Exemplified ‘no nonsense’ approach to life, faith
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
MILWAUKEE - Her opinion. It was her trademark.
A petite woman, Augusta Travitt was outspoken and quick to correct when something was amiss. Although disconcerting at first, she was what many would call the Black Catholic community's patron saint - a woman whose deeds, enthusiasm and charity greatly benefited the city of Milwaukee and the archdiocese for decades.
A member of All Saints Parish, Travitt spent most of her 86 years in service to others, and Sunday, April 19 was no exception. Fr. Carl Diedrichs, All Saints pastor, counted on Travitt, in her role as parish sacristan, to set up for the Masses during the week and on weekends. She remained there to prepare for the last Mass of the morning.
After opening the doors at 7:30, her duties included preparing the credence table, lighting candles, and setting out the ciborium with hosts and chalice with wine. Afterward, she would attend Mass.
"She was always at the end of the line for holy Communion," said Fr. Diedrichs, "And she was there on Sunday and I am comforted to know that she received holy viaticum from me as part of the 8 a.m. Mass."
Travitt died of natural causes early April 20 in her home, and leaves behind a legacy much larger than her tiny frame.
"It hasn't really sunk in for me yet," admitted Fr. Diedrichs. "I will miss her - her presence was all encompassing here. She served on the parish council, prayer and worship, was involved in the African World Festival for a Catholic group that planned that Mass each year. She was quite a lady in the larger Catholic community - and one woman that obviously internalized what it meant to be Catholic and not afraid to profess it."
After All Saints was dedicated several years ago, the bishop anointed the altar with holy chrism and Travitt was given the privilege of wiping off the altar after the ceremony.
While lovable, she was never afraid to speak her mind, and although respectful of the long line of priests that served the former St. Leo and later, All Saints Parish, they were not exempt from correction, if Travitt felt it necessary.
"We can't forget that part! You knew when you were out of line," mused Fr. Diedrichs, adding, "I think once you pass 80 years old, you can say what you want, but Augusta started earlier in life than that. From one generation to the next, she was concerned about good liturgy, respecting the altar and dressing appropriately."
When Marina Thompson moved back to Milwaukee 11 years ago, and rejoined the merged All Saints Church, she immediately knew that her personality clashed with Travitt's.
"I disliked Miss Augusta Travitt," she acknowledged. "I thought she hated everyone, including me, but over the years, I changed my position on her spirit. While she could clearly be stern, she used her God-given, strong personality to make sure that the Lord's house was respected and cared for the way many mothers from the 'old school' managed their households. No nonsense!"
As their relationship grew, Travitt, who was affectionately known as the parish "gatekeeper," allowed Thompson a one-time treasured glimpse into her drawer of Catholic goodies - crosses and pins that she stowed in the back of the church.
"I still have the rosary she gave me in my car," said Thompson. "My husband, as an usher, looked forward to his weekly scoldings about things that weren't done correctly. She once told him how she stared down a carjacker. My teenage son was amazed at how easily both of his parents took a tongue lashing from her."
Their son consulted with Travitt when he was thinking of having his tongue pierced. He didn't.
In the beginning, their younger daughter was afraid of Travitt, but came to respect her and viewed her as one of the many gray-haired women she read about in her journey into African American womanhood.
"Rosa Parks comes to mind - a woman who had strong beliefs and lived up to them with her deeds," she said. "What was so beautiful about Miss Augusta was her love for the church and the traditions I know she held close to her heart."
As past director of the archdiocesan African American Ministry Office, now the Office of Intercultural Ministries, Schauneille Allen appreciated Travitt's support while the latter served on the advisory board.
Not only was she a family friend, she was like a second mother to Allen, a chaplain at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, who considered Travitt to be an angel on earth.
"We know that she is looking down from heaven and appreciating the kind words that people are sharing and holding dear to them," she said. "I didn't know what I could do, so I started a 10-day novena in her honor using free conference calls to pray for the repose of her soul. I don't know how many are coming on line, but I think it is powerful, even though it might be an unconventional way to enter the sacred space."
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Travitt moved to Milwaukee and joined the Catholic Church after studying at St. Benedict the Moor School, one of the nation's top boarding schools for black students.
A graduate of Lincoln High School, Travitt was an active member of St. Leo Parish and continued her involvement with All Saints after the parish consolidation in the mid-1990s. She was also active in the St. Benedict food pantry, the Hunger Task Force, jail ministry, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Br. Booker T. Ashe House of Peace for the poor.
She served as a pastoral lay minister and, in 1992, received the Vatican II Award from Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland for her service.
In addition to her work within the Catholic community, her involvements included the American Red Cross, something that always surprised Allen.
"Here was this tiny little lady who used to get out of the big Red Cross van," she said. "She'd be helping with fires and any sort of disaster - she was just so giving and wanted to do anything she could do to help others. Even though she was tiny, she was a giant in the black community."
She worked in real estate and later as an operating room technician with the Veterans Administration hospital until her retirement.
She is survived by her sister Bertina Conway; grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Her daughter Loretta Turnage died approximately 15 years ago, according to Allen.
Although she cut back on her activities the past few years, Travitt remained called to serve and to live a Christ-like example for others.
"She believed in the mission that Christ called us to and to be there for our neighbors and it was exemplified by the many organizations she volunteered for," said Allen. "She would do anything for the church and always asked what she could do, even if it meant selling tickets for our chicken dinners; she did what she could."
As a role model, and unafraid to share her faith with anyone, Travitt's presence will be missed, especially at her parish, admitted Thompson, who will never forget seeing her at Mass April 19.
"Before Mass, I came back and inquired how she was feeling, and as usual, she was frustrated by something and said she was tired and was going home," said Thompson. "Later I saw Miss Augusta taking Communion and thought to myself, 'I thought she said she was going home.' She really was going home. How blessedly privileged I was to see Miss Augusta taking the sacrament of communion shortly before she went to see God."
Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago, who, as a priest, served at All Saints Parish, was the principal celebrant of Travitt's funeral Mass April 27.