Spirit of Canton's Mrs. Claus lingers


I FEEL SAFE in assuming that every man and woman alive, of any faith and ancestry, will understand why, after all this time, Patrick Finnerty came forward with the story he told the other night. This holy season, from Hanukkah through Christmas and Kwanza and the Epiphany, takes us to emotional realms we do not usually visit and probably try to avoid. We all have our memories, good or bad, magical or mundane; we all have stories. And, even in the season of lights, none of us live far from what James Joyce called "the region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead."

So this Patrick Finnerty says he has contemplated sharing a story about his mother for several years now. He's 50-something, living up in Abingdon, in Harford County, feeling a little too comfortably removed, physically and spiritually, from Canton, his old neighborhood in southeast Baltimore.

To call his story -- filled with memories of Christmas shopping on Eastern Avenue, midnight mass at St. Bridget's, the Christmas garden in the dining room of his family's Elliot Street rowhouse -- nostalgia is to demean it. This has to do with a man's love for his mother, and his mother's love of life. So I'm flattered this fine fellow Finnerty decided finally to pull a chair up to the kitchen table and speak about the late Eva Connor Finnerty.

She was a big woman, in many ways. Big from top to bottom she weighed 190 pounds). But big in the heart, where it really counted.

A Canton girl, she married a tugboat man named George Finnerty, whom everyone called 'Ruff,' in 1929. They raised a family of two boys and a girl through the Depression and World War II. Ruff was away on boats a lot; it was Eva who tended to the family. And not just her own. She was blessed with a generous spirit, and there was an openness to her and her house with which in the old neighborhood were familiar.

She was one of a special generation of women who worked very hard through hard times to make good things possible for their children. "Put me through Calvert Hall and that cost some money," Patrick Finnerty points out.

Whistles blew along the waterfront, and Eva Finnerty and hundreds of other women grabbed leather aprons and gloves and scrambled to the packing houses to process the latest shipment of Eastern Shore tomatoes for three cents a bucket. Eva Finnertry worked in East Baltimore bakeries, too.

"But finally, in the 1950s, she got the job she was meant to do," Patrick Finnerty says.

His mother read about a casting call at Mondawmin Mall. The people who managed the place, then still fairly new, were looking for a mate for Santa Claus. Her son, then a teenager, went with her. He remembers some advertising executive looking, mouth agape, at the big, blue-eyed Eva Finnerty, so cheerful in the cheeks, and declaring: "You're Mrs. Santa Claus. JTC You won't even need makeup."

So Eva Finnerty became Mondawmin's first Mrs. C.

"She arrived at Mondawmin in a helicopter, a real big deal at the time," Patrick says. "Santa Claus was a young man, just 18 years old, from Forest Park High School. But he and my mother worked well together. . . . She worked at Mondawmin, at a shopping center in Towson, wherever they wanted her to go."

Eva Finnerty was a hit and held the post for several years, and she even started getting other costume jobs. "She was Martha Washington on some occasions and, I think, she played Dolly Madison, too," says Patrick.

But Christmas was her high season, though the spirit was in her all year.

"It would be the end of summer in that blue-collar, dust-filled neighborhood, and my mother and everyone would be working to survive," Patrick Finnerty says. "Things would be getting tight, my father would still be away, and money would be running low."

And maybe Eva Finnerty sensed a worry and sadness in her children.

"So she'd get out the Christmas balls and have us dust them off,' he says. "It would be September and we'd be dusting off the Christmas balls." It gave the Finnerty children hope.

"Mom loved the holidays, and she made a lot of people happy," her son says. "Even the neighborhood winos could always get a sandwich and a hot cup of coffee. Our house was always full. Our doors were never locked. I live way up here in Abingdon now, and always keep my doors locked."

In 1963, a doctor found cancer in Eva Finnerty's body. She struggled with it for five years and had to give up her role as Mrs. Claus. She was only 56 when she went into Mercy Hospital for the last time. It was December 1968.

One evening, a children's choir came through her ward, came into her room and sang a carol for the dying woman. One of the girls slipped a candy cane into Eva Finnerty's hand and, a little while later, she died. It was just about 7:30 p.m., Christmas Eve.

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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