#3 Beer, BBQ, and the Biltmore

I’m not sure when or where I first heard about the Biltmore Mansion, but it was probably almost 20 years ago. I’ve wanted to see it ever since.

When I came up with the idea of emptying the bucket list this year, I knew I had to make it to the Biltmore. Since moving to Nashville, Asheville was so close… but yet I still hadn’t checked the Biltmore off my list. While many of the things I’m emptying off the bucket list were already planned when I came up with the idea, this one was legitimately planned for this year. Time to empty the bucket. So I mentioned it casually the night of my birthday. “Has anyone ever wanted to go to the Biltmore?” Luckily, a few friends were game.

Asheville was…an interesting place. We stayed about a half an hour away, up in the mountains, in a house fit for a party. But we planned so much in our days that we didn’t have much time to party back at home. It was rainy and cold all weekend, but we still managed to have a good time.  I’m a big fan of craft beer, so I managed to hit up four breweries, although I wouldn’t mind going back and trying some others.

But for all the craft beer and bbq (which I’m also a big fan of, and we visited two places- Luella’s and Buxton Hall), it was the Biltmore that was our real destination.

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You have to go. If you haven’t been, you should definitely put it on your own bucket list. It’s worth it to get the audio tour – I’m usually ambivalent about those sorts of things, but I’m happy I spent the extra money. It was worth it to know what I was seeing and not just wander around some big house following everyone in front of me.

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I can’t imagine living in the place.  It was absolutely beautiful. I can’t imagine hanging out there in my jammies, though, so maybe it’s not the house for me.

The audio tour did a great job of reminding us how philanthropic the Vanderbilts were. They not only employed a lot of people, they took care of them. They cared for their families, giving them Christmas presents or delivering baskets when there was a new baby or sickness. They paid their servants New York wages, unheard of in North Carolina at the time, and for many of their servants, this was the first time they ever had a bedroom to themselves. We can tend to assume, seeing the opulence, that the rich always take advantage of the poor. But it reminded me of the scene in Downton Abbey when Matthew doesn’t want a valet, and he has to be reminded that by having a valet, he’s giving someone a livelihood.

Naturally, I was reminded of Downton Abbey a lot. A certain Brit I know didn’t think highly of the wannabe-British-estate, but hey, it’s pretty much the closest I’ll come to having a glimpse into the classic upstairs-downstairs life. I’d like to go back and do the specialized upstairs-downstairs tour.

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They were having a special exhibit at the time – Designed for Drama – that featured costumes, displayed throughout the house, from movie adaptations of George Vanderbilt’s favorite novels.

“Inspired by George Vanderbilt’s love of literature, Designed for Drama showcases more than 40 award-winning movie costumes from films based on favorite books in his collection. Vanderbilt amassed a personal library of more than 22,000 volumes at his North Carolina home alone. He also counted leading authors of the era as personal friends, including Henry James, Paul Leicester Ford, and Edith Wharton—all of whom stayed at Biltmore House as guests. That literary connection is brought home in the exhibition with the costumes accompanied by the original books from Vanderbilt’s library that inspired the films.”

It was such an added treat to see that display. The library was one of my favorite rooms by far. (The balcony even had little secret doors so that guests could access the library from their rooms and then head back to their bedrooms with a good book! Maybe I could hang out there in my jammies.)

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But what was even better? In the awesome library were two outfits from the BBC Pride & Prejudice – including the famous shirt Mr. Darcy took a little swim in. ha!

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Even though it was a little chilly and rainy, we walked around the gardens a bit, taking in the gorgeous roses and other flowers that were in full bloom. We missed the azaleas at their peak, although we saw a few of the last ones to bloom.

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I insisted on visiting the Creamery (natch), but I was pretty bummed to learn the ice cream was no longer made with milk from the cows on the premises. For some reason that bummed me out more than learning that most of the wine wasn’t made with grapes from the premises. But maybe that’s because the winery offers unlimited samples during the wine tasting, and that made me a pretty agreeable visitor.

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All in all, I was really pleased with the Biltmore. While I never felt rushed and I feel like we did the entire place justice, I still feel like I could go back and see more — maybe to see it decorated for Christmas, and maybe to do one of the specialized tours. Most of Asheville I could do without – I found it a wee too liberal for my tastes – but give me some bbq, craft beer, and the Biltmore, and I was pretty happy.

