Nov. 13, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“Count up your sins on your fingers. Don’t waste the priest’s time,” Sister Gervais chided us.
Decked out in a black habit with readily accessible tissues tucked in her sleeves, the older Franciscan nun faced our collection of rambunctious second graders. She was charged with molding us into angelic, camera-ready members of St. Joseph’s First Holy Communion Class of 1972.
My sisters and I were raised to never question a direction from a nun or a priest. Clergy were one step removed from God the Almighty.
As a 7-year-old, I struggled to identify enough sins. After “hitting my sisters” and “disobeying my parents,” I was at a loss. Feeling the priest would expect more — I did have 10 fingers, after all — I resorted to making up sins. “Thinking bad thoughts” and “telling a lie” rounded out my menu of misdeeds.
Sister Gervais assured us that after entering the darkness of the confessional and admitting our failings, Father Paul — with God’s help — would absolve us. She promised anonymity: Father wouldn’t recognize our disembodied voices speaking through an opaque screen. She insisted Father — through God’s intervention — magically forgot our sins once absolution was granted.
My misinterpretation of Sister Gervais’ directions actually led to my lying to the priest. I guess it counted as a white lie; I was trying to do as I was told. It certainly wasn’t a mortal sin, the kind that led to eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. If it was a venial sin, I reasoned, I might simply earn a few days in Purgatory for soul cleansing.
I recited my sins, accepted penance — in the form of an Act of Contrition, three Hail Marys and an Our Father. I dispatched to a pew, knelt down, folded my small hands in earnest prayer and experienced heartfelt transformation.
“Your hearts have to be clean,” Sister Gervais cautioned.
Only then were we ready to receive the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ we learned about in our Baltimore Catechism.
Growing up in an ethnic Catholic parish, one celebrating the rituals my parents experienced in Poland, provided a haven in a culture dominated by decidedly “American” influences. We attended Midnight Mass at Christmas and were taught the folk songs and dances of our ancestry in the parish hall. Church ladies spent countless hours in the basement kitchen rolling dough for “pierogies” (Polish dumplings) to raise money for college scholarships and the local food shelf.
Our church family provided an apt substitute for my numerous aunts, uncles and cousins living in Poland. I knew to behave in the pews, on the playground and at the mall. If I didn’t, Mrs. Dzielnik, Mrs. Gajewski or Mrs. Wojtowicz just might call my mother to report me. I felt warmly embraced by a community who could pronounce my “ethnic” last name with ease while setting high expectations for what I was able to achieve.
My parents were heavily involved in volunteering at St. Joseph’s. Mom spent countless hours rolling pierogies, planning Christmas bazaars and serving on the PTA. She rose to leadership roles in the Ladies’ Guild and Holy Rosary societies. Dad, a member of the Holy Name Society, served as an usher at Sunday Mass and lent his bartending skills to the annual parish picnic.
My sisters and I volunteered at church, helping Sister Alfreda clean in preparation for weekend masses. Sister Alfreda, with chestnut hair peeking out from her black veil, was jovial and spirited. She let us take home expired Missalettes — for the hymns — and plied us with treats — cookies and potato chips — when our work was done.
“If girls could be altar boys,” Sister Alfreda mused, “the Bielawa girls would be first in line.”
It was the 1970s, after all.
Dusting smooth wooden pews or the statue of St. Joseph, I’d sometimes find a quarter or dime glinting on the green carpet. Feeling God’s eyes upon me, I’d carry the loose change to Sister Alfreda, who invariably suggested I drop the shiny silver pieces into a receptacle marked “For the Poor.”
Filling Holy Water fonts, posted near entrances, seemed an especially “holy” task. Entering the priest’s sacristy, I’d approach a silver receptacle crowned with a Christian cross and gently release the spigot, filling a glass cruet. I’d then walk around the sanctuary distributing the holy elixir which, to me, held mystical qualities. I even sampled it on my tongue once, but only once.
Over time, the neighborhood changed. Our beloved school closed at the end of my fifth grade year. Many of the kids who’d grown up in the parish, myself included, went to college and settled elsewhere. The church closed in 1997, part of a sweep of closures affecting largely “ethnic” Roman Catholic churches in the Boston area. The padlocking of the church was devastating.
I carry sweet memories from St. Joseph’s. I remain deeply indebted to my parents for raising me in a faith community. I am not one to say, “I survived Catholic school.” The nuns and priests I befriended were kind and sometimes quirky, but never abusive.
Even though my spiritual journey has brought me to a new home, it’s one that renews and affirms the value of being part of a community of believers who — like those women making pierogies in the church basement — strive in small ways to make our world kinder, gentler and more caring.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com.