In Search of Saint Martin de Porres (Part 1 of 3)

Posted on June 22, 2011 by

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by Beatrice M. Hogg

Father Hoppel addressed the congregation. “Dóminus vobíscum.”

I mouthed the strange words that were written in my Saint Joseph Sunday Missal. “Et cum spíritu tuo.”

I didn’t know Latin, but I knew the key words to look for in my little black book so I could follow the Mass. I had memorized all of the repeated responses. When Father said, “The Lord be with you,” I had to say, “And with your spirit.”

“Orémus.” Let us pray.

As Father recited the prayer, I stole glances around the church. I loved St. Elizabeth’s. The cool, walnut paneled walls were soothing to me. The matching wooden altar and the large carved crucifix were mysterious but familiar. They represented the power of Catholicism and Christianity, but they were fixtures I had gazed upon all of my life. I had spent so many hours in this church. It was God’s house. He was in the very grain of the wood, in the fibers of the wool carpet, in the scented air that I breathed. Stained glass windows represented the Stations of the Cross and reflected the flickering banks of votive candles that flanked the altar. The polished pews were smooth but sturdy, with red padding on the kneelers. Religion had started for me in this sacred place. I had been baptized here. When I was seven, I received my First Holy Communion. When I got older, I would be Confirmed here. Maybe someday I would get married in front of this same altar. This was my church, my spiritual home.

I looked at the other pews. The foundation of St. Elizabeth’s was its families. About half of Hills Station’s five hundred families were Catholic. In the front rows, the founding families of the church sat together in seats they had occupied for decades. No matter what happened during the week, the families came together for Sunday Mass. The immigrants who came to this part of western Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines made the church a part of their lives. Italian, Polish, Hungarian, and Slovak, they all worshipped together at the church named for St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

I envied their closeness, their traditions and their connection to the church. Even though it was my hometown church, I could not wholly claim it as my own. My black skin separated me from the other parishioners. I was the only black member of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.

I became a Catholic because of my mother’s childhood fantasies. Momma was raised by her grandparents in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her grandfather, Isaac Harper, was an A.M.E. minister. He had been a slave and had preached to his fellow slaves even though the slave master forbade it. Momma said he used to put his head in a barrel as he preached to muffle the sound. He was a courageous man, willing to risk his life to spread the word of God.

But Momma had always admired the Catholic Church. Her father, Taylor Williams, was half-white and Catholic. Even though Rev. Harper did not allow her to go inside of the local Catholic church, she admired what she saw of Catholicism— the grandeur, the opulence, and the ceremony. Maybe these were also traits of the father never got to know. Like Catholicism, she only knew him from afar and she never told me the reason she was not raised or accepted by his family. She vowed that if she ever became a mother, she would raise her child as a Catholic.

When I was adopted in 1957, Momma made sure that I received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as soon as possible. I didn’t start going to church until I was old enough to go to school, but Momma had a Catholic Bible and books on Catholicism. She told me what she knew about the religion. Dutifully, she made sure I had fish to eat on Fridays. Momma also taught me The Ten Commandments and prayers that she had learned as a girl, after checking with Father Hoppel to make sure they were not contradictory to Catholic teachings.

Neither Momma nor Daddy attended church regularly. There was no Methodist church in town and Momma was dependent on Daddy and neighbors to take her to Payne AME, which was eight miles away in Canonsburg. Like many men in town, Daddy did not attend church, not even on holidays. But he tolerated Momma’s religious indulgences and drove me to St. Elizabeth’s once a week.

I looked forward to Mass. The church was at the top of the hill in my hometown of Hills Station. When we got close to the church, I could see the white cross and white bell tower. The metallic sound of the bell signaled the beginning of the Mass. Once I got out of the car, I hurried inside so I could get a good seat. I liked to sit in the middle, behind the main church families and in front of the late arrivals.

If I arrived a little early, I could look around and watch the Mass preparations. The altar boys would light candles and help Father prepare the sacred vessels. I knew most of the altar boys, as they were my schoolmates. Most of the church families had several sons who were altar boys. I wished I could be an altar boy and wear a long red skirt and a long white billowy blouse. But girls could not be altar boys. I wanted to be a part of the Church, to do special things for God. But the only way that a woman could serve God in the Church was to become a nun.

At one time, I wanted to be a nun. One of the nuns at Sunday School had befriended me and gave me little gifts. She had given me my first Missal, a little white book with a white ribbon bookmark. I read a book about becoming a nun but I did not think I had what it took to be a Bride of Christ. Were there black nuns? I had never seen one. The nuns at Sunday School were nearly as pale as their collars. Besides praying, teaching and doing good works, what did nuns do? Could they watch television and listen to music? I was too materialistic to take a vow of poverty. I liked to go shopping and buy lots of toys. I liked to get presents. Did nuns have birthday parties?

I also did not think that I was good enough to become a nun. I’m sure that I probably sinned more than the average nun. Once a week, Momma would go walk with me when I went to confession. She would put one of her lacy white handkerchiefs on my head if I forgot to bring a hat or my mantilla. She’d wait outside the door while I confessed my sins to Father Hoppel. I always tried to whisper, because I knew Momma was near the confessional listening as I mentioned my bad deeds of the past week. From the amount of Hail Marys that I had to repeat each week, I knew I would never be holy enough to become a Sister. I was always talking back to my parents instead of honoring them, coveting the toys and clothes of my neighbors, and fighting with my cousin Darrell, who lived down the street

I opened my Sunday Missal. On page 5, it advised, “As a true Catholic you must love the Mass, and that means that you must understand it and make it part of your life. You can love things only when they are in some way yours, things into which you have put a part of yourself. You can love the Mass only insofar as you pray it in such close union with the priest that it becomes your Mass.” Did I love the Mass? I loved the sound of Latin, an ancient language that I only heard in Church. From was the beginning of the Mass to the Last Blessing, I knew what to expect during that hour each Sunday morning. Mass was a part of my life.

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