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#2 Paying my respects to “my man”

A few weeks ago, my sister and I headed out to California to visit friends of ours who live in Burbank. Despite the history-making torrential rain that plagued us most of the weekend, it was a great getaway.  She and I have never had a sisters-weekend like that, and it was made perfect by the fact that we were visiting some of our favorite sisters, Therese and Bernadette Peters.  Sisters squared! Throw in Mr. and Mrs. Peters, and you have a regular musical adventure.

For the purposes of this post, however, I won’t be talking about seeing Walt Disney’s house, or having drinks at the homey pub where the animators used to hang out, or even Bernadette’s incredible opening-night performance as Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie.  Instead, we need to focus on the Empty The Bucket List item I accomplished: paying respects to Ronald Reagan.

When I was really little, I used to call Ronald Reagan “my man.”  No one is really sure why, but I’m glad I had the foresight at such a young age to recognize greatness when I saw it. I always admired him growing up, but when I wrote my thesis on him in college, I really fell in love.

He died the day my sister got married, and if anyone remembers my toast, I toasted him (my dad told me I had to toast my sister first). It seems Therese remembered, because she asked if we would be interested in going to his Presidential Library while we were out there.

She didn’t have to ask me twice. I tried to remain calm and act like if it worked out, that would be great… but inside I was doing dances of joy.

The rain stopped long enough for us to drive to Simi Valley and enjoy the view.

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The Library, which just celebrated their 25th anniversary, is a testament to a great man and a reminder of what moral leadership looks like. The beginning opens with a short video that introduces Reagan’s legacy to those who remember him well and those who may not have even been alive to know him.  I almost started to cry watching him again – witnessing his eloquence and strength in the face of hard issues, many of which we are facing again today.

The museum tells the story of his life, from growing up in Dixon, IL, to his announcing days, his time in Hollywood, and eventually his political career. You could read old high school essays and watch clips of his movies.

The library moves quickly, obviously spending the most time on his presidency, but even then not belaboring anything for too long. There were some places I would have liked to see more detail, but all in all, I think it moves at the right speed and has the right amount of information for those looking to get a good overview of his life and the issues of his presidency.

All of it was well-done, but several areas stand out –  The way they presented the assassination attempted made you feel as if you were witnessing it for the first time.  The mock-up of the Berlin Wall was dramatic and terrifying.  And it was a treat to feel as if you were in the Oval Office.

IMG_7958.JPGIt is set up exactly how it looked during Reagan’s presidency, although none of it is original except the chair behind the desk. One of the docents later told us that Reagan would occasionally sit in that office after the Library was completed and receive visitors.

There was even a jar of jelly beans, of course.

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While it’s hard to choose a favorite part, a highlight was definitely Air Force One. It’s the only place you can tour an official Air Force One, and like the Oval Office, it is set up exactly how it was during his Presidency.  Unlike the Oval Office, however, he really used it as President, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t a movie set or a mock up.  It was a little smaller than I expected – only a 727. No photos were allowed inside, although they did take a cheesy picture of us on the front steps and then tried to sell it to us.

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I loved the prevalence of quotes throughout the library, as well as all the things they had – I never thought I would see things like the suit he was shot in, the Bible he took the oath of office on, or his riding saddles.

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I loved this – his file of little notecards where he would jot down quotations. I need to start doing this!

The museum ended with a room about life on the ranch after the presidency, then a room about Nancy, and then a room about his funeral.  Once again, it was hard to keep back the tears.

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I’ll never forget the sight of these boots backwards in the stirrups of that riderless horse.

Outside (after the gift shop), there was a piece of the actual Berlin Wall, a beautiful overlook of Simi Valley, and then the tombs of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

I was able to pray at the tomb of Ronald Reagan.

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“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

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“Let us be sure that those who come after will say of us in our time, that in our time we did  everything that could be done. We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.”

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And that, my friends, is emptied from the bucket list.

 

2016 Pilgrimage Recap

This was published in the diocesan newspaper this week – I thought I’d share it here, since it’s hard to link to the print edition of the paper.

