The next Sunday I went to Mass with Jim and his family. The decision to do so precipitated another nasty confrontation with my mom, who felt betrayed now in the deepest sense because I was not just ignoring her religious counsel, she claimed, but was abandoning her personally as well, for now I was forcing her to attend the Baptist church alone. That was her firm position for months. Actually, I had not been a very reliable church companion for her since becoming a teenager. I pointed out to her that sooner or later I would be leaving home anyway. Thus my companionship had, in effect, an expiration date. Mom understood this but resisted it and so viewed the appearance of the engagement ring as further proof that the final breach was near. At least in marrying Jim, I told her, I wouldn’t be moving far away as Eric seemed to want to do with his Maryland fiancée, Donna, whom neither one of us had never even seen. “Besides,” I said, “I have my own life to live, and I’m determined to do it.” Still, it was hard seeing her grieve over this new issue between us.
Attending St. Benedict’s in those days was no easy matter because the church, being downtown, had no parking lot of its own, save a small one behind the church itself for the priest, deacon, and a few other church officers, no more than four or five cars. Yet St. Benedict’s had a congregation of more than four hundred or so. The worshippers had to park along the downtown streets and walk, often several blocks, just to enter the church.
Before I attended Mass for the first time, I already knew St. Benedict’s as one of the city’s most famous landmarks; everyone in town did. But it meant nothing more to me than a familiar building, beautiful though it was. I’d never been inside and never thought I would have reason to. Since most of the town’s population was and still is Protestant, most of us would just walk or drive by St. Benedict’s without much regard for it other than the comfort of knowing that a landmark building still stood there.
But those who did take the time to examine the church saw a truly stately building of rich red brick with grey stone and white wood accents about the doors, windows, and buttresses, elegantly set under a steep slate-grey roof. They saw the church’s three sets of broad concrete steps with wrought iron railings that led its parishioners and visitors up to a trinity of arched dark brown doors opening to the church’s narthex. They saw above the entrance a Romanesque bell tower rising more than a hundred feet above the sidewalk to enclose the church bells. The familiar chime of those bells resonates, often together with those of the county courthouse clock at the other end of the downtown area, in a chorus that long ago had become aural signatures of our town. Atop St. Benedict’s bell tower, observers could also see a white and grey cupola crowned with a gold cross.
Perhaps the most surprising thing that Jim had told me about St. Benedict’s was that the parish had started as a small chapel built by the German immigrants who had settled in Locust Hill, which I had previously thought was just as Protestant as the rest of the county, maybe even more so. “It’s true,” he explained. “These German immigrants, who happened to be Catholics, started farming the area just south of the Locust Hill village area in the 1830s, but it took about thirty years before they and other Catholics in Parkeston were able to join to form a parish with its chapel at St. Benedict’s current location. The church itself was constructed just after the Civil War and not long after the time that Darius Russell settled in Locust Hill. In addition, a small mission church was also built in Locust Hill itself at about the same time, some parishioners apparently thinking that the trip into town was too long for regular attendance. Jim thinks that Darius Russell may even have helped with the mission church’s construction right after he finished building his own farmhouse. There is a yellowed letter among the family heirlooms in which the bishop of the diocese at the time thanks Darius for his sacrifice and good works. The mission church, however, was destroyed in a fire just after World War I. “So everyone out our way now comes here for Mass,” Jim explained to me. Clearly, St. Benedict’s was part of the Russell family history too and so meant a lot to Jim and his family.
I had parked on a reasonably convenient side street and crossed on foot at several stoplights before finding Jim, his mom, and Sandy waiting for me in front of the church. Despite some comforting and reassuring instructions from Jim, I was still quite nervous about what would happen—an anxiety that now increased because of my being a bit late. I had never been in a Catholic church, and all that I had ever heard about Catholicism, which was very little and filtered entirely through my mother’s opinions, had been negative—in essence, that it was paganism cleverly disguised as Christian piety. But another part of me, the part that loved tradition and art, history and aesthetics, was eager for the experience, to see and judge for myself, to let the liturgy and even the building itself speak to me, as Jim promised that it would. So dressed in a pale blue suit with a matching pillbox hat on my head, white gloves on my hands, and black heels on my feet—I went to Mass for the first time.
