An American flag is clamped upright to a white-painted I-beam, which rests on two sawhorses. To the right of the flag is a potted evergreen, an 18-inch cone of tender life rooted to steel. Between these two strange antennae, a small San Damiano crucifix has been attached to the face of the beam.
This is a Topping Out ceremony. It’s a tradition in the construction industry, a moment in the process to pause and celebrate when the last (usually topmost) beam is set in place. Some trace the origins of the tradition to medieval Scandinavia, where carpenters lashed an evergreen branch to the final timber they fitted to a building. It was either a symbol of the building’s new “life” or an effort to appease the spirits of their ancestors, whom the builders believed dwelled in the trees. It was, at any rate, recognition of the organic connection between the new structure and its earthbound roots.
Under an umbrella my four children, my husband and I huddle in a downpour on the 7th floor roof deck of the parking garage at St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Illinois. Construction workers in jeans, work boots and hardhats seem not to notice the rain. Women in heels and men in dress shoes stand around. From under the umbrella I see fabric flapping: the legs of suit pants, flowered sundresses, brown cassocks and veils.
The rain tapers off. A woman with a towel starts wiping down the rows of white folding chairs that sit expectantly before a podium. My husband disappears into some official conversation, his talking points on a small pad in his pocket. He will be the director for this new building and all that will go on inside it: using simulation to teach caregivers and to conduct multidisciplinary medical research.
A philanthropist donated the money to build this center, and John, who had established a similar program at a university hospital in Chicago, helped guide its design. The job started as a consulting arrangement, and early on he had assured the good sisters who run this place that he was not interested in a new job in Peoria. Besides, he explained, his wife would never leave Chicago, where her family was and where she worked and studied. But the more time John spent with the people involved with the building, the more he felt drawn to the place.
It was the autumn of 1876 when six Franciscan sisters responded to a call to “serve with the greatest care and love.” They left Iowa City, where they had landed the previous year from Germany (their community having sought freedom from Bismarck’s anti-Catholic May Laws), and set up a hospital in a rented three-story house in Peoria. The Sisters, whose previous work was teaching and caring for orphans, had almost nothing — no money, no special medical training and little English. Somehow, they trusted, God would show them their way forward. The following July the women formed their own congregation, the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. By September, the cornerstone of the new St. Francis Hospital had been laid. So one of their first acts as a new congregation in a new place was to build, a fundamental act of identity.
When ground was broken on this building last year, John was there. I was home, in the house he and I remodeled, in our bed, alone, when he called to tell me about it. His voice sounded odd, farther away than the triangle of space it traced from Peoria to a satellite back down to me in Chicago.
“They blessed the dirt,” he said.
I knew then that I was doomed. My husband is a steady Catholic, but he doesn’t talk this way. I might, sometimes. Not him. Soon he was talking about these humble sisters and their mission — and the wild idea of going to a place you don’t know because you feel called to go.
Things were shaping up like a midlife crisis, but without the sports car. There were other women in my husband’s life now. Women in brown habits who must have prayed harder than I did.
I am standing in the last drops of rain, wondering what I am doing here.
Then someone waves me toward the front and hands me a Sharpie marker, saying, “Be sure to sign the beam.”
The construction workers have all signed it; they built it. The donors have signed it; they paid for it. The bigwigs and the mayor and the congressman have all put their signature on it; they cleared the way for it. The smiling Franciscan sisters have signed it; they prayed for it.
I pause with the pen in front of the beam. My parents always taught me to be careful what I put my name to. I can’t avoid the feeling that my signature here is meaningless. When this beam is enclosed in the finished building, hiding my signature, what will I feel when I drive past it on I-74 coming up over the Illinois River?
Signing the beam strikes me as sanctioned graffiti, the commonplace desire to fuse an expression of ourselves with something permanent. If I put my name on this beam, I become part of this place. This place becomes part of me. Is this what I’m supposed to do? I’m just not sure.
But a few things I am sure of. I believe it was John’s call to come to work for these Franciscan sisters. I am proud of him. I also know, truly, that if I had said no when my husband asked me, we would not be here. I hadn’t known what to say. I only knew he needed to say yes.
I bend and sign my name.
Gina P. Vozenilek is a writer in Peoria, Illinois, where she recently began working for the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.