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Published in Pittsburgh Catholic  May 2006

Aunt Cecilia’s Radical Love: An Affectionate Memoir
By Rosemary Fielding

Cecilia M. Hugo regarded her duties as a Catholic with extraordinary seriousness and performed them with extraordinary perseverance.

The sister of the late Father John J. Hugo, priest of the Pittsburgh Diocese, Miss Hugo died April 28, at the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Brighton Heights.   Because she is my aunt, I’ve talked to many people whose lives have been changed by her. I am one of them. 

When I thought, at age 40, that marriage was all but lost for me, she brought my husband and me together. She set the groundwork when she commanded me in her dauntless way to write an Englishman she had met and made sure she had gotten to know.  With his address in hand she was prepared to get our courtship rolling. And, lo and behold, my Englishman and I found in each other the soul mate and Catholic spouse for which we had both been praying for years. Two years later, I bore a child. 

She took “duty,” infused it with Catholic belief, and transformed it into something great. She “supernaturalized” it and elevated it to love.

Listening to my cousins tell their stories, I heard the echo of transformation over and over again. 

She spent her Saturdays teaching her great-nephew to overcome his dyslexia when he was both badly diagnosed and mistreated in his school. Every Saturday she reserved for him, until the problem was solved.  She mothered a niece whose life was devastated when her husband left her, helping her niece to recover and stay close to God. She spent months nursing another grand-nephew whose body was shattered in a car accident and who was told he would not walk again. She moved in, and made sure he did walk again. 

Sometimes, she seemed to be there almost miraculously when people needed her—a phone call, an unexpected visit when things were darkest, something in the mail. She seemed to be always ready to offer her time or her material goods to others.

She never married, but often said, “I am the barren mother of many children.”  And she wasn’t kidding. One of her students whom she taught some 70 years ago—before she went into special education—paid his respects at the funeral home. 

She spent most of her teaching career with special education students—mentally handicapped—at the McKeesport School District.  She was an early disciple of Maria Montessori, and brought Montessori methods into her classrooms. She especially emphasized making things with one’s hands, and she had her handicapped students making beautiful, functional things.

One of her nieces would sometimes accompany her to her classroom when she had a day off from high school. “She was incredible with those students. She always treated them with dignity, always respected them. She would get students from the most horrible backgrounds. One had been strapped in a crib until he was nine. He was deaf in one ear. She put his desk in front of hers and spoke directly into his ear, teaching the classroom through his ear. He began to speak for the first time.  She was very disciplined; she was very creative. They loved her. I went into special education because of her.”

 Soon, she was invited to teach arts and crafts for summer programs in the Norwin School District.  No Popsicle sticks or foam cut-outs for her. She taught leather work—cutting, carving, beveling and stitching. She taught mosaic tile work. Copper work. Weaving. 

She worked to spread the Kingdom wherever she went, to whomever she met.  She passed out books, pamphlets, cards, tapes and magazines. If need be, she would have them printed herself. 

As a young woman, Miss Hugo had settled on the easy and pleasant life—with a little religion on the side—until she made her brother’s “famous retreat”  (so-named by Dorothy Day). Father Hugo gave a seven-day, silent retreat that had a tremendous effect on many Catholics, most notably Dorothy Day.

The retreat turned Miss Hugo to a different pursuit—to following the Gospel as best she could.

She became a friend with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, going to help at the Easton farm, going to New York or Chicago to help at the houses of hospitality. Dorothy would sometimes stay at her home when she came to Pittsburgh. She helped her brother with his work throughout his life and hers.  When Father Hugo published his own writings—so intent was he on spreading the Gospel message-- she ran his printing press in the basement of her home.

After Father Hugo died in 1985, through ceaseless cajoling, Cecilia persuaded some priests to take up the work of the retreat.  She was the zealous advocate who kept them going.

When Mike Aquilina first became editor of the Pittsburgh-Catholic in the 1990’s, he wrote an article on Dorothy Day. “I remember one very hot day, this old woman came into my office carrying a big bag of books. She had taken a bus downtown and then walked to my office, and she looked hot, tired and out of breath. She set the bag of the books on my desk and said, ‘You don’t know Dorothy Day if you don’t know Father Hugo.’”  That was Miss Hugo, at age 80 or so, making sure Father Hugo’s work continued.

Once again, her discernment was right. Mike Aquilina read the books and later went on to collaborate with writer David Scott on editing Weapons of the Spirit: Selected Writings of Father John Hugo, published by Our Sunday Visitor Press in 1997. “To Cecilia Marie Hugo, sister of Father John and keeper of the true fire of his teaching, this book is lovingly dedicated,” they wrote.

Miss Hugo died in the Brighton Heights home for the elderly at which she had volunteered for 20 years, giving so much of herself faithfully and reliably that a former mother superior promised her a place in the home when she needed it.

She lay dying, and was still trying to teach the Faith.  She kept telling her nieces and nephews that they had to read a book— A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa by David Scott.  She also told us, “I want you to say the ‘Our Father,’ and I want you to do more than say it. I want you to live it.”
 (Cecilia Hugo was also the sister of the late Dr. Lawrence R. Hugo, former professor at Duquesne University. She is survived by her sister Margaret Anne Lyons, sister-in-law Ruth Anne Hugo, 15 nieces and nephews, 40 great-nieces and great-nephews, and 17 great-great nieces and great-great nephews.)

©  Rosemary Hugo Fielding 2011

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