When I arrived, Jim kissed me. Then I exchanged hugs with his mom and Sandy before we went up the steps and entered the church. In the narthex, standing on a pedestal, was St. Benedict himself, greeting the arriving parishioners—a life-size statue of the saint made in Germany and painted in flesh tones with his clothing in subtle shades of yellows, browns, and blues. The sculptor posed him holding in his hands the chalice of wine mixed with surreptitious poison, Jim explained, pointing up to the statue. According to legend the chalice wine was poisoned and given to St. Benedict by his unfaithful novices, who were disillusioned by what they regarded as his overly harsh spiritual discipline. He has just raised the chalice to deliver the blessing through which the Holy Spirit will, in the next moment, intervene to shatter the chalice and thus save St. Benedict’s life, just as the miracle of the Holy Spirit through the Eucharist would in a few minutes intervene in our lives to forgive and save us. Jim was careful to note the parallel. In addition to the church’s patron saint posed on the verge of a miracle, the narthex also contained the customary wall rack of religious pamphlets, church bulletins stacked on a utility table, and a bulletin board announcing various church functions and charity efforts.
Since I had made us a bit late, the members of the procession were already assembling. The young crucifer, Jim’s replacement I supposed, was leaning against the inner wall of the narthex, yawning and stretching while somehow still keeping the cross erect but certainly not straight. The priest, deacon, and other altar attendants, clad in their vestments, had also gathered as we latecomers passed by into the nave. The priest, Father Richter, was scowling a bit as he stepped toward the young crucifer, who, I imagined, was about to receive some priestly council.
Just inside the entrance to the nave, a large crucifix adorned the back wall of the sanctuary below the choir loft and above a font of Holy Water in which the communicants were daubing their fingers and then crossing themselves. I felt awkward as Jim and his family did this while I did not. Then before we entered a pew, Mrs. Russell and Sandy genuflected and crossed themselves again. After ushering me into the pew, Jim did the same. Then the three of them knelt and prayed briefly. I did not. So much to know and do, I thought! In my mother’s Baptist church, worshipers didn’t have to know or do any of this. If they were sufficiently moved in spirit, they might shout “Amen!” to a stirring point in the preacher’s sermon, or they might sing a favorite hymn with more than gusto than normal. But here worshipers were surrounded by sacred images, symbols, and gestures; here they participated in a very prescribed liturgy; here nothing seemed extemporaneous. Even miracles like St. Benedict’s must wait for just the right moment.
But I did notice Jim’s mom touch the shoulder of a woman in the pew in front of us and whispered hello to her and the man next to her. “That Uncle Ed and Aunt Evelyn,” Jim whispered to me, sensing my curiosity.
But my curiosity didn’t end there. Soon I spotted a pristine white structure along the west wall of the sanctuary. It had three stalls, or so they appeared to me, with white curtains hanging in front of them.. A little building inside a building! What can it be? “The confessional booth,” Jim said, “for making private confessions to the priest, at a minimum of once per year for each parishioner.” “Best to clear things up every so often,” he added. “But don’t worry, we’ll also confess together at each Mass. You’ll see.”
Next the service became even more complicated for me. Jim showed me the Missal—in Latin! So, I thought, Jim has reasons other than botany for studying Latin! He took a Missal from the rack attached to the pew in front of us, opened it, and showed me where and how the service would begin.
I was scanning the Missal as rapidly as I could for any familiar words that might help me know what was happening when suddenly an unseen organ thundered, apparently from the choir loft, and everyone rose to sing “All Hail, Adored Trinity.” This is too much for me, I thought as I rose beside Jim in a moment of panic, and too fast. I can never adjust to it! Never learn it all!
The procession began with an older boy leading the way, slowly swinging a small smoking pot on a long golden chain, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, it went, the smoke of its incense perfuming the nave as he went by us. When I asked about it, Jim whispered its name to me—a thurible, he said. Never learn it all! Never! Then came the crucifer, fully awake now, with the cross raised aloft, straight and true this time, followed by two younger boys walking side by side carrying large candles. The parishioners, including the Russells turned to face the cross as it went by and crossed themselves. I turned too, but that was all. So much to know, so much to do! Next came the Deacon holding above his head an ornately decorated book containing the Scriptures. And lastly came Father Richter, now smiling and singing the hymn in a rousing baritone voice with his hands pressed together in front of his chest.
