39. IN THE BEGINNING I WAS CATHOLIC

I was born Roman Catholic. My mother is full blooded Italian. My father is Heinz 57—a blend of English, Irish, Welsh, and maybe a little African because us girls got our bottoms from somewhere more exotic. And there is that old photo of my great-great-great grandparents with seven or eight children and one is black. Who knows?

So we were Catholic. Well, all except Dad. He wasn’t anything of the religious persuasion. Dad believes in what is right in front of him. Not a spiritual person, but his doubt allowed me at least to be open to other possibilities. He wonders why I am so different than my sisters. I believe it was a combination of my mother’s faith and his doubt.

Mom and Dad eloped in March of 1960. She thought she was pregnant with me. She wasn’t. I came the next year. She feels she cheated herself out of a big Italian wedding, but she did get Dad to the local priest. And he took lessons so they could be married in the church. By that time she WAS pregnant with me—very, very pregnant. She tells the story that the priest liked to imbibe and in his drunken state whispered to Dad that he didn’t have to go through with this to which Mom exclaimed, “Father, I’m the Catholic!”

Philadelphia, 1961

So we were all duly christened. I still have my tiny christening gown. And I went to catechism. I loved school, so the classes were nice enough. The church was very pretty. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A lovely statue of the Virgin Mary all dressed in light blue graced the church. She was very pretty and her baby—Jesus—was very sweet. I loved dressing up in my frilly frocks, hats and gloves and on special holidays, I had a little purse. And every mass, we would get up and down and up and down while the priest chanted in Latin, and then there would be a special moment when all the adults and the big kids got up and reverently made their way to the front of the church and then the priest would give them a cookie!

I really wanted to be part of the church. And you had to learn about being Catholic in order to partake in holy communion. That’s what they called the cookie. I found out later it was a wafer-thin cracker that tasted like sour grape juice and stuck to roof of your mouth if you tried to talk which was why you had to be quiet.

The nuns were very strict. And they didn’t like me asking questions.

“Why do I need to be bad in order to talk to the priest?” I was having trouble figuring out what I was going to confess.
“Why does the priest have to talk to God for me?” I talked to God directly and He talked to me. And the one they called His Son, well, he was my playmate.

But in order to partake in your first communion, you had to go to confession, which meant you had to tell the priest something you did wrong. I wracked my little brain for something. Then right before my first confession, I did it. I was bad. I gave my little sister less than half of the cookie I had saved from Brownies. I did it on purpose which is a greater sin, but I had to tell that priest something!

Finally, I got to receive holy communion. And Mommy was so happy and my grandparents made such a fuss. And then I don’t remember going to church too often after that. Just Easter and Christmas.

It was because of Dad. He didn’t like us to be away so long every Sunday. That was his day with us and he wasn’t going to share us with God. By the time, we were teenagers, he wasn’t so possessive as long as church didn’t interfere with dinner and especially Monday night football. Which was a bit of a problem for us as Mormons because Monday night is Family Home Evening and it’s hard to have lessons with the TV blaring. It was harder on us to be Mormon than Catholic. It’s not just because Catholics understand football. It’s because Mormons feel sorry for a family without the priesthood in the house. And Dad wasn’t joining!

Mom was a joiner. She loved community in any form and the Catholic Church provided community for its parishioners. And when we could no longer go to mass easily (we moved even farther from church when I was in sixth grade) the Mormon church provided the community she desired. Plus she wasn’t letting her daughters alone with those darn missionaries—law of chastity or not!

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