Patricia Aseltyne, February 7th, 2017
WW: Hello. Today is February 7, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am in Monroe, Michigan. I'm sitting down with -
PA: Sister Pat Aseltyne, IHM.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
PA: You're most welcome.
WW: Would you like to share your story?
PA: I would. In 1967 I was missioned at Our Lady of Lourdes at River Rouge. And we lived right across from the fire department. So in a sense, we had a ring-side seat in seeing the tanks go up and down the street. And River Rouge at that time was quite divided between black and white. There was a railroad that went through Coolidge and Jefferson, right near that corner.
We were offered an opportunity to volunteer wherever we could fit in, so I went down to the main police station in Detroit – and was given the job of answering telephones. People were calling in to try and find out where their loved ones were. They had been picking up mostly black people, if I recall right. And they were putting them on buses, because the jails were filled. And then they would put the names of these young men and boys in a book, and our job was to answer the phones, get the name of the person missing, and then look at these books to see if we could find them, so that we could let the people know, at least that we had found them.
There was a curfew in the city, as you know, it was six o'clock, and I was looking out our front window of our convent, and I saw a little old lady walking by, kind of hunched over, so I ran out because I wanted to warn her that there was a curfew. But when I approached her, I saw that it was not a little old lady. It was somebody carrying a bottle of liquid, which I – with a wick in it, which I recognized from the movies that I watched, that it was one of the things they had thrown – would throw into a house. So I ran back into the convent and called the police. I never did find out what happened after that.
I did hear some things about – one of the convents that I was in, I would hope that maybe somebody or I could do that – would find out which one – because a young man rang their doorbell frantically because he wanted a safe place to hide, because he was being chased by the police. And they did let him in, they let him hide, and the police did come. And somehow they got the police to leave. They wouldn't let them search the house.
And then as a result of this, I do remember too that I went to that convent and as a result of all the things that had been happening, we talked to the people that were in apartment buildings along the way, and found out that they were paying just an enormous amount of rent. And if they had known to look outside the city, or at least away from the middle of the city, they could have had much more comfortable places. So I say that in the sense that, it was one good thing that came out of all the rioting.
And I also am aware – I've been down Grand River and Twelfth Street and all that. Even at this point it still is a mess down there. None of the – I shouldn't say none – but few places have been built up. But it's still pretty bad. I would hope that someday they will do something about that.
We had a cook who was black, and it was a surprise to me that she was apologizing for her people. And that kind of grated on my sense, that it wasn't – it was – I felt it was the fault of the people who were not helping the black people, that it was our fault, and not her fault. And we used to drive her home so she would be protected, getting out of our neighborhood. That's about all I remember.
I do recall that my family – the first I heard of this was when I went back to my family. It was a Sunday, I believe, we were coming back from a short vacation. And my family told me about this, and they were very upset. My family were very political, so it wasn't a big surprise to them that something did come to a head. And I remember that we had a lot of compassion for the people who were hurt at this time.
WW: Did it change the way you looked at Detroit?
PA: Well, I had a great love for Detroit, and I respected Detroit. As I said, my parents were into politics. My dad was a precinct captain, and so we were kind of brought up that way, that we loved the city. We used to go down, even as a little child, we lived right off Grand River. We'd get on the streetcar, the old streetcar, and go down to pay the insurance, my brother and sister and I. And I feel bad about Detroit now, because of living there. I had also lived at St. Rose in the east side of Detroit and loved it, because – you know, people are people. And actually, I think you can help people much better when they don't feel like they have everything, and there can be a much better rapport among people when there isn't the rich and the poor. We came to a happy medium, or at least a more considerate medium.
WW: Thank you so much. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
PA: Well, I think too that, as a result of some of these things that I've experienced – I just spent twenty years in Houston, Texas, taking care of children who were - you know, were in poor families and needed to be away from their families – and I also got a chance to – to be with their parents, and at that point in my life I felt it was a privilege to be able to do that. You know, some people think that – oh, it's very difficult to be in a situation where there's a lot of poor people, or where there's great need. But to me it was – and I think maybe I felt that way pretty much all my life - that it was a privilege to care for them , for people. And I think it was the build-up that we had in our religious life and our experiences that brought us to having a lot of compassion and empathy for people.
WW: Thank you so much.
PA: Thank you.