the first published work by John Bellairs. The book's first story, "The True History of Saint Fidgeta, Virgin and Martyr" was originally published in the June-July 1965 edition of The Critic.
This hagiographical study of Fidgeta gives her all-too-brief background: born a Christian, she attends a pagan grammar school where, in a fit of spiritual shaking, she was slapped to death by a teacher. The remainder of the text provides a written account of facts pertaining to the seven-year-old martyr's iconization in art, apparitions, and stories of her followers, the Order of Faithful Fidgettines.
Pope Paul VI made history in 1965 as the first pope to visit the Western Hemisphere. During the first papal to the United States, Paul VI toured New York City with visits to the United Nations, the World's Fair, and later Mass at Yankee Stadium. Bellairs’s meditation on the event came in a series of “notes found in the desk of a New York advertising executive” - essentially a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness ramble that speculated on ways to improve and promote subsequent papal visits.
Part satire on the beautiful cathedrals of old that one would expect to find across Europe and part amusing examination of a religious shrine that, while its construction began in the 7th Century, was only recently completed.
The question box - a method which allows anyone to ask church leaders and elders about the specifics of their Catholic faith - has long been an symbol of the Catholic church's ministry of education. Bellairs's question box, as seen in chapter four, is full of crazy questions ("Does the olive in the martini break the Lenten fast, or is it considered part of the drink?") and the rather acid-tongued responses of the box's moderator.
The fifth chapter.
The sixth chapter.
The seventh chapter.
The eighth chapter.
The ninth chapter.
The tenth chapter.
The eleventh chapter.
The twelfth and final chapter can best be described as a short parody of the missal that contains prayers and songs used during Mass, also entitled The Moist Heart. It includes a song, prayers, and suggested text for a sermon.
Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies was written mainly for Catholics with material drawn from my Irish-Catholic childhood. The pieces are satiric and meant to attack abuses within the church. They are also supposed to be funny.
References to Catholicism appear in most of Bellairs's books. Growing up, the Bellairs family ("...devout, traditional Catholics of the pre-Vatican II stripe") attended Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Marshall, with young John a student in their school. Like Lewis Barnavelt and Johnny Dixon, Bellairs was an altar boy growing up and continued this role into his college years at Notre Dame. Later during his time as a student in Chicago, he assisted the chaplains at some weekday masses at the University of Chicago even after he had stopped going to Sunday mass. It was only natural then that bits and pieces of what he read and heard and learned resurfaced in his stories to provide realism: descriptions of Mass and prayers, life in a Catholic school, the power of the True Cross, or a litany stenciled on tiles in a mausoleum.
Patients of the Saint
As a character, Saint Fidgeta can date her origins back to the early 1960s, somewhere between 1961 and 1963. Bellairs was living in Chicago and "working his butt off" through graduate school in an attempt complete his work for a Ph.D. in literature. He was joined by friends that he had met as undergraduate at Notre Dame, such as Alfred Myers, but making new friends, too, namely Bernard Markwell and Dale Fitschen - and his new bride, Marilyn. These new friends would often find time for get-togethers that celebrated something as important as the competition of a major project or thesis or something as lowbrow as a weekend when "someone had the thirty-five cents for a quart of beer or $1.25 for a jug of Gallo's Red Burgundy wine."
These social events often involved games - such as Ghost or Botticelli - and elicited a story or two from Bellairs. One story in particular that his audience - "being mostly Roman Catholic and Episcopalian and even a couple of ex-seminarians" – begged for more about was the one about the patron saint of the frequently-encountered but seldom-praised sensation of twitching and moving and not sitting still - that is, Saint Fidgeta was born.
His gift for storytelling at these parties made quite an impression:
"...tubby, cherubic, a sort of younger Middle Western version of Chesterton’s Father Brown. John would settle back in a chair, where others reclined on the floor, and, after a muffled snort or two, would give vent to some facetious fantasy that [ended] in a chuckle – but not always."After one such party in early 1963, the Fitschens discussed the popularity of the stories and suggested to Bellairs that he put the story down in writing for possible publication: "John scoffed at the thought, but we could sense a hint of skeptical interest."
By the summer of 1963 Bellairs had departed his studies in Chicago and moved to Winona, Minnesota, to begin teaching at the College of Saint Teresa. Back in Chicago, the stories of Saint Fidgeta were not far from the mind of Marilyn, who had begun doodling a pudgy little girl that was to become the titular saint. Who the caricature resembled was up for debate: Bellairs said Fidgeta looked like a baby Winston Churchill, others thought it resembled John himself. Regardless, the drawings spurred Bellairs to begin typing out the full story, with Dale editing and Marilyn illustrating.
By the spring of 1965 Bellairs was wrapping his second school year at Saint Teresa's - a term which would prove his last in Winona. Sonia Gernes, one of Bellairs's students and later a member of the English faculty at Notre Dame, vividly recalls being read preliminary sections of "Saint Fidgeta" in class:
"I had the sense that this was a rather bold move, since it satirizes both Catholic traditions and persons at Saint Teresa's, namely Sister Camille Bowe, who was the president at the time, but that he didn't have anything to lose. I thought the sections were hilarious, and hearing them was a rather deliciously guilty pleasure for a young nun at the time."At some point in 1965, when the Fitschens thought the story was complete, the manuscript was submitted for consideration in The Critic, the Roman Catholic cultural and literary magazine. Dan Herr, founder and publisher, responded that "against his better judgment" the story of Saint Fidgeta would appear in their summer issue.