I quickly but fearfully settled into just following Jim’s lead as occasionally he whispered instructions to me during the Liturgy of the Word. Soon we were standing for responses to the readings from Holy Scripture, all according to the still mysterious (to me, at least) rubric of the liturgy. Next we were standing again to sing, then sitting again for the homily, and then kneeling again to pray and prepare ourselves for the Eucharist. By now it was clear to me that Catholics do get the benefit of considerable exercise at Mass in addition to its spiritual blessings!
After Father Richter’s homily on the Trinity, the Liturgy of the Word gave way to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Then my anxiety not only returned, it intensified. Holy Communion received little attention in the Baptist church I attended, yet the entire Mass progressed clearly and inexorably toward the miracle of transubstantiation in which the penitents queued up to receive the wafer, which the priest and deacon offered as the true body of Jesus. Corpus Christi, they said, holding it up in front of each communicant and then placing it in their mouths. I, of course, had to stay put while Jim, his mom, and Sandy joined the others to receive the host.
When the recessional hymn “Lift High the Cross” finally ended the Mass, I was both impressed and confused by all that I had seen and heard: A highly structured liturgy set out in the Missal for all of us to follow (albeit in Latin!); the stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Gospels; the rows of majestic grey stone columns carved with Biblical images that lined both sides of the nave and beyond which, on the church’s outer walls, were affixed the Stations of the Cross; the statues; the crucifixes; the votive candles; the Holy Water font; the vestments; the thurible with the smoke and perfume of its incense pouring out; the elaborate white and gold altar decorations and altar candles with an even more elaborate gold tabernacle behind them displaying the Lamb of God holding a white banner with a vivid scarlet cross upon it; and arching over the entire. All of this, like a drama with its actors and liturgical script and vestment costumes and rich scenery, reaching its climax with the Bread of the Eucharist placed in the mouths of the penitents. So much to learn and so different! But undaunted by all this, actually even inspired by it, I was determined to become Jim’s companion in spiritual as well as domestic life. And so that day I resolved to join him in religion as well as in marriage and farm life.
After Mass, we had brunch at a restaurant in a nearby hotel, just a short walk up Market Street from the church. Many of St. Benedict’s other parishioners also gathered there. These included Jim’s Uncle Ed and his wife Evelyn, the woman Jim’s mom had tapped on the shoulder. Jim’s Uncle Ed was much larger than Jim, with thinning grey hair and a deeply creased ruddy face, no doubt scorched by many summer suns. Today he was dressed in a light grey suit and dark blue tie, but still managed to look like a dairy farmer.
“Well, Cassandra, we are delighted to meet you at last,” Jim’s Aunt Evelyn said. A much more robust woman than Jim’s mom, Evelyn wore her dark red hair piled high above a softly warm round face lighted with intensely blue eyes. “We were beginning to think that you were just a lovely rumor,” she continued. “But now here you are attending Mass with us!”
“Oh I’m real enough,” I replied, “but a bit disoriented right now by all that I’ve seen and heard today.”
Then Uncle Ed joined in, “One thing you’ll find about Mass, Cassandra—it does repeat itself, relentlessly, so if you keep attending, you’ll soon have the whole thing memorized and become just a comfortable with it as the rest of us. Besides, help is on the way. Later this year the Mass will be conducted in English instead of Latin.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said with some relief.
“But not everyone thinks so,” Jim cautioned hastily; I gathered that included him. “There’s still a good deal of resistance to giving up the Latin Mass because it’s been around for so long, centuries, in fact. To a lot of Catholics, the language itself is nearly as sacred as what it declares.”
“True enough,” Uncle Ed confirmed. Then turning to his wife, he continued, “Dear, I think that Jim has been hiding Cassandra from us because she is so pretty and he wants to keep her all to himself, don’t you think so?”
“You must be right, Ed. I can’t think of another reason,” she replied, giving Jim a comic evil eye while extending her husband’s jibe. “Jim, you must rectify your selfishness by bringing Cassandra to dinner at our farm. I’m sure she’s seen quite a bit of yours by now. Your mother tells me you work her like a slave. Isn’t that so, Lucie?”
