War and Liberation
St. Catherine’s Nursing Home, located here
in Emmitsburg, is faithful to the tradition of
service established by St. Vincent de Paul, St.
Louise de Marillac, St. Catherine Laboure and
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Their mission statement
declares: We are a "family of faith "
whose MISSION is to serve the frail and elderly
with cordial respect, compassion, and
As a volunteer at St. Catherine’s for over
two years, I can attest to the fact that at St.
Catherine’s they mean what they say. This is
not an ordinary nursing home but, rather, it’s
an extraordinary "home" that happens
to take care of the elderly. What makes St.
Catherine’s unique is that staff and
volunteers can be individuals, and everyone is
encouraged to use their individual talents.
The Administrator, Joe Lydon, is an innovator
always open to new ideas and this type of
leadership makes for great team effort. To keep
the spirit of the mission alive, there are
ongoing workshops, employee incentive programs,
and a host of activities in and out of St.
Catherine’s that leave little time for
boredom. Music is certainly a priority at St.
Catherine’s and every Wednesday, you can hear
the lovely strains of songs from yesteryear
played by Linda Duffy, a regular volunteer. On
Fridays, there is always a special program of
some sort. Aquatics is a regular activity, as
are games and crafts. Outings are routinely
planned for the residents. Trips to Baltimore,
the Washington Zoo, the Smithsonian, train rides
through Gettysburg and even attending the Totem
Pole Theater in Chambersburg — all are part of
the recreation schedule. Mary Van Buren,
Director of Activities, says: "If we think
of it, we’ll do it! The only requirement we
have is SAFETY."
St. Catherine’s Nursing Home is a beautiful
facility filled with wonderful people, each of
whom has an interesting story. Sometimes it’s
easy to forget that many nursing home residents
led full and vibrant lives at one time. We tend
to focus on the present situation without
realizing who these people are and what they did
prior to this phase in their life. The true
blessings of working with the elderly are those
rare moments when one discovers the rich history
hidden behind a person with Alzheimer’s or
some other debilitating handicap.
Our purpose here is to record thumbnail
sketches of people who have personal, sometimes
fascinating, stories to share. Lillian O’Donnell
is such a lady and was kind enough to share a
dramatic portion of her life with me.
Lillian Taylor was born and raised in the
Philippines. Her father was a career Navy man.
Her mother was from the Philippines but her
parents had separated when she was a small
child. Lillian, her two sisters and one brother
remained in the custody of their father. While
she may not remember all the details of her
formative years, Lillian vividly remembers what
life was like as a young woman living in the
Philippines during World War II.
After the Japanese invaded her country, they
interned American and British citizens, along
with all priests and nuns. Lillian’s mother,
being a native of the Philippines, had escaped
imprisonment. Unfortunately, this was not the
case for Lillian, her father, or her siblings.
The University of Santos Thomas (a Catholic
university) was confiscated by the Japanese and
used as an internment camp where Lillian and her
family endured four and a half years of
Lillian’s eyes still light up when she
describes General MacArthur’s arrival after
the war and the liberation of all prisoners.
"You cannot imagine how exciting a time
that was," says Lillian. "In prison,
they didn’t feed us very well. We mostly
subsisted on Talinam soupa— soup made from
weeds. Occasionally, we were given rice and,
sometimes, they fed us horse or caribou meat.
Some of the men who were interned with us, in an
attempt to get nutritious food, would place
money (wrapped in paper) into the camp garbage
cans. In exchange for the cash, the Philippine
people who were forced to work for the Japanese
would place concealed beans and rice in the
garbage. Of course, this posed a great risk and
I remember seeing what happened to those who
were caught. The Japanese would line up
prisoners outside and force them to stare
directly into the sun. If they dared to move
their heads or look down, a soldier would
immediately hit them with the butt of a
rifle." Life was harsh for all prisoners. No
one could avoid the cruelty imposed by the
invading army. Even those, like Lillian, who
were not physically tortured nevertheless still
carry the scars of that "nightmare"
period. In recalling her experience, Lillian
"Every night, the guards counted heads
to make sure that no one had escaped. We had a
committee in the camp and, toward the end of the
war, the Japanese would randomly pick people,
take them outside and decapitate them! I did not
actually witness such horrors, but was later
informed by others who knew exactly what was
happening. After the war, a Philippine man who
had witnessed the atrocities showed the
Americans where the bodies were buried. I
remember one day, toward the end of the war,
seeing a bunch of Navy planes fly over the camp.
I saw a plane being shot down and watched while
the pilot freed himself from the burning plane
only to be shot by a Japanese soldier. He was
dead before he even hit the ground. For the
longest time, I could not bear the sound of
airplanes overhead-it was a dreadful reminder of
falling bombs and senseless killings."
Lillian met her husband, John O’Donnell,
while still in prison. He was in the Army’s
Amphibious Engineers and part of the second
group that liberated the camp. They were married
before leaving the Philippines and then
remarried in a church wedding after the war.
"When we were liberated, Papa was so
malnourished, he had to be hospitalized.
Eventually, my family was brought to the United
States on a Norwegian ship and when we reached
San Francisco, my father was immediately placed
in another hospital. Tragically, it was too late—he
died there in a matter of weeks. After the
funeral, Papa’s pension enabled me to go to a
school in Reno where I learned how to be a long
distance telephone operator. One of my sisters
attended with me and we lived together in a
rented room. My husband John was working for the
government in Washington, D.C. and I joined him
when I completed my schooling."
After the war, Lillian saw her mother only
once. She had come to San Francisco to visit her
children and, while they tried to persuade her
to stay in the States, she returned to her
homeland. Sadly, Lillian was never able to go
Lillian and her husband raised two sons. Her
husband is gone now, and so is her brother, but
her two sisters are alive and well. A few years
ago, Lillian sustained a stroke and, at the age
of 78, she needed full time care. Her son and
daughter-in-law live in Thurmont and arranged
for her to live at St. Catherine’s Nursing
Home in Emmitsburg.
"I love St. Catherine’s," Lillian
told me. "The surroundings are pleasant and
the nurses are very kind and do so many nice
things for the residents here."
In reminiscing about her past, Lillian
reminds us how fortunate we are to be living in
a country that has never experienced the horrors
of war firsthand.
other articles by Marion Lee