Everyone's a Critic
"Saint Fidgeta: Her Life and Amazing Times" was published in the June-July 1965 edition exactly as as it was submitted - with one exception:
Days before the issue was to be published, I received a call from editor, Joel Wells, concerned that a little slip of her pen produced what may have been taken as representing a female genital organ (we didn't use the word 'clitoris' in those days) and the little angel pushing Fidgeta's swing was deemed unsuitable for the cover of the journal. I offered to edit the drawing but Wells instead asked if the art department had permission to alter the drawing. Thinking they would simply whiteout the offending line, [we] were surprised to find the cherub wearing ink-black shorts.Wells wrote an introduction to the issue, including some brief comments on the genesis of the story of Fidgeta:
"The young lady whose likeness appears at right is Saint Fidgeta. She is the highly fictional saint whose 'Life and Amazing Times' are documented this month by writer John Bellairs and Chicago artist Marilyn Fitschen. Mr. Bellairs is a product of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago's graduate school. For the past two years he has been teaching English at the College of St. Teresa, Winona, Minnesota. He admits that the supplications in the 'Litany of St. Fidgeta' represent his own actual childhood fears generated by overexposure to the grislier aspects of the lives of the saints. What inspired Mrs. Fitschen's drawings is more difficult to say - we were afraid to ask."While The Critic was a bit conservative at that time, it was not as conservative as the national Catholic weekly, America. Its editor, Father Thurston N. Davis, SJ, said the article was, "...a sick, six-page illustrated piece...waste(d) space on triviality, irreverence, or a combination of both."
Other reviews followed:
I would like to compliment Mr. John Bellairs on his humorous story "Saint Fidgeta" which was printed in your June/July issue. It was an excellent satire. I thoroughly believe it should be required reading for all teaching orders of nuns (Louis J. Iasillo; Cliffside Park, New Jersey).
Being a junior in a Catholic women's college and having received all of my education from the parochial school system, I was highly amused by the rich satire and wit contained in Mr. Bellair's [their punctuation, not mine] "Saint Fidgeta" (Geraldine O'Brien; West Orange, New Jersey).
Father Thurston N. Davis S.J., has labeled your "Saint Fidgeta" article correctly (America 6/19): "sick." The ridiculing prayer formulas come close to blasphemy. I am sorry you or the author felt you had to give that kind of a jolt to confidence in the intercession of the saints, or even confidence in prayer. If, as indicated, it was supposed to be a jibe at hagiographers, it misses the point completely. And seriously, what writer of saints' lives today uses this kind of material? (Mark Hegener, O.F.M.; Chicago, Illinois).Then there was Fortunata Caliri who Marilyn says some thought was actually Bellairs writing a letter to protest - "that's the kind of name John made up all the time."
You do your readers a disservice and an insult when you publish this thing called "Saint Fidgeta" in the June/July Critic. It is vulgar, in bad taste, and extremely unfunny. I would call it "sick" except for the fact that to do so would relieve you and the author of responsibility (Fortunata Caliri; Lowell, Massachusetts).Contrary to the thought at the time, Caliri was an assistant professor at Lowell State College as late as 1974.
Fitschen's illustrations mark some of her first published artwork. "This book was my very first attempt at caricature and I didn't exactly know what I was doing, but Dale would make suggestions when I got too realistic. I found the hardest part was using the same character in different drawings and making it look like the same character. The cherub preceding the first page - and on the cover - is Saint Fidgeta. She was not consciously modeled after John, but everyone who saw it swore it was."
If you look carefully at the drawings throughout chapter one you will find a tiny “MF” scrawled in corners. "They were put there before submitting the whole work to The Critic. When we learned that they were going into a book, I never thought to sign any others, nor remove the initials from the first chapter."
I would like to thank my friends, Dale and Marilyn Fitschen, for all their help. They suffered through endless readings from the Urtext and gave me many suggestions and ideas. I would also like to thank my friend Bernard Kent Markwell, to whom St. Fidgeta first appeared on rainy day in front of the Oriental Institute in Chicago. He was struck to the ground by the vision, and after he had rolled about for a bit, he got up and told me what he had seen. He also gave me many ideas: in fact, if you do not like some part of this book, you may attribute it to him.
John Bellairs, December 1965.
Bellairs appeared to fondly recall his debut. At the end of his life, and a dozen-and-a-half books later, when asked how his career got started he answered that he "wrote an article making fun of an imaginary saint and it appeared in a Catholic magazine. An editor at...Macmillan asked me to expand it into a book, which sold 20,000 copies."
- ↑ "Something About the Author" - Volume II, p. 20. Anne Commire, ed. (1971).
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Correspondence with Marilyn Fitschen.
- ↑ Correspondence with John Drew.
- ↑ Correspondence with Sonia Gernes.
- ↑ "With Humble Pride." Joel Wells, "The Critic" (Vol. XXXIII, Number 6; June-July 1965).
- ↑ "Lowell State College Salaries". The Lowell Sun (Jun. 3, 1975).
- ↑ "Author's Imagination Stuck at 10." Haverhill Eagle-Tribune, November 25, 1990.