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When I began work as Director of Adult Formation for the diocese, I knew I wanted to take people on pilgrimage.  My own time spent in Rome had a deep impact on my spiritual life and the discernment of my vocation, and I knew that no amount of study or reading could replicate what happens on a pilgrimage.  To walk in the footsteps of saints, to experience Catholic culture lived out, to see the Holy Father, and to pray and celebrate Mass with fellow pilgrims are formative experiences that cannot be taught, but lived.

Before the trip even began, our group experienced sorrows and joys.  One of the couples planning on coming with us had to cancel their trip after the husband was diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away two weeks before we left.  He and his family were remembered along every step of our pilgrimage, and we offered Mass for the repose of his soul in Assisi.  Two of our pilgrims were united in Holy Matrimony on the feast of Pope John Paul II just a few days before we left, and on our trip Father John Hammond blessed their marriage before Mass in St. Peter’s basilica, directly in front of Pope John Paul’s tomb.

The high point for everyone was the chance to see the Holy Father.  Months before we left, we found out that both the Wednesday General Audience the Pope holds weekly and the special Papal Mass that is held every year for All Soul’s Day had been cancelled.  Francis was traveling to Sweden right when we were arriving in Rome.  Since these were the only opportunities our pilgrims were going to get to see the Pope, I had to break the hard news to everyone.  They weren’t going to get to see Francis.

Behind the scenes, I worked with my fellow tour leader, Mountain Butorac, who lives in Rome with his family, to see what we could do.  Since we were familiar with the Pope’s routine, we knew there was a good chance that he would stop at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major after returning to Rome from Sweden.  He usually goes to pray in front of a famous icon of the Blessed Mother before and after his trips.  We planned our visit of St. Mary Major for Tuesday afternoon and prayed, not daring to tell any of the pilgrims about the possibility so as to avoid getting hopes up.  I entrusted the intention to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes!

God – and St. Jude – were certainly smiling on our pilgrimage.  Not only were we in the basilica when the Pope arrived, we were in the front row along the temporary barricade that had been set up.  The Nashville pilgrims were less than 20 feet away when Pope Francis quietly came to the basilica to lay flowers at the altar and silently pray at the icon.  We joined him in singing the Salve Regina, and then as he left, he gave a small wave to us.  To see the surprise and happiness on the faces of our Nashville group, a group that had thought their chance to see the Pope had been taken away months ago, was well-worth keeping the secret under wraps for so long!

To top it off, the Papal Mass that had been cancelled was rescheduled, and so our group joined a small gathering of mostly Italians for Mass in a Roman cemetery outside the city of Rome.  There were only about 1,500 in attendance, and our group was a mere 60 yards away from the makeshift altar that had been set up amongst the mausoleums and graves. I have been to dozens of Papal Masses, but this one certainly took the prize for most unusual!

Besides our times with the Holy Father, the trip was marked with beautiful liturgies celebrated by our own Father Bulso and Father Hammond, prayer in front of the tombs of saints like St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Paul, and the traditional climbing of the Holy Stairs on our knees.  We saw the Sistine Chapel, relics of the Passion, the wood of the crib of Our Lord, and the table of the Last Supper.  We were able to go under St. Peter’s Basilica and see the very bones of our first Pope. We walked through the Holy Doors of all four major Roman basilicas, making our Jubilee pilgrimage complete.

New friendships were forged as people from various parishes journeyed together.  Gelato and pasta were consumed, memories were made, and prayer intentions were lifted up.  Most of all, a group from Nashville, TN, touched the heart of the Church in the footsteps of saints, and brought you with us.

 

 

Rome-bound

Hey, guess what?  I’m actually posting something here!  It’s really only to say that I’m headed to Rome (surprise, surprise. God is good!) and perhaps there will be fun updates when I return.  Not that I ever made good on the promise from the 2014 trip. But I did get the flu after that, so I have an excuse…

Prayers for a little miracle, please… A miracle in the form of some glimpse of Pope Francis, who has canceled his Wednesday audience for the week. Thanks!

An incredible week in Philadelphia

I honestly don’t know where to begin when it comes to reflecting on this past week.  So much of it feels like a dream.  But then my feet hurt and I remember that it was all very real.