“Actually, Cassandra volunteers her labors quite willingly,” Jim’s mother replied with a quiet smile, “but does indeed work awfully hard, I must say, all without any prodding from Jim.” Jim’s mother would even defend him from a joke. “Soon she’ll be an expert farmer herself,” she concluded.
“You’re very kind to say that,” I told her.
Finally getting a chance to defend himself, Jim vowed that he would take me to visit his aunt and uncle—and eventually he did. But as the conversation went on, I detected an undercurrent of mild resentment between Jim and his Uncle Ed. I already knew that Jim disliked having to supply his uncle’s farm with hay and corn at what he regarded to be lower than market prices. In addition, these crops took up valuable land and resources that could have been used to produce a greater financial return for his own family, which I would soon be part of.
During the meal, I must have asked a thousand questions about the Mass, for it seemed that I had wandered once again into a different universe, one with beautifully shaped, nearly tactile, comforts such as I had never before experienced. And everyone was happy to answer my questions—fortunately, with consistent answers. Before we parted, I whispered to Jim, “The service is so different from what I’m used to, but I’m willing to change. What must I do next?”
The family was ready for me. Jim said, “First, you’ll need a sponsor.”
Overhearing us, Jim’s mom, who was sitting beside me, quickly added, “And I can do that for you, Cassandra. It wouldn’t be appropriate for Jim to be your sponsor, even though he qualifies as an adult now. I’ll contact Father Richter and make an appointment for us—that is, if you’re really sure you’re ready. We don’t want to rush you or cause any trouble for you at home.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Then I have something for you.” With that Jim’s mom picked up her handbag and removed a dark lace garment. “Do you remember this?” she asked.
I stared at it for a moment before its identify occurred to me. “Wasn’t that in one of the photos in your Russell family album? The wife with the dark features and mysterious smile?”
“Yes, you do remember! It’s the chapel veil that Kristina Ludwig Russell was wearing in that photo. And now it’s yours,” she said, handing it to me.
And I was sure. Consequently, I soon took up the process of becoming a Roman Catholic in addition to learning about farming. Mrs. Russell promptly did her part. We had the appointment with Father Richter at which I committed to conversion. Then I had to make another unpleasant announcement to my parents. And once again I had a raging battle with my mother to endure, this time without much help from Dad.
“You’ll do just anything that boy says, won’t you,” Mom screamed at me. “If he tells you to jump off the Ohio River Bridge, you’ll go out and do it, won’t you? I told you before that you were becoming his slave and now that’s just what you’ve done. As far as I can see, you’re lost, completely lost!”
“I’m not lost,” I insisted, much more calmly than she. “I’m just making my own life. It may not be the life you want for me, but I can’t help that. It’s the life I want.”
“Yes, you can help it!” She was still screaming. “You can turn back, turn back right now, this minute, and everything will be okay again.” Now she truly began crying before recovering enough to plead, “But don’t go through with this or you’ll be sorry, very sorry for the rest of your life. Turn back from it now!”
“I’ll be sorry about what, Mom? Sorry that I fell in love with somebody who loves me? Sorry that he owns a farm? Sorry that he not a Protestant? Just what is that I’m supposed to be so sorry about? Sorry that he’s the best bboy I ever met?”
And so it went for several days more until her anger finally cooled and then froze into a rigid silence but did not disappear. After that scene, she got up first on Sundays and dressed for church without a word to me. Then she’d leave without eating breakfast. Dad stayed in bed until we were both gone, probably thinking that was safer. Mom now went to church regularly on Wednesday nights too, something she’d only done occasionally before. As the days went by, she seemed more and more bound by her suppressed anger and an all-encompassing grief. I worried about her, felt sorry for her, even though I firmly believed that I was doing the right thing for me and that her reactions were exaggerated and unwarranted. Still, she was my mother, and I didn’t like hurting her, even though she offered me no opportunity for reconciling with her other than my completely surrendering to her will. I also worried about how she would react when my wedding day with Jim would finally arrive and when her grandchildren would be born. Those things, fortunately, were still in the future, but for now there was no consoling her. She had inserted into our family a tense silence and wrapped about herself a martyr’s cloak, for in her mind she was sacrificing for a spiritual cause—some unclear, unnamed burden of evil—