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Gone to Frozen Ashes

The Old Church

Isn't this a beautiful old church? Go take a look, and read the caption. I'll wait.

Even though I don't attend Mass anymore and don't even consider myself Catholic, I still think of this little church as my church.

Down the hill from the church is a little street, and across the street are two old houses. My mom grew up in one of them; my dad grew up in the other. Yes, Mom and Pop first met when she was 8 and he was 11. Mom says she knew right then that she was going to marry him.

All of us were baptized in that church. Inside, it's lovely: two banks of pews with a center aisle, a simple altar set in an alcove (it worked out nicely when Vatican II changed the orientation of the altar to facing the congregation), two statues on either side of the alcove. The stained glass windows are immensely beautiful.

When I was in fourth grade, the parish built a new church, a much larger, modern structure adjacent to the elementary school to accommodate the increase in parishoners. A new convent for the school's nuns and a new rectory for the parish priests were also built. The old rectory remained; I can't remember what it was used for after the priests moved to the new one. (Note to self: Ask Mom.) The Masses at the old church were reduced to two: 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. We continued to go to the old church -- why drive two miles when you could walk up the hill?

I went to Mass there almost every single Sunday of my childhood, 10 o'clock in the morning, where we sat in one of front pews on the left side. Pop was one of the ushers. When he collected the offering, he'd always bonk us kids on the head with the long-handled basket. And we weren't the only kids he'd bonk -- any little kid was fair game. No one seemed to mind; everyone pretty much knew everyone else, so a little gentle kidhead bonking was more of a joke than anything else. Not only did he play jokes on the kids, he'd shake the basket in front of his pals, as if to ask for more dough. At the end of Mass, when the priest intoned "The Mass is ended; go in peace", my Pop always said, "Thank God!" instead of the prescribed "Thanks be to God" -- another of his jokes.

When I was a teenager, I got to play the organ for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, mostly because Father Kennedy was a friend of my folks. Father Kennedy always said that early Mass, and he was famous for getting it done in 20 minutes flat: one brisk collection, no sermon (just announcements), and the fastest Communion in Christendom. Of course, it helped that only 15 or 20 people ever attended that Mass. I'd slip up the hill about ten of, climb into the creaky choir loft, and play simple hymns before Mass started, at Communion (using lots of tremolo and reed stops), and the recessional, where I'd literally pull out all the stops and play at full volume. It's a wonder those beautiful windows didn't shatter. By the time I finished playing the hymn, the church had been empty for five minutes and Father Kennedy was itching to lock the door.

When I got engaged, I knew I wanted to be married in that old church. My mom had to get a little forceful with the pastor, reminding him that she had been a member of the parish for over 50 years and contributed much money to the coffers. The pastor, knowing when to cut his losses, simply said, "Would 10 o'clock in the morning be acceptable?"

Ten o'clock. Oh yes. At least it wasn't seven.