Tuesday, July 20, 2004

St. Egbert, Part 2

St. Egbert, Part 1
I followed Father Gallagher up the center aisle of the church and into his office, located behind some heavy curtains to the right of the altar.  The room was suprisingly large, with tall windows that overlooked the recreation field that lay between the church and the adjoining school.
Father Gallagher indicated a row of wooden chairs arranged in front of his desk.
'Jutht take any chair, Joey.'
He moved to the window and rapped on it.  Outside, I could see Sister Dominica gather up a small group of boys and herd them towards the church.  A minute later, they all joined us inside.  
Sister Dominica was one of the three nuns assigned to St.Egbert.  She, Sister Angelina and Sister Teresina were all from Argentina.  Much like the Baptists send missionaries to the wilds of Africa, the Argentine Catholic Church sent nuns to the heathen wilds of rural North Carolina. 
Of course, to ME , this was perfectly ordinary.  In my world, ALL nuns were from Argentina, spoke almost indecipherable English and had faint, but perceptible mustaches. 
I adored the nuns, as did all of the kids.  Sister Angelina was my favorite, anytime she saw me I got a huge hug and a tussle of my hair.  Sister Teresina, a stern disciplinarian, was the most remote of the three. 
During Sunday school we never suffered the legendary crack of a nun's ruler on our knuckles. No, at St. Egbert,  the unflappable Sister Teresina dealt with inattentive students by applying a quick but painful twist of the earlobe.  Punishment seemed to fall disproportionately on us younger kids.  Sunday school was taught in one large, all-ages class.  The younger kids, who weren't even reading yet, were even more easily bored and distracted than the older ones were.  And that's saying something.
Sister Dominica was the head nun, and as such was in charge of important ceremonies, as I was about to learn.
She and Father Gallagher conferred in a corner of the room while the other boys tooks their seats next to me. They were all about my age and I had seen them around St. Egbert, but I didn't really know them.  The five of us sat there and sized each other up until Father Gallagher and Sister Dominica were ready.

Father Gallagher came around and sat on the front of his desk, his legs dangling.  I'd never seen him behave so informally. Sister Dominica stood next to him.

'Boyth,  you are about enter a new and wonderouth thtage in your relationthip with God,'  Father Gallagher intoned.

The other boys and I shared a look of puzzlement.

Father Gallagher continued, 'Thithter Dominica is going to thpend the next thix weekth teaching you the thacrements of the Holy Church.'

Sister Dominica stepped closer to us.

'Beginning next week you will be attending Communion class every Wednesday evening.  Your parents will have you here by 6PM.  Your parents will take you home at 8PM.  This you will do for six weeks,'  she commanded.

It didn't seem like we had any say in the matter.  I wondered if my mom already knew about this.  Then Sister Dominica smiled as if she were about reveal an exciting secret.

'And on Easter Sunday, the holiest of days, before the entire parish, you will taste the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.' 

What? GROSS!  The other boys and I exchanged worried looks. 

'But first you will learn about another holy sacrament, confessing your sins to God.  This you will learn beginning next week. I will see you all again on Wednesday.'

Sister Dominica swept out of the room, leaving a whiff of lilac in her wake. The other boys got up and trailed after her.  I was following them when Father Gallagher caught me at the door.

'Wait a minute, Joey,' he said, closing the door.

'There'th one thpecial thing I have here that ith jutht for you,'  he said, reaching into the folds of his robe.

-To Be Continued-



Thursday, July 15, 2004

St. Egbert

I was born a Catholic.

I almost used the usual expression 'born and raised', but decided that wasn't quite true. When I was a child, we never discussed God or religion, not at home anyway. There was no cross on our wall, no plaster Virgin Mary statue, no creepy Jesus picture with eyes that seemed to follow you. I never knelt at bedtime to say prayers, and we never said 'grace' at dinner.

No, in our home, our religion was for 'show.' We HAD to go to church, because otherwise, what would the neighbors say? I HAD to go to Sunday school, because otherwise, what would the church members say?

My birth certificate identifies me as Catholic.

Place of birth: Cherry Point, USMC Division Hospital.
Live birth Y/N: Yes.
Sex M/F: Male.
Name: Joseph William XXXXXXXXX
Religion: Catholic.
Parents married Y/N: Yes.
Mother Name/Age: Dorothy, 19.
Father Name/Age: William, 22.
Occupation Of Father: USMC, active duty.
Rank Of Father (If active duty): Lance Corporal.
Mother tested for syphilis Y/N: yes. Result: negative.

It probably says a lot about North Carolina (back then, at least) that they wanted to know the occupation of my father, but they only wanted to know whether my mother had been tested for syphilis.

So I came home from the base hospital as a 'Catholic'. Not surprisingly, rural coastal North Carolina was not littered with Catholic churches. Not back then, and I'm pretty sure, not right now.

After the Korean War, the three Marine bases clustered on the North Carolina coast (Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, New River) dramatically increased in size and population as the new dynamics of modern warfare made the Marine Corp an increasingly vital and visible component of the U.S. military. By the time Vietnam came into the picture, the Marines were already a much larger entity and still growing.

Then, as now, the make-up of the armed forces, particularly the enlisted, tended to be the underclass. Then, as now, the underclass was much more Catholic than the general population. These new Marines...Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican (and others) flooded the area around the three bases. The Diocese of North Carolina, based hundreds of miles away in Raleigh, was caught unprepared to serve this surge of Catholics to the area.

For us, the closest Catholic church was St.Egbert, 25 miles away in Morehead City. Twenty-five miles of narrow country roads, with railroad crossings, 4-way stops, crawling farm equipment and the occasional herd of livestock to further slow your journey.

At yet we went, each Sunday. The Marine families would always arrive in waves, in long caravans of families following each other through the unfamiliar roads from their respective bases. My father always got us there early, so that we'd get 'good seats,' as the new wave of worshippers filled tiny St.Egbert to overflowing. My mother would spend this time gossiping in the parking lot with the other Marine wives, before Father Gallagher appeared on the steps and rang his bell to signal the start of Mass.

Father Gallagher had a peculiar manner of arm gestures when he spoke, waving his hands slowly and rhythmically, as if he were leading a symphony through a languid composition by Brahms. During the Mass, when he was speaking Latin, his head would tilt back and his eyes would seem to roll back in his head, never failing to elicit tittering from children.

And then there was his voice. Father Gallagher had a lisp. A very bad lisp. To me, he sounded exactly like the Looney Tunes character Sylvester The Cat, complete with uncontrolled spitting. We learned very quickly not to stand too close to Father Gallagher.

My dad did a pretty good impression of Father Gallagher, which he'd launch into whenever he was drunk and around other Marines. Only in my dad's hands, Father Gallagher's lisp was less Sylvester The Cat, and more Truman Capote. Dad would mince in a circle, waving his arms like Father Gallagher, but adding limp wrists.

Then he'd speak: 'In the name of the Father, the Thun, and the Holy Thpirit...God bleth you all.'

Sometimes after that, he'd point at a Marine and add, with a salacious wink, 'But ETHPETHIALLY bleth YOU, big boy!'

Everyone thought my dad's act was hilarious, including me, although I didn't understand the subtext of his mocking impression for many years.

My dad's attendance at St.Egbert declined over the years. By the time I was ready to start elementary school, he was only going on the 'big' days, Easter and Christmas. My sister and I would always use that when we complained about going ourselves.

'But DADDY isn't going!'

It never worked. We always had to go. In retrospect I realize that my mother's only real social contacts outside of our trailer park, were at St.Egbert.

One Sunday afternoon, about the time I was approaching my sixth birthday, I was sitting outside the confessional booth at St.Egbert. I was waiting for my mother, who was upstairs in the office, helping count the collection taken during Mass. A hand fell on my shoulder. It was Father Gallagher.

'Hello there, Joey! Did you enjoy the thervith today?'

What was I going to say..'No Father, you bored me shitless once again'?

Instead I just nodded. Father Gallagher looked around the empty pews.

'Ith your mother thtill upthtairs?'


'How old are you now, Joey?'

'Six and a half,' I answered. 

'I thought tho,' Father Gallagher answered, casting another look around the empty church.

He put his hand on my shoulder again.

'Why don't you come with me into my offith. There'th thomething I want to thow you.'

-To Be Continued-

Monday, July 05, 2004

Leather Limericks

Top9 planned it all in advance
This time he'd leave nothing to chance
He packed blindfolds, handcuffs and rope
But he should have packed soap
His trick, you see, was from France


Two tall hairy cops from New York
Went to meet a hot piggy at Pork
Much to their distress
He walked in, in a dress
Just like that swan thing on Bjork


Two 'Sirs' at the bar talked of whether
They should tie the knot wearing leather
Would they wear matching caps?
Could the priest be in chaps?
Should they lead their boy in on a tether?