Anita Steinbeck Yancey Callahan

Mrs. Callahan was born Anita Steinbeck in 1905 in northeastern Germany, in what was then the grand duchy of Mecklenburg.  In 1920 the young Anita was brought to Atlanta, Georgia, and then adopted, by an aunt who had married a Mr. Yancey.  That aunt in turn when a girl herself had been brought from Germany by her aunt who had adopted her, so that Mrs. Callahan was the third generation of women in her family who came from Germany to the United States.  After World War II the Callahans in turn helped to bring another Steinbeck over, though they broke the pattern by bringing Mrs. Callahan’s nephew, Klaus.  Eventually Klaus Steinbeck became a professor of forestry at the University of Georgia and married a woman from Savannah.

As a child of late imperial Germany, and then as a girl and young woman in 1920s and 1930s Atlanta, Mrs. Callahan was a product of two utterly vanished cultures.  In any case, there was no mistaking Mrs. Callahan’s German – indeed almost Prussian – origin:  she was upright in posture, correct and precise in manner, careful, polite, and self-disciplined.

Because the Callahans had no children, Klaus Steinbeck was Mrs. Callahan’s closest relative in the United States.  I believe that was why in the 1980s Mrs. Callahan, then a widow and aging, moved from Franklin, North Carolina, to Athens.  Though raised a Lutheran, and a founding member of Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Mrs. Callahan became an Episcopalian when in Franklin.  When she moved to Athens Saint Stephen’s was her logical church home due to several facts.  First, she was a traditional, conservative person, who preferred that her liturgy be the same.  The Lutheran and Episcopal churches had drifted, and Mrs. Callahan was more comfortable as an Anglican Catholic.  In addition, she knew several of Saint Stephen’s members.  Hart Smith Shiver and she knew each other from Atlanta, where Hart’s husband had taught German.  Dorothy Hewlett and Mrs. Callahan had both been members of Saint Agnes’ Church, Franklin, with the additional tie that Dorothy’s husband, John, and Klaus Steinbeck both were professors in the same school of forestry.  Finally, James Reap knew Mrs. Callahan through his mother, Woodene Reap, who also had been a pillar of Saint Agnes’ when living in Franklin.

In any case, Mrs. Callahan in due course settled in as a very early member of the parish and as a resident of Lanier Gardens.  I recall Mrs. Callahan present at the parish’s first big social event:  a reception at the Taylor-Grady House for a visiting bishop (Tillman Beshore Williams) on our first anniversary.[1]  Her several friends in the parish welcomed her warmly, and she quickly made more.  She and I became friends as well, and I found her stories of old Mecklenburg and old Atlanta fascinating.

As a little girl, die kleine Anita was a favorite with the Herr Doktor Pastor of her home parish.  The little girl was in charge of powering the parish organ, which involved pulling down a rope, then riding up with it bodily on its natural upswing, and perhaps with a little jump, then letting her weight pull it back down.  Though the populace was entirely Lutheran, except for the occasional Polish Roman Catholic farm worker, older folkways survived:  fish was eaten on Fridays, blue was worn in May, and the parochial system was intact.

After coming to Georgia, Anita remained in touch with her German family – as her aunt had done in the previous generation– by mail.  In the 1930s, Anita visited Germany and saw bad things happening with the rise of the Nazis.  She said the most ardent Nazis were usually the most unpleasant people from the town, though their number also included, alas, one of her siblings.  During the war itself, Mrs. Callahan, as she now was, ‘joined the Army’ and worked as, I believe, a civilian employee.  At that point, of course, direct contact with her German family members was no longer possible.  One night, however, Mrs. Callahan had a dream in which her mother appeared to her.  In the dream her mother told her that she had just died, that she loved Anita, and that all was well.  Many weeks later a letter arrived in Atlanta from the German Steinbecks, sent by the German Red Cross to the Swiss Red Cross and so to the American Red Cross and on to the Callahans.  Frau Steinbeck had died the day of Anita’s dream.  This was not a story Mrs. Callahan told to people often:  ‘They would think I was crazy.’  I did not think it a crazy story at all.  I told her that most Christians have one or two such experiences in their lives.  That seemed to comfort her.

After World War II was over Mrs. Callahan, as I have said, helped bring Klaus to the United States for education and then marriage and employment.  Later still Mrs. Callahan was able to visit again her old home.  By then Mecklenburg was part of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), the old East Germany.  Mrs. Callahan told me that she and a sister one May Day watched the Communists parade through the town square.  Her sister said, ‘The Nazis used to march here past the church.  Now these people march.  But that old church was here before both, and it will still be here when both are gone.’  And so it now is.

On another trip to Europe Mrs. Callahan and a friend went to Rome.  The friend had a nephew who was studying for the priesthood in one of the colleges there.  The nephew gave the two American ladies a private tour of Saint Peter’s.  Mrs. Callahan was duly impressed and noted the beauty and grandeur of the church and speculated about its cost.  The nephew said, ‘Oh, it was very expensive.  It cost Germany.’  Which is substantially accurate.

Mrs. Callahan spoke often of the various churches to which she had belonged and of their clergy.  I think she was always a happy churchgoer, always fond of the clergy she encountered, and always supportive of them.  I was the last in the line of beneficiaries of that loyalty.  I tried to be a good pastor to her, not only as her priest for the time being but also as a representative of those from other parishes and times who had enjoyed her friendship and support.

After a long life of reasonably good health, Mrs. Callahan’s last year brought some debilitating dementia and physical weakness.  When she died I was honored to inter her at Saint John’s-in-the-Woods near Franklin, in the mountains that she loved.  Klaus was my driver for the day.  We had a lunch at the Dillard House, which Anita had always enjoyed, gave her Christian burial with the familiar simplicity of the Prayer Book, and we had a good talk about a remarkable woman whom we both admired.

[1] The parish was established with the encouragement of the first bishop of the Diocese of the South, Frank Knutti.  Bishop Knutti, however, died on the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, January 25, 1983, just two months after Saint Stephen was founded.  Curiously, the Conversion of Saint Paul was also the anniversary of Bishop Knutti’s episcopal consecration.  Bishop Williams was the second bishop of the diocese.

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