It’s hard to believe the week is over.  Learning from Cardinals, Church leaders, and other Catholic celebrities and just taking in the joy of thousands of families all week, and then capping it off with the papal visit to Philadelphia … it’s just hard to believe it’s over.

Seeing the Popemobile on American city streets was surreal.

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…And then he stops and kisses your friend’s baby. And the 8 1/2 hours of waiting on the side of the road is all worth it.

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More later, folks. Although that was the high point right there.

Historic Philadelphia

Today I may or may not have had a tour of historic Philadelphia from a guy who once played “young Ben Franklin” in a summer play on the streets of Philly.

Not only did I see where it all went down…

IMG_2823(confession: I wanted to sing songs from 1776 the whole time.)

But I also saw where (most of) our Founding Fathers worshipped:

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Christ Church- the Anglican church were many of the Founding Fathers, Betsy Ross, and the Penn family all had pews

And where they worked.  This is right by Ben Franklin’s house (right next to his printery office) and it’s still a working post office!

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We also visited Old St. Joseph’s, the first Catholic church in Philadelphia

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The beautiful painting on the ceiling was a gift from Francis Drexel’s estate. Yeah, like St. Katherine Drexel’s dad.

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Getting ready for the Pope!

And after a full afternoon at World Meeting of Families, we returned where we began the day – in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers – and had a drink at the pub where they hung out.  I’m pretty sure the real work of the Continental Congresses probably happened here.

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I couldn’t help but continue to think… what were these guys thinking? When they were all sitting at their Anglican service, did they have any idea what the heck was happening in this new country?  Did they realize they were making history?  Or were they just doing, in the words of Father Mike Schmitz, “the next thing” ??  I just wonder.

WMOF Day 1

Today was a quiet day before the mayhem begins.  …which basically will now translate into a blog post about food.  Catholic celebrities will come in time. Today you get pictures of food.

I hung around the house in the morning while Megan was at school, catching up on some work, watching Food Network, and having fun creating lunch with leftovers and staples in Megan’s fridge.  Once Megan got home and ate the pasta salad I created, we headed for the convention center downtown so I could pick up my registration.

While we were down there, it finally really sank in what exactly was happening.  We wandered into one of the exhibit halls, and although everyone was still setting up, there were booths as far as the eye could see of Catholic vendors.  EWTN had a huge booth with a sign hanging down from the ceiling.  Every Catholic publishing house you could think of was there.  And this was only one hall.

We started running into people from all over the world.

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This isn’t just some conference, Joannie.  This is going to be huge.

Registration went so smoothly – which was rather shocking after some of the snafus I have heard about in the last few weeks.  I picked up my name tag and all my loot and my train pass and I was good to go in less than ten minutes.

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I have to unpack all my loot so my bag is empty and ready to fill with all the chatchka the vendors will be handing out!  In addition to our t-shirt, our backpack had a water bottle, a nice hat, the Gospel of St. Luke, a rain poncho, two pens, a pin, tons of free literature from sponsors, and even a Pope Francis fan.

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The exhibitor program alone exhausted me.  Not to mention the program for the whole event. It weighs five pounds.

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On our way back to the train, we stopped into the Reading Terminal for a snack. I had only seen the Terminal during a flash mob on YouTube, so the foodie side of me was anxious to experience it.  I think I’ll eat lunch there every day this week.

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Megan got coffee, while I opted for Irish Coffee ice cream.

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It tasted just like Irish Coffee.  Deelish.

Then it was time to head back out of the city, where we picked up our friend Father Kevin at his parents’ house so we could go get cheesesteaks.  His dad and brother recommended Chubby’s, and even though the girl in me didn’t necessarily want to eat at a place called Chubby’s, I decided to put the “you are what you eat” idea out of my head and just embrace it.

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I’m pretty sure I’ll eat a cheesesteak for dinner every night this week.

After we hung out with Father’s family for awhile, it was time to head back home so Megan could get some work done. But we had one last stop before we were finished for the night…

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They deliver.  Seriously?  You can tell we’re near a college campus.

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Until tomorrow!

Sincerely,
Chubby