Saturday, February 5, 2011

From Abstract to Concrete

I called my mother at around 9:30 last night.
“Mom,” I said. “I’d like to write about Daddy.”
We talked for a half hour or so; I mostly listened.
“Do you know what your father said to me on our first date?” she snickers.
“Didn’t he say...”
“He said, ‘What does the mass mean to you?’”
Not knowing my father, you might think he was some sort of Jesus freak or something, but really, my father was a devout Catholic, a late-in-the-game convert who had a genuine faith in God that I still can’t fathom. 
To put it in context, my father grew up poor in an old Chicago neighborhood with his mother, brother, and older sister. For some reason, he was the only one of his siblings not to be baptized. Somehow, though, in the service he befriended a fellow draftee who would introduce him to the faith and become his godfather.
“Gosh, I can’t for the life of me remember his name,” my mother says a half hour into our chat. “He was such a good friend of Daddy’s.”
Though baptized in the service, my dad did not become a practicing catholic until he met a priest at St. Rose of Lima Church where he'd had a job designing bulletin covers that went out to several other Chicago parishes. It was in the kitchen of that church’s rectory that my father would meet Mary Lou Davis, his future wife, who just happened to be both the organist and music teacher at St. Rose. 
“It was because of your father that I became who I was,” my mother says. “His faith kept me involved in the church.”
A few minutes after I hang up the phone, my sister calls me to give me the name my mother couldn’t recall. 
“We knew it started with a G and had a ‘ski’ at the end,” she says all aquiver. “Mom thought you’d want to know.”
I did want to know the name, but here’s what I really want to know: I want to know how people back in the day had a faith like my father’s. I want to understand the kind of faith, or, in the very least, the connection to a church that drove my father’s sister and her husband to go to St. Rose’s when it was being demolished and to take home the concrete slab that bore the name of their church. My mother told me that Aunt Betty still has that concrete slab, and I don’t know why but I was surprised by it--the way a person can be so moved by the demolition of a church as to seek a remembrance of it. 
My father designed the stained glass windows of St. Richard’s Catholic Church, windows that some parishioners disdained for their abstract representations, the windows my evil first-grade teacher disliked so much they made her "look the other way.”
Hmmm. Where’s a concrete slab when you need one?

Photos: Ralph V. Smith stained glass windows at St. Richard's Church, Chicago, Il.