I Live in a Palace, Part 2

By Sister Barbara Engs, 1891-1979
Written in 1963.

WE CAME

Reversing Caesar’s ultimatum, we prepared for our trek — or perhaps we should say our Exodus.  The pioneers to the gold fields had come in covered wagons.  As discreetly in view of the age of the automobiles, we purchased for a fairly reasonable sum a vehicle which bore a remote resemblance to a hearse.  It was, in fact, what might be considered a cross between the traditional “Black Maria” and an enclosed moving van of somber hue.  It had sides that were modestly screened by hanging flaps of black oil cloth; the back was open, but could be partially veiled by other bits of depending drapery, and it could — with a certain amount of hazard — accommodate several chairs to convey, along with miscellaneous furniture, a quartette of future residents from San Jose to the site of their new labors.

We say labors advisedly, for the amount of cleaning, scrubbing, shoveling, and digging required to restore order and neatness to the place beggared description.

As the tired recruits retraced the twenty-seven weary miles to San Jose each evening they thought of the holy Sons of St. Francis who had laid out El Camino Real in the name of the King we hoped to bring to this mid-peninsula locality. For Belmont was a strange little settlement.

Once an important link in the cross country chain of highway from the shore of Half Moon Bay to the industrial towns and the county seat of Redwood City, it had dwindled at the time of our coming to a trio of “shops” — shall we say — namely a butcher’s, a beauty parlor, and a fortune teller’s. Obviously only the first of these would prove of value to us; the other two, for practical and religious reasons being beside the question.

There was not even a parish church. Forty years ago Belmont was a mere mission station served by the pastor of San Carlos in what might be called a detached Spirit of Christian tolerance. It was not until the College presented the ground at our entrance, that what is now our Art Studio became the first parish church of Belmont.

The very [train] station had a dubious air about it.  Even the engineer seemed never too sure where to stop and one evening, after we had already taken up our residence, two Sisters were put off the train at San Carlos in the dark by a zealous conductor and were forced to walk over the hill to their destination in sentiments of fear and trembling.

While speaking of Belmont, however, it is fitting to chronicle its two claims — at that time — to immortality. First, Jack London, it was said, had once worked in a laundry there. Second, — and here we touch upon tradition — there had once been, where now several of the local sanitoria lie “bosomed high in tufted trees,” (as Milton so aptly remarked in L’Allegro) among the hills that give Belmont its name, a popular picnic place of the late 1870’s to which a special excursion train from San Francisco ran periodically.

A member or our community, who has gone to her eternal rest, remembered well the occasion that brought nationwide notoriety to this long-vanished retreat. Little Annie Rooney, so the story goes, attended that ill-fated parish picnic from which she did not ever return. Even into the 1900’s little girls in the Bay Area were told never, never to let go Mother’s hand in a crowd; for little Annie Rooney had let go of her mother’s hand and she was never, never seen again. Our Sister maintained that she herself had been at this gathering and the story at poor Annie’s abduction or straying away must have been true. Now and again in the years following, claimants to the name appeared, although no claim was ever verified.


PART 3, I Live in a Palace