Their St. Charles home held the history of lesbian couple featured in Netflix doc

  • Elizabeth and Adam Suwanski show of relics of Terry Donahue, a former professional baseball player who once lived with her longtime partner, Pat Henschel, in their historic St. Charles house. The lesbian couple is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, "A Secret Love."

    Elizabeth and Adam Suwanski show of relics of Terry Donahue, a former professional baseball player who once lived with her longtime partner, Pat Henschel, in their historic St. Charles house. The lesbian couple is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, "A Secret Love." Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/8/2020 6:15 AM

The night her family moved into their historic St. Charles home last summer, Elizabeth Suwanski sauntered into the dining room to admire a display case of memorabilia from its original owners.

The glass box came with the house, full of memories from another century, another lifetime. It was a 1910 time capsule of sorts, the contents of which were found hidden in the walls just a few years earlier by neighbors who bought and rehabbed the property.

 
Elizabeth Suwanski found an autographed Terry Donahue baseball card after learning that she previously lived in her St. Charles house.
Elizabeth Suwanski found an autographed Terry Donahue baseball card after learning that she previously lived in her St. Charles house. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

But as Suwanski studied the relics, she noticed one didn't quite fit with the rest: a 1948 baseball card of Terry Donahue, catcher and utility infielder for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Donahue, a neighbor later explained, had lived for decades in that very house on Third Avenue with her longtime partner, Pat Henschel. The pair kept their lesbian relationship hidden for more than 60 years, presenting themselves as close friends and roommates before coming out to their families in their 80s.

Their love story is now the subject of a Netflix documentary, "A Secret Love," woven together with snapshots of Donahue's baseball career, the couple's work at an interior design firm and the LGBTQ community in Chicago in the 1950s.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Terry Donahue, right, and her longtime partner, Pat Henschel, lived for decades in a historic St. Charles house. After neighbors bought and refurbished it, they returned for a visit.
Terry Donahue, right, and her longtime partner, Pat Henschel, lived for decades in a historic St. Charles house. After neighbors bought and refurbished it, they returned for a visit. - Courtesy of Pat Pretz

The house's former residents captivated Suwanski, who tracked down an autographed Donahue baseball card on eBay and placed it with the unsigned version inside the display case. Beside it, she added a set of the couple's old keys with a keychain labeled "P + T back door."

Suwanski wanted them to be remembered, their influence on women's sports and the LGBTQ movement to be commemorated, their lives to be forever intertwined with the rich history of the house.

'Very special people'

Sixteen years ago, shortly after moving with her husband to the St. Charles historic district, Pat Pretz introduced herself to one of her new neighbors across the street.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At first, Henschel was "a little bit cool" as she explained that she lived there with her cousin, Terry -- one of the fibs the couple often used when meeting someone new. But it wasn't long before Pretz realized there was more to their relationship than they let on.

Terry Donahue, left, and Pat Henschel lived for decades in a historic St. Charles house that had its original stained glass windows and crown molding.
Terry Donahue, left, and Pat Henschel lived for decades in a historic St. Charles house that had its original stained glass windows and crown molding. - Courtesy of Pat Pretz

"I think they had the thought that if we knew (they were gay), we may exclude them, and it was just the opposite," Pretz said. "We really cared for them and admired their long-standing relationship."

Henschel and Donahue turned out to be the "kindest neighbors," she said -- always proper and dressed to the nines, but also warm and humorous and thoughtful.

When Donahue learned that Pretz's granddaughter liked baseball, she gave the girl a signed baseball card and told stories about her time playing in the women's organization that inspired the 1992 film "A League of Their Own."

When they went on trips, they brought back bags full of rocks for a little boy who lived next door.

They were active, genuine and young at heart, able to talk to children as easily as they would someone their own age.

Pat Henschel, left, and Terry Donahue revisited their former home on Third Avenue in St. Charles after neighbors bought and refurbished it. The couple, now the subject of a new Netflix documentary, lived there for decades while keeping their lesbian relationship hidden into old age.
Pat Henschel, left, and Terry Donahue revisited their former home on Third Avenue in St. Charles after neighbors bought and refurbished it. The couple, now the subject of a new Netflix documentary, lived there for decades while keeping their lesbian relationship hidden into old age. - Courtesy of Pat Pretz

"They just had that type of personality," Pretz said. "They were very special people."

As they entered their twilight years, the couple faced a new set of triumphs and challenges: Donahue being named grand marshal in a St. Charles parade, moving to a nearby senior living community, getting married in a small ceremony in 2015.

When Donahue was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, Pretz said, "that just broke Pat's heart. She worried about her and wanted to do what was best for her. She always had that in mind."

The restoration

Donahue and Henschel loved everything about their 1898 Queen Anne home, with its original crown molding and copper doorknobs and colorful stained glass windows, neighbors recalled. But the pair eventually decided to put it up for sale about five years ago -- and they told Pretz to buy it.

The proposition intrigued Pretz, who consulted with her husband, Tom, and another neighborhood couple, Laura Rice and Pat Roche, all of whom have ties to community groups focused on preservation. The house, like many in the area, had been previously converted from a single-family residence into a two-flat. So they decided to restore it to its former state.

"It just oozes charm," Rice said. "It was such a pleasure to work on."

Bathrooms were renovated. Doorways were taken down to let in more natural light. An oak staircase and coal-burning fireplace were preserved. Layers of linoleum were removed, unveiling original maple floors.

Elizabeth Suwanski of St. Charles looks through a display case full of artifacts from her home's original owners in 1910, as well as a few pieces of memorabilia from Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel.
Elizabeth Suwanski of St. Charles looks through a display case full of artifacts from her home's original owners in 1910, as well as a few pieces of memorabilia from Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

And then, while updating the kitchen, the team unearthed a treasure trove within the walls: a Bible, a story book, glasses, toys, a bow tie, a 1910 calendar, a young girl's notebook filled with schoolwork and more, all traced back to the first family who lived there.

Those artifacts assisted in securing a historic landmark designation for the residence, now dubbed the Locke-Marchialette House.

"It's what you dream about when you rehab a house, finding treasure in the walls," Rice said. "And we did."

History and heritage

Elizabeth Suwanski and her husband, Adam, fell in love with the house the moment they stepped inside and noticed its 9-foot ceilings, natural wood floors, the way the rooms flow.

Its unique history and "amazing character ... sent me over the top with excitement," she said.

The Suwanski family bought a historic St. Charles house last summer and have continued learning more about its previous owners over time. Adam and Elizabeth stand outside the Third Avenue home with their two children Joshua, 5, and Jack, 3.
The Suwanski family bought a historic St. Charles house last summer and have continued learning more about its previous owners over time. Adam and Elizabeth stand outside the Third Avenue home with their two children Joshua, 5, and Jack, 3. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

They purchased the home from another family who had lived there briefly once the renovation was complete. But not before Donahue and Henschel returned for a visit.

It's always a little nerve-wracking to invite former residents back to a renovated home, Pretz said. But Donahue and Henschel seemed impressed with not only the revitalized aesthetics but also the case of mementos that had unknowingly lived among them for so many years.

Pretz and Rice still hear from Henschel every so often, they say, though it's evident how much she misses Donahue, who died last year. To their former neighbors, the memory of the spry, zestful couple will always live on in the house they adored.

"I love that St. Charles is focused on the history and the heritage of the community," Pretz said. "That's the part that comes alive to us."

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.