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Full circle

Full circle

Debbie Juniewicz ’90 April 23, 2021

Friendship forged on porch steps reveals a nearly 100-year connection between two Flyer families.

The delicate French Haviland china, with its dainty pink floral border and elegant gold accents, is back right where it belongs thanks to a Flyer friendship forged on the steps of 311 Kiefaber St. more than 40 years ago.

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch
Illustration by Dan Zettwoch

The story begins close to a century ago when relatives of Mary “Connie” Conway ’77 gifted the china to Monsignor John Shields, the parish priest in their town of Aledo in northwest Illinois. It ends with the dishes now resting in Conway’s china cabinet.

Conway and Mary McGinnis ’77 were classmates, friends and neighbors on Kiefaber Street in the mid-1970s. The fellow social work majors discovered another connection while sitting on the porch steps one afternoon.

“My great uncle was the parish priest in Aledo, where Connie’s family was from,” McGinnis said. “Many years ago, her family gifted him a set of china. While he moved on to different parishes in Illinois, he always took the set with him.”

Shields had become the pastor of St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in the rural Mercer County, Illinois, town in 1927. The close-knit community was where Grandpa Patrick Conway raised his nine children. “Aunt Virgie,” as Conway called her, was one of the older Conway kids and well known as a woman who couldn’t pass up a sale or auction. The family was quite fond of the personable monsignor, so it was no surprise that Virgie and her father agreed the china set she purchased needed to go to the rectory.

The family was quite fond of the personable monsignor, so it was no surprise that Virgie and her father agreed the china set she purchased needed to go to the rectory.

“Monsignor Shields was very central to the Conway family’s religious life, so I absolutely knew who he was,” Conway said. “I went to his 50th anniversary celebration when I was in the eighth grade. Mary was there, too, something else we later discovered.”

When Conway and McGinnis graduated from UD, they both pursued careers in social work. McGinnis went on to work in hospital administration and recently retired from her position in the insurance industry. Conway was a hospital social worker and now works in real estate. Both now live in the Chicago area — McGinnis in the city and Conway in nearby Arlington Heights.

They kept in touch over the years, but the dishes didn’t really get a second thought until Shields passed away, leaving the china to McGinnis’s mother, Joan Whalen McGinnis.

McGinnis knew exactly where the elegant set of china needed to be, and she picked up the phone to call Conway.

“It’s lovely, lovely china, but my mom and I agreed that it belonged with Connie’s family,” McGinnis said. “Connie has a son and three daughters, so it would get plenty of use. The china comes out when they are celebrating as a family, and Connie will send me a message, ‘Thinking about your mom today.’”

“Without Joan, the history would have been lost,” Conway said. “It speaks to her generosity of spirit.”

When not in use, the delicate china set — more than 80 pieces in all, from dainty teacups and saucers to pitchers and platters — is displayed in a cabinet that came from Grandpa Conway’s Aledo farmhouse.

“There’s so much symmetry,” she said. “We love the full circle of this story and how a chance meeting and friendship brought it back to the Conway family.”

We love the full circle of this story and how a chance meeting and friendship brought it back to the Conway family.

The generosity of spirit goes both ways.

“It’s a story about enduring friendships and family connections that were based on faith, community and sharing,” McGinnis said. “The fact that the gifted china circulated through two families over the course of many decades and is still being used today for family celebrations is a tribute to the original act of kindness from the Conway family.”

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