Friday night we went to a school play at St Mary’s, just around the corner, where two of our children attend school. The theme was “Massillon history”, and my ten year old daughter, Maria, played Lillian Gish, the silent film actress who is perhaps Massillon Ohio’s most famous citizen. She was to perform her first musical solo. Maria is a force of nature, even on the restrained tune she sang, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, which in fact Ms Gish sang much later in her career, in the dark 50s film “Night of the Hunter”. Maria’s voice was strong and sweet, and the applause she received was the most sustained of the evening. I wonder how they would have responded if she sang a bluesy tune, or something more her style; we joke that there is an old black lady trapped in that little girl’s body.
Maria, in fact, is working on a song. The lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated, and her older brother Patric is accompanying her on guitar; they are planning on performing it in the spring talent show at the school. Patric is pretty confident that Maria is going to be famous, and he is planning on riding her coattails to fortune.
I learned a lot about Massillon’s radical history from the play: various underground railroad figures (the first white settler in the area was a Quaker) to the suffragettes and labor leaders, not least Jacob Coxey, the populist who twice, in 1894 and 1914, led a march of the unemployed from Ohio to DC.
For some reason the program did not mention the steel strike of 1937, which I discovered researching this post, when local police and National Guards opened fire on a crowd of strikers and sympathizers, killing 3 and injuring hundreds, while rounding up any suspected labor activists and looting the union office.
I had known that the town had been named after a French bishop, Jean Baptiste Massillon, but had never been too interested in him, having heard that he was a court preacher for Louis XIV. I assumed that he was just another cleric who catered to the aristocracy.
How wrong I was.
The play had one of Bishop Massillon’s sermons delivered by a twelve year old in episcopal vestments, which was an eloquent defense of the poor and an indictment of those who live in luxury in the midst of need.
Apparently Louis XIV, who appreciated Bishop Massillon’s eloquence, said that the good bishop upset his conscience. But evidently not enough: Louis was consumed with power, saying “I am the State” and preferring to be known as “Louis the Great”.
Researching further after the play, I came upon this great story:
Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, left detailed instructions for his funeral: the cathedral was to be dark, save one large candle lighting his solid gold casket. He was going to impress, even in death.
When he did in fact die, the bishop observed his instructions to the letter. As the hushed congregation sat in the cathedral, lit by the lone candle, Bishop Massillon leaned over, blew out the flame, and in the now-dark cathedral proclaimed “Only God is Great!”
There was more; local church history (the town is very Catholic, the population of around 30,000 has three Catholic parishes), local football history, and a patriotic ending.
But the high point for me was realizing that I live in a place with a noble radical history.
We are actively trying to find a house in or near Wooster, 25 miles to the west, where I work, but whether our time here is brief or longer than we intend, I don’t think I will ever look at this town the same.