Touchdown Jesus and Sister Joe

Ella was the last child born into a poor, dirt-farming family. They lived near Vinita, Oklahoma at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Twelve children were born, but only eight survived to adulthood, a common occurrence in poor families in those days.

The father of the family was a man named John Bradley, my grandfather, whose family had immigrated to America around the time of the Civil War. They settled in Illinois and later moved to Nebraska where John married a full blooded German by the name of Kate Otten. The couple settled in Oklahoma and started their family. John was killed when he was accidentally pushed off a train station platform and was decapitated by the steam locomotive engine.

After the death of their father, the children tried to help their mother elk out a living on their small farm, but to no avail. None of the eight children wanted to live with Kate as she was a domineering, angry, and mean German woman. As soon as they reached puberty, the boys took off to find employment and make it on their own. They did, however, send some money home every time they got paid.

The girls married as quickly as they could and left home. Ella, the youngest,  joined a convent at sixteen and became a nun. She probably did this because she had nowhere else to go. The family members were devout Catholics, fundamental and trusting in basic Catholic doctrine and teachings. The convent was a good place for Ella, who took the religious name of Sister Mary Joseph.

After the Oklahoma Land Rush and statehood was attained, Oklahoma began to settle down from the rough and tumble Indian Territory it once was. Sister Joe, as she was called, taught at small schools around the state. Every year or two she would be transferred to a new town and a new school. During her travels she was exposed to football, a very popular sport at Oklahoma colleges and high schools. She became an ardent fan of the game, learning rules and strategy.

The pinnacle for football among Catholics is Notre Dame, home of the Fighting Irish. Sr. Joe was the consummate Notre Dame fan. There was prejudice against Catholics in those days, particularly in Oklahoma. The state was predominately Baptist and there was no love lost between Baptists and Catholics.  Some of the animosity was carried out on Saturday afternoons in the fall when college teams played.

Sr. Joe’s routine was to start praying for Notre Dame on Friday night after dinner and vespers. Praying the rosary was a popular form of prayer among Catholics and considered a powerful means with which to ask for favors from the Lord. She would say a rosary for Notre Dame on Friday night and followed it up with another one on Saturday morning. She also made several novenas in the fall beseeching Jesus and Mary to intercede for the Irish.

She could listen to all of the Notre Dame games on the radio and beginning in the 1950s watched several games a year on TV. During close games you found her on her knees praying as she listened to the game. My dad, Sr. Joe’s brother would receive a letter from her every Thursday in the Fall.  The letter would detail the previous week’s game, writing about the highlights and excitement surrounding it. My parents got a real kick out of her letters and her enthusiasm.

Near one end of Notre Dame Stadium stood the main building on campus. The building had a huge mural painted on it. The mural depicted an image of Jesus with his hands raised high in the air which could be seen all over the stadium. The ten story mural looked like Jesus was signaling a touchdown. It was affectionately known as “Touchdown Jesus.”

While I attended Louisiana State University, we had an occasion to play Notre Dame in football. The game was held in a sold-out Tiger Stadium. It was a close game and a penalty at the one yard line, in the last minute, was ruled in Notre Dame’s favor. It should have been ruled for LSU. The refs had blown the call. Notre Dame scored on the next play and won the game ten to seven.

 I couldn’t believe that “Touchdown Jesus” could get so personally involved in a sporting event and snatch victory from my Tigers. Somewhere in a convent, Sr. Joe was smiling and saying, “Thank you Jesus. Go Irish!” Her prayers were answered…again. Personally, I’ve had a sports fan’s hatred for Notre Dame ever since that day.


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