Fr. Barnum's Practical Jokes

Georgetown Magazine

Rev. Francis Barnum, S.J., (1849 -1921) was, at various times, a world traveler, Alaska missionary, student of Inuit linguistics, and the first to attempt to manage the Georgetown University Archives. A man of rare wit and good humor, it was said that he was sometimes reassigned with the express purpose of cheering up the other community. The following vignettes show there was, at times, more than a little edge to his humor; perhaps the Provincial moved him before the sisters would have a chance to poison 'im.

--Jon Reynolds, University Archivist

When I was appointed Chaplain at the Connecticut Avenue convent, I found that the community consisted of the most moth-eaten mildewed bunch of sisters in the whole archdiocese, so I decided that for their own sake, they needed stirring up.


There was one old sister who was dreadfully slow and pokey so I named her Pocahontas and the name stuck to her ever after. Pocahontas would insist on serving my Mass, no matter what I said about the rubrics. I would order her to place the wine and water within reach and stay out of the sanctuary, but it did no good. One morning at the Lavabo, I handed the finger towel to her but she had her head bent down and did not see me, so I laid the towel gently on top of her head. She carried it there through the rest of the Mass to the great amusement of the other Sisters and the children. At the final blessing she bent her head and the towel fell off and gave her a great scare. After that, I had no more trouble with Pocahontas, for when she got over being mad, we became very friendly.

The Rock & Rye

One morning I happened to have a cold which caused me to cough several times during Mass. When I went down to breakfast, I found a wine glass of rock & rye by my plate. After breakfast I filled the little glass with coffee and went home. The serving sister thought I had not taken the cordial and was much astonished thereat, so she carried it back to the Mother Superior. There had just been an election in the Convent and the new Superior said "we cannot pour this back in the bottle and the best thing to do is to take it to Mother [the former Superior] for she is not feeling very well." The sister went off with the glass and said "Rev. Mother sends you this." The former Superior was very much surprised and said " Thank Mother for me, I will take a little now and the rest after Prime."

A few moments later a peremptory knock sounded on the door of the Superior's room, and in came the other who in a rather excited tone said, "Did you send me this?" The Mother said, "why yes." "And what did you send this for?" The Mother answered, "why I though it would do you good." A lively discussion arose between them before the fact was mentioned that it was only coffee. They then concluded that the serving sister had swiped the cordial and put in the coffee, so they sent for her and gave her a great dressing down. The poor sister denied all knowledge of the affair and spent the day in tears. There was no way of clearing up the mystery until my return next day.

The Presentation Cake

On the Rev. Mother's feast day, I picked out a nice round block of wood, and got the cook to cover it with icing, and ornament it with bon bons and flowers so that it looked exactly like a beautiful cake. Then I sent it down to the convent with the compliments of their Chaplain. (Note, the archivist's father played the same joke on our pastor, though using styrofoam, proving once again that great minds and mud run in the same channels.)

The Fritters

On the occasion of a great feast day at the convent, I went to our kitchen with a roll of raw cotton, which I made up into little balls, then dipping them into a batter I fried them a nice delicate brown. I then spread a napkin on a dish and piled up the fritters nicely and sprinkled them with sugar. I sent them to the Convent in time for their dinner. The nuns were delighted, the dish was placed on the dining table and passed along. Then came the grand climax as one nun after another started choking and pulling cotton from their mouth to the great amazement of those to whom the dish had not yet reached. It was along time before we heard the end of the famous fritters.

The Alaska Tar-paper Episode

Bro. Cunningham of the Alaskan mission was an expert axe man. Few could surpass him in erecting a log house. He built nearly all our houses in the Mission and seemed able to execute with the axe alone what an ordinary carpenter would require a chest of tools to accomplish. One time at Kozyrevski he needed a pair of pantaloons and the Sisters agreed to make them. There were two small rolls of cloth in the storehouse, one was fairly good and the other was the most common grade of shoddy. This was the one selected by Fr. Tosi, and it was brought in to our house. The next morning a little girl raced over from the convent saying that the Sister Superior had sent her for the cloth for Bro. C's pants. Now it happened that just about a half hour earlier the Sister who did the cooking had sent over for a roll of tar paper which she wanted to repair the kitchen roof. So in fun I gave the roll of tar paper to the little girl who had come for the cloth. In a few moments she was back with a note to Fr. Tosi from Sister Superior in which she said "that stuff was not fit for making pantaloons." If she had only mentioned that it was tar paper, there would not have been any joke. Now Fr. Tosi was aware that the Sister knew about the two rolls of cloth and he immediately concluded that she wanted the better grade, so he determined that she should not have it. He of course knew nothing about the roll of tar paper and so he sent back word that the stuff was plenty good enough and that she would have to use it for the pantaloons.

The poor Sister was now completely disconcerted and sent back a note saying "that it was absolutely impossible to use that stuff for pantaloons," failing again to mention that it was tar paper. This made Fr. Tosi very indignant over what he considered was obstinacy on the part of the Sister and so he started over to the Convent full of wrath. Just as he arrived there and was about to vent his indignation, the cook came in and seeing the roll of tar paper, she exclaimed that she had been waiting for it all the morning. This cleared up the mystery, but in the meantime I had put on all my furs and gone to the top of the hill back of the mission where I spent an hour or two in order to allow the authorities time to cool down.

From the Papers of the Rev. Francis Barnum, S.J.

University Archivist Jon Reynolds' older sister is a nun, and so he all but grew up in convents, and can attest that the sisters do indeed put up with a lot of grief.