When I was a little girl, I went to catechism every Saturday, and church on Sunday. People were either Catholic or non-Catholic; I didn’t know about Muslims or Jews or Baptists or Buddhist, or Atheists. I knew that Jesus was a Catholic, ’cause he told Peter to build the first church, and the first church was a Catholic church. I knew that Methodists were in the non-Catholic group, my friend Beth was a Methodist. The Methodists had the fish-fry on Friday nights.
Back then, Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on Friday. It was Church Law. If you were a hot-luncher, Friday was tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich day at school. There were no choices; if you were a hot-luncher, you had the Friday menu. Most of the time, I was a cold-luncher, so Friday meant peanut butter and jelly. But, if I was lucky, I got to work in the cafeteria for the week. Then I washed tables and scraped dishes into a big galvanized garbage can in exchange for hot-lunch. Left over soup and sandwich crusts, chocolate milk and white. What a stinky mess! Mr. Munsell took the garbage home to his pigs. Mr. Munsell was my best friend Connie’s dad. Connie was a Catholic, too.
The Methodist church had a Fish-Fry every Friday night. I wasn’t allowed to go inside other churches, but the fish fry was in the basement, so that was okay. My family didn’t go every Friday; a lot of times Dad had to work late, or somebody or another was sick, or we couldn’t afford it that week, so it was a big treat when I did get to go, ’cause we were eating Cream Tuna on Toast most Fridays. It seemed pretty much to me that the Methodists were just like the Catholics, only they were cooking the fish and we were eating it.
St. Joseph’s was a tiny parish. We had one priest who divided his time between St. Joseph’s and St. Augustine, a mission parish nearby. There was only one Mass on Sunday, and no nuns. We borrowed a couple of nuns from St. Mary’s every Saturday to teach catechism. Each family took a turn driving over to St. Mary’s and fetching the nuns. All the nuns names were Sister Mary Something-or-Other. They were strict and a bit scary, with their black and white habits made them seem mysterious. I tried to be on my best behavior, but to tell the truth, I usually crammed on the questions Saturday morning before catechism. The nuns did a lot of tsk-tsk-ing if I got the answers wrong. I was sure those starched head-pieces cutting into their faces made them frowny and mean. Maybe they could smile if some of the pressure was let up. The non-Catholics didn’t have catechism, they had Sunday school. They got a two-for-one deal on Sundays, so they got to stay home and watch cartoons on Saturday.
Back then, every female wore a hat to church. Another Church Law. The non-Catholics didn’t have any Church Laws, or at least none of my friends had to memorize any. Later on, when Jackie Kennedy lived in the White House, chapel hats came into vogue, then women and girls started just wearing a little doily-like thing on their heads. We couldn’t go into church with our whole head uncovered. If I forgot my hat, Mom bobby-pinned a handkerchief or a Kleenex to the top of my head. It was embarrassing to have my forgetfulness pinned up there for everyone to see, but it was better than missing Mass, which was another Church Law, I had to go to church on Sunday.
When I was a little girl, I wore a real hat. Mom took us out hat shopping before Easter. I wore the Easter hat all summer, and in winter I wore a hat mom knitted me, with a little pom-pom on the end of the strings that tied under my chin, or I wore a babushka. I had two favorite hats: summertime I had a white derby, with paper liliy-of-the-valley on the side; Mom pinned it to my hair using a giant hat pin with a pearl on the end. In the winter, if it wasn’t too cold, I wore a red wool beret also secured with a pearl-tipped hat pin. I thought that beret was the neatest; I looked like a beatnik, maybe like a TV star from The Dobie Gillis Show. My friend Annette’s big sister said I looked stupid in it, that only made me feel bad for a little while.
Families took turns cleaning the church on Saturday after catechism. Mom, Deanna, Bonita, Vickie, and I all helped out, always with hats on, of course. I dusted and swept and shined up the pews until they smelled like Johnson’s and Johnson’s., taking care to genuflect if I crossed the midway point in the church. I got to go up in the choir loft and dust and clean there, too. That’s where the big organ was, and where Mrs. Eastman led the choir singing in Latin during the High Masses. Even though we were just cleaning, we kept talking to a bare minimum. Our whispers seemed to mingle with the left-over musty smell of the incense, making everything seem on the verge of holiness. The non-Catholics didn’t genuflect, didn’t have any Latin, and my friend Eddie said they talked out-loud in church.
When summertime rolled around, families took turns tending the cemetary, too. Mom, Deanna, Bonita, Vickie and I trimmed and watered when it was our turn. The little kids came along, too, but they just played in the drive that wound through the cemetary. Mom told me I was not to walk on any graves. I had a hard time figuring out just where the graves were, but I was super-careful and took giant steps so if I missed, at least I didn’t step on too much of the grave. That was the same for non-Catholics, too, stepping on graves disturbed the souls’ rest. There were no Church Laws about the cemetary. Still and all, Mom’s word was as good as any Church Law to me, and although I knew Hell was eternal burning, Mom’s threat to ‘beat me to a pulp’ was in the here-and-now.
Mom and most of my brothers and sisters and their families still go to St. Joseph’s. St. Joseph’s is the mission church now. parishioners are too busy to clean the church or tend the cemetary where Dad now rests, so someone is hired to do those chores. Now everyone eats meat on Friday, except during Lent, and no one wears hats to church. St. Joseph’s doesn’t even have a priest to call their own anymore. The parish does have a nun, Sister Anne. She runs the place. She’s a real pip.