Idea for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital began at Detroit’s one-time cathedral
Detroit — It’s said that the vow of a desperate man doesn’t have to be kept, but one man who kept his vow later gave the world St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Living in Detroit in the 1930s, Danny Thomas — then known by his birth name Amos Jacobs — was certainly desperate. His wife, Rose Marie, had just given birth to their first daughter, Marlo, at the local hospital, and the couple was too poor to pay the medical expenses.
Until Danny, a struggling entertainer hoping to make it big in the industry, could provide $75, Rose Marie and baby Marlo were to remain in the hospital.
“It was a Detroit November,” recounted Terre Thomas, Danny’s second daughter who now lives in Los Angeles, in a phone conversation with The Michigan Catholic in February. “Quite cold. He was walking past a church called SS. Peter and Paul … and he prayed there for a sign.”
Danny sent a prayer for assistance to St. Jude Thaddeus, apostle of Christ and patron of hopeless causes.
“There was a poor box always in the churches,” said Terre Thomas. As she said her father told the story, “in his pocket he had $7 and some change. In a leap of faith, he put the $7 in the poor box and said to St. Jude ‘I need that back 10 times, tomorrow!’”
His prayer was made on a Sunday. That Monday, Danny received a call about a radio opportunity, including the offer of $75 cash.
“The hair on the back of his neck went up — is this the sign?” said Terre of her father’s reaction to the quick answer to his prayer. “Things didn’t happen overnight, but that happened overnight!”
Terre said many people have retold the story of her dad’s connection to St. Jude, with varying levels of accuracy and elaboration.
But having heard him tell the story “a million times,” she said history can’t be rewritten — and Detroit is where Danny’s first prayer to St. Jude took place.
In 1937, when Marlo Thomas was born, there were two SS. Peter and Paul churches in Detroit: one on East Jefferson, which today is run by the Jesuits, and another on Adelaide, formerly named St. Patrick’s, which burned down in 1993.
According to Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the devastating fire, the church on Adelaide — then the Detroit diocese’s cathedral — was where Danny had made his request to the saint of impossible causes.
The statue itself in front of which Thomas prayed is believed to have made its way to Immaculate Conception Parish in Lapeer, where a shrine to the saint and relic exist today.
Terre said a few years after her father landed his radio job in Detroit, a fellow announcer relocated to Chicago to build up his career — and encouraged Danny to do the same.
“Daddy said this could be another move on St. Jude’s part,” said Terre.
So he went to Chicago, officially taking on the name Danny Thomas so his relatives wouldn’t know he had gone back to performing in nightclubs.
Rose Marie stayed home in Michigan with Marlo, cleaning boarding rooms to keep things going while her husband made his way.
Danny obtained a new job at the 5100 Club, and his wife and daughter joined him in Chicago as his career flourished. The owners asked if he would like to stay on permanently and become a part-owner.
Wondering whether he should take the leap and go for it, Danny went off to church, this time finding himself at a St. Clement’s in Chicago.
“He said to St. Jude, ‘Show me my way in life and I will build you a shrine,’” said Terre.
Looking around the church, Danny was amazed to see a large statue of St. Jude. He also found a pamphlet in the church indicating that Chicago is the home of the National Shrine of St. Jude, and said to the saint, “You brought me to your home town,” Terre remembered learning.
While Danny was still questioning his life’s direction, Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris Agency happened upon Danny’s performance at the 5100 Club and asked if he could help build up the entertainer’s career.
Danny said yes to the man who later became known as “Uncle Abe” to the Thomas kids — a third child, Tony, was born after Terre — and he went on to become a successful entertainer, actor and producer, best known for his starring role in the TV sitcom “Make Room for Daddy.”
Danny did not forget his promise to build a shrine to St. Jude to express his thanksgiving, and the idea of a shrine developed into a children’s hospital.
Terre said her father’s longtime wish was to create a children’s hospital in the South, particularly due to a tragic news story he had read and carried around in his pocket.
“He had read about a little black boy in Mississippi who bled to death,” said Terre, explaining that a white man had accidentally hit the child with his car, and was turned down by three different hospitals when trying to get help for the boy.
His dream was to create a hospital that would not discriminate against race or religion, Terre explained. The idea also developed to provide services for children suffering from catastrophic diseases, with any successful research to be shared with the international medical community.
Danny worked with many friends, including the Arab-American population — he was the son of Lebanese immigrants — as well as Cardinal Samuel Stritch of Toledo, for whom Danny had served at the altar as a boy.
Cardinal Stritch told Danny that he had friends in Memphis, Tenn., and was willing to help establish a hospital there.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened in 1962, complete with a large statue of the saint. The American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), which Danny also helped create, continues to maintain the hospital.
But perhaps it wasn’t just St. Jude who made it all possible; Terre recalled a story her father told about the influence of another saint as the hospital’s foundation was established.
“Once the cement was poured for cornerstone, one of the little nuns said ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I have a special devotion to St. Clement,’ and put his medal in the cement,” Terre chuckled, remembering that her father’s prayer in Chicago was, after all, said in a church named for St. Clement.
A promise that heals
Terre, who has been a member of the ALSAC/St. Jude boards of directors and governors since 1980, said St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital continues its commitment to three precepts, thanks to generous donors.
First, the hospital is open to anyone, regardless of race or religion. Second, no one is turned down for inability to pay; if the family has health insurance, they never receive the balance of the bill. Third, all research discovered by St. Jude’s is shared for free.
She said her father “believed so strongly in the Lord Jesus” and when asking the assistance of the saints, “he’d go to Jesus’ friends — that’s what he’d call them,” as well as to Christ’s mother.
He had a special devotion also to St. Anthony and St. Joseph, as well as St. Therese of Lisieux, Terre’s namesake. Terre said her father also had a small splinter of the True Cross in a reliquary, and would pray for long periods of time in his dressing room.
Terre said that as much as her father loved show business, he always felt it was just a “vehicle” to bring about the hospital, and “was very humble about it.”
“He was just the best role model I could have ever had,” said Terre.
Danny Thomas Golf Outing
The inaugural Danny Thomas St. Jude Celebrity Invitational golf outing to raise money for St. Jude’s life-saving mission will be June 29 at the Lakelands Golf and Country Club in Brighton. To learn more or to register, visit www.stjude.org/dannythomasgolf.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital quick facts
- Treatments invented at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since it opened 50 years ago.
- Because the majority of St. Jude funding comes from individual contributors, families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing and food.
- St. Jude freely shares the breakthroughs it makes, meaning doctors and scientists worldwide can use that knowledge to save more children.
- St. Jude has the world’s best survival rates for some of the most aggressive forms of childhood cancers.
- St. Jude is the first and only pediatric cancer center designated as a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute.
- St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states and from around the world.
- On average, 7,800 active patients visit the hospital each year, most of whom are treated on an outpatient basis.
- The daily operating cost for St. Jude is $2 million, which is primarily covered by individual contributors.
- To learn more, visit www.stjude.org or following “St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — Michigan/NW Ohio Connection” on Facebook.
Source: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital