With The Clothes on Their Back


My first exposure to Catholicism was through my aunt Thelma. My uncle Joe was Catholic also, but the image of Catholicism, for me, at an early age, was Aunt Thelma. I still have very clear images of her in the pews at St Mary of the Assumption. She was silent, attentive. My mother said she was devout. It was the first time I’d heard the word but it was an accurate one.

It was through my mother and aunt that I first encountered Ecumenism.  They were twin daughters of a Lutheran pastor. My mother stayed the course and was to remain a Lutheran her entire life. My aunt met my Uncle Joe and fell in love. He was Catholic. She converted for love. She continued as a Catholic her entire life, too. She continued because of the quality of devotion that my mother credited her with. She continued for love of her Lord.

The twins found it difficult sometimes, balancing their two faiths. There was a tension which they made every effort to avoid. But, they were successful. They managed their personal ecumenism well and religion never came between them. Each knew when to back off when things got awkward. I slept at my cousins’ house often but Aunt Thelma would never bring me to Mass without my mother’s permission.

Years later, the neighborhood surrounding St Mary of the Assumption was the spot where Mexican immigrants would come to live. The neighborhood had become pretty rundown. Most of the stores had closed and there was a great deal of illegal activity.  With the influx of immigrants, the previously distressed streets came alive. New stores opened. They were adorned with Mexican flags and their signs were bright green and red. A neighborhood that had been left for dead was alive again. Port Richmond Avenue was the site of a cultural and economic resurrection.

In my neighborhood, a mile or so away, the building on the corner of my street was rented to families from Ecuador and Mexico. Most summer nights they barbecued in the parking lot. The parents were right out there with their children, playing kickball and soccer. The older boys played three on three half-court basketball under a backboard made of plywood. Walking my dog past there was a delight. In some way, this scene reminded me of my own small town childhood. It made me feel good.  I learned a bit of rudimentary Spanish and we all became friends. We ate together. We visited each other’s homes. I held a small Bible study for Spanish speakers in my home. It was, in a way, cultural ecumenism. But, it was ecumenism without the tension.

I was invited to attend the confirmation of one of the boys. It was, of course, held at St. Mary’s. The church now had a vibrant congregation of Spanish speakers. Some were documented. Most were not. I sat with the family in the pew and marveled at the beauty of the ceremony. I understood only a few words but I was impressed. Later that night, we went back to my friend’s house and celebrated with cake and a delicious traditional fish stew from Ecuador. It was served during Holy Week and had ingredients to represent the twelve apostles.

When I began to be attracted to the Catholic Church, I viewed a video presentation by Father Robert Barron, He told a little humorous story about a wealthy man converting to Catholicism. The man’s mother told him she could adjust to the doctrinal differences but it would be hard to see him worshiping with the “help.” The “big tent” aspect of the religion was something on display that confirmation night and it was something I found attractive.

My parish now is fully inside that neighborhood. Due to budget cuts another parish merged with ours. It was, of course, St. Mary of the Assumption. The merged parishes now added to our congregation three hundred or more undocumented people, drawn to worship Christ together with us. It was a clear example of the Church welcoming all. I’ve gone to a few Spanish language masses there so that I could feel unity with both congregations. And, as I looked around, I wondered, without the Catholic Church, where the marginalized would worship? Who would be there to pray with them? How would they receive communion? Who would visit them in the hospital? Who would bury their dead?

Of course, it is the Church that will do those things. It would be the Catholic Church which dedicates herself to the marginalized. She has done that throughout history.  From the early Catholics who became known for caring for the sick and providing proper burial for the dead, to Dorothy Day, to Mother Teresa, the Church has extended open arms to the poor.

And, looking around the congregation, I see the pull that my aunt felt.  I smile to know I am in her lineal parish and I’m pleased to realize I am again attending Mass with my dear late aunt once more.



From The West Wing:

With the clothes on their backs, they came through a storm. And those that didn’t die want a better life. And they want it here.

(President Jeb Bartlett)




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