This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Gussie Feehan’s death at age 106 last week caught everyone by surprise.
A few Sundays ago, she was in her usual after-service seat at Christ Church Cathedral, strategically located to greet all-comers; until three months ago, she was still helping to count Sunday’s take on Monday mornings, just as she had for nearly 50 years. Until recent days, she had maintained a rigorous schedule that included morning exercise and dining out twice a day at her favorite haunts. Her social calendar for June was full, just as it had always been.
“She was active for any age, not just for someone 106,” said The Very Rev. Michael Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral. “Gussie’s faith in God consistently carried her through and helped carry the Cathedral through challenges.”
Mrs. Feehan was first a career woman, then “the rector’s wife” and, lastly, a dowager of some renown for nearly three decades.
She died Thursday afternoon, June 27, 2013, at Missouri Baptist Hospital, after a “laying on of hands” by Rev. Kinman and other church members. Earlier in the day, she had acknowledged “this is it,” and declared, Rev. Kinman said, that she’d been ready for this day for years.
She had been known as the “Maven of Clayton” for her long and illustrious residency, including at Bethesda Barclay House since 1995.
Mrs. Feehan’s life will be celebrated on Saturday, July 6, at Christ Church Cathedral.
The preacher’s wife
When Mrs. Feehan began her 35-year career as a secretary to grain brokers in the Merchants Exchange Building in downtown St. Louis, bales of cotton and other harvests still arrived by steamboat on the Mississippi and over land by horse cart. The Exchange, like the transportation systems, quietly faded away; Mrs. Feehan’s skills did not. She continued to type 80 words a minute throughout her life.
She retired from the Exchange to devote herself to being “the rector’s wife,” a role she did not initially relish, although she had encouraged her husband to pursue his dream of becoming an Episcopal priest. He said he was waiting for a sign from God.
While piloting a small plane, Maver Feehan and a business colleague crashed in an Iowa cornfield. They both walked away. Soon, the middle-age manufacturer’s representative entered the seminary.
In 1965, Mr. Feehan joined the Cathedral as a canon, the priest in charge of the parish.
“She became a preacher’s wife and she did everything she was supposed to do,” said Jim McGregor, a subdeacon at the Cathedral. She introduced herself to McGregor the first Sunday he visited the church, invited him to sit with her the next Sunday, and after his third visit, she handed him a pledge card.
McGregor offered Mrs. Feehan, who never had a driver’s license, a ride home that Sunday and every Sunday thereafter.
She led the Altar Guild, became a bookstore volunteer, counted the Sunday offering and coordinated the flower ministry until about a year ago. Although she and her husband never had children, she taught first and second grade Sunday school for more than 40 years.
On a diocesan level, she served on the board for Women’s Work and the Women’s Auxiliary/Episcopal Church Women and was a leader in Christian education, both in the diocese and for the Metropolitan Church Federation.
Mrs. Feehan became the heart of Christ Church Cathedral.
“Every Sunday after church, people would stop and pay homage,” said Renée Hirshfield, a member of the Cathedral whom Mrs. Feehan had also quickly befriended.
The renowned Gussie
Her handiwork and generosity extended well beyond Christ Church. She volunteered for 25 years at the St. Louis State Hospital (now the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center) and 20 years at the historic Campbell House Museum.
Since 1935, she had given time and money to Episcopal City Mission, a ministry and educational program for incarcerated youth. Her love of fine dining once helped fund the program. The auction item description read: “Dinner for two at the internationally renowned Tony’s Restaurant in downtown St. Louis with the equally renowned Mrs. Augusta (Gussie) Feehan. Value: $400.”
It was widely known that Mrs. Feehan, with her German heritage, had an Italian palate. She had a regular table at Tony’s, Dominic’s and Lombardo’s.
Pat Partridge named a dish in honor of her 99th birthday. His Shrimp Augusta recipe was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 5, 2006.
"I was brought here to be the organ master at Christ Church Cathedral,” Partridge said. “When I arrived, Gussie was one of the first to greet me, and we became fast friends.”
Perhaps her musical talents helped cement the friendship.
“After group parties ..., I used to sit at the piano and play, and everyone would gather around and sing,” she said during a Cathedral interview several years ago.
Her name is inscribed in a paver at the Cathedral and last November, she was named an Ageless and Remarkable St. Louisan by St. Andrew's Resources for Seniors.
Augusta “Gussie” Rebecca Trauernicht was born Oct. 14, 1906, in Ironton, Mo., the younger of two daughters of a dentist and a homemaker. The family moved to St. Louis when she was 5. She graduated from Cleveland High School.
Her parents were not churchgoers. But she met her future husband, John Maver Feehan, while attending St. John’s Episcopalian Church -- with next-door neighbors. She and Maver, as he was called, began dating after she returned another young man’s University of Missouri fraternity pin. They quickly fell in love, but she wanted to delay a marriage until they were on sound financial footing. In five years, they had a thousand-dollar nest egg. They wed on April 20, 1929.
When Mr. Feehan developed Alzheimer’s disease and became too ill to remain at home, Mrs. Feehan visited him every day by taking a bus from downtown to South County. It required two transfers.
They were married for 55 years. Although she was often seen with a man on each arm after her husband died, she lived her “three Bs” vow.
“She said she was never going to share her bath, her bed or her bank account with another man,” McGregor chuckled.
Her friendships remained.
“When you get to be 106, everyone you shared your life with is gone,” Rev. Kinman said. “Gussie just kept making new friends.”
The proof was in the 100th birthday party McGregor threw for her. He had planned a party at his home. She gave him a list of nearly 250 people to invite.
“We had to move it to the Algonquin Country Club,” McGregor said.
At the party, Mrs. Feehan, still a “natural blonde” at 100, and McGregor, performed a 25-minute skit that relied heavily on a customized rendition of Bosom Buddies from the musical, Mame.
“I've been meanin' to tell you for years, you should keep your hair natural like mine. Gussie,” McGregor sang. She responded, “If I kept my hair natural like yours, I'd look as old as you do!”
“We sang and danced throughout and she didn’t miss a cue,” McGregor said.
People wondered what they could possibly do for an encore. McGregor suggested she don a two-piece black bathing suit, fishnet stockings and a tiara – and let him saw her in half.
A “backslider,” B.R. Rhoads, a friend who shared her taste for fine Vodka and champagne, said he’d return to church if she did it. After her 101st birthday magic act, she promptly told Rhoads, according to McGregor, “Boy, I’ll see you in church tomorrow.”
Mrs. Feehan witnessed dramatic world changes – two world wars, the Great Depression, growing civil and women’s rights. She recalled a time when she represented the Episcopal Church Women at the general convention in San Francisco “where they wouldn’t seat a female delegate,” she said in the church-published interview. She helped to change that. In the same interview she said of gay bishops, “I’m for ‘em.”
“She was very progressive,” Hirshfield said. “And she was someone who told it like it is.”
“She was strong and faithful and her love for her Cathedral family was fierce,” Rev. Kinman said. “It is so strange to think of this world without Gussie.”
There were no immediate survivors.
Her services will be at 2 p.m., Saturday, July 6, at Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust St., 63103. A reception will follow immediately afterward.
Memorials are appreciated to one of two funds at Christ Church Cathedral: the Cathedral Endowment Fund or the John Maver Feehan Chair of Music Fund.
Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.