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The Last Dance  

by Madonna Dries Christensen

Eighty years ago, my cousins made religious history—it being the first time five members of one family entered a convent together. Time magazine published this item under Religious News, February 7, 1938:

            Before a Roman Catholic woman gets her to a nunnery, she must take counsel with the superior of the convent she has chosen. If she appears to have a true vocation, she is admitted to the sisterhood as a postulant, to undergo at least three months of religious life before being professed as a novice. Last week in San Antonio, Tex., when five postulants entered the convent of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament—a teaching order which has labored ably in the U. S. since 1853—they made news because: 1) they were a mother and four daughters; 2) the four daughters had for eight years been members of an itinerant jazz orchestra called Jerry McRae’s Texas Rangerettes.

            Mrs. Mary Jones, a widow, and daughters Gladys, Hazel, Dorothy, and Evelyn, had long been ardent Catholics. Mother Joseph of the San Antonio convent confirmed that they had been admitted. At week’s end they were still postulants. Miss Jerry McRae, maestra of the Rangerettes, declared she would welcome back Gladys, Hazel, Dorothy, and Evelyn Jones if ever they changed their minds.

            They didn’t change their minds; they happily remained nuns, teaching music in San Antonio’s diocese schools. In the Foreword of Swinging Sisters, my book about this family, I stated that I’d fictionalized Jerry McRae and Willeen Gray, another Rangerette, because I knew nothing about them (only that Willeen had joined the same convent but later left).

            As serendipity would have it, I later came upon an Internet article by a woman who had read Swinging Sisters. She wrote: “Well, I know what happened to Jerry—and her violins and guitar—instruments that echoed through concert halls and road houses in the 1930s and ‘40s. The band was even written up in Variety and Billboard.” She revealed that her mother-in-law’s aunt had been a Rangerette, another group formed after the Joneses and Willeen abdicated.   

            World War II brought gas rationing and rubber tire shortages, leaving the Rangerettes stranded on the road they’d once traveled, performing in every state across the country and Hawaii. I recently acquired an article from the November 1942 edition of the San Antonio Light, including a photo captioned: Jerry McRae Gives Up All-Girl Band To Work In A Filling Station.

            Jerry suggested that women must face the music as well as play it. She had turned down musical offers and became a “Rosie the Riveter,” a collective term for women who donned slacks and secured their hair in snoods and became the dominant workforce. Wearing a service station uniform and western boots, Jerry pumped gas, washed windshields, scraped bugs off the front grille, fixed tires, and did lube jobs. In her off hours, she was an Air Raid Warden.

            Jerry said, “There must be jobs waiting for soldiers after they’ve won these scraps, and women have to keep things going so they’ll be there. Why don’t we all show what we can do without wasting any more time?” Soon, several major service stations hired women attendants.  

            Later, Jerry operated a dog grooming business on a small Texas farm. She admitted that she didn’t expect to ever have another orchestra like the original Texas Rangerettes; that the years of traveling with the Jones sisters could not be matched.

            The popular band had long since played its last dance.   

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