Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scenes from Silver Creek: A Tale of Two Churches

My family was a two-church household. Mom (four-time President of St. Edith’s Women’s Club) is a die-hard Episcopal. Dad (Monday night Bingo caller for six years) was an equally die-hard Catholic. When they had kids they made a rule, they would alternate children, each parent claiming children to raise in their faith. My eldest sister, Kathleen was raised in mom’s church. My eldest brother, Ronnie went with dad. Diane came next and was claimed by mom. Peter went with dad. Then came me.

That was their big mistake; they had an odd number of children. The supreme and eternal question of my soul was decided on a coin flip. Dad won. I lost. My other sisters seem far better adjusted than I, having been raised on a diet of God lite and good will. I, however, had “Christ died for YOUR sins” ingrained in me from such an early age that to this day I feel guilty for everything from telling a little white lie to the oppression of slavery.

Every Sunday the other females in the family would turn left at the drive and walk down a tree-shaded street towards St. Edith’s. I, in a symbolism too hilarious to be ignored, would turn left with the men in my family and walk past Spender’s Mortuary, the Dead End Bar and Grill, and the sign for the city dump on our way towards the frigid bulk of Our Lady of Angels.

Where St. Edith’s was light, bright, and cozy with padded benches and happy hymns; OLA was dark, uncomfortable, and had two temperatures: cold and freezing. And it was filled with rows of hard wooden benches guaranteed to numb any butt within 10 minutes. No matter how often the church ladies changed the roses and carnations the place always smelled of rotten flowers and the hideous realism of the Stations of the Cross I swear look like sketches I’ve seen done by prisoners at Auschwitz.

When I was growing up, the iron, Irish hand of Father Patrick Sheehy, ran OLA with all the benevolence of the IRS. He was a big, grouchy bear of a man. And if you’re waiting for me to add the expected “with a heart of gold” you won’t get it. He was cranky, judgmental, cold, and absolutely the worst person to instill the warmth of God’s love in heart of a shy child. He was also, quite inconveniently, deaf as a stump. This affliction made confession a veritable cavalcade of embarrassment as, by the end, you were basically screaming out all your petty sins for the entire congregation to hear. It’s how Mr. Hopgood found out about Mrs. Hopgood’s tryst with his brother, and how my brothers found out it was I who told our parents about their flirtation with cigarettes.

Father Sheehy’s one concession to seeming human was the fact that he kept birds. He conscripted the boys club and had them build a huge aviary out behind the rectory and there he could often be found surrounded by his beloved finches, parakeets, and doves. Later on he badgered some of the fathers to build separate area where he could care for wounded pigeons and other wild birds. He even had a parrot for a few years, a large taxidermied-looking creature that dropped feathers out of its tail on a regular basis and yet never seemed to run out of them. This horrid creature made a noise like the unholy dead whenever anyone but Father Sheehy got too close and it was widely rumored that noise was responsible for Mrs. Luckweather’s final heart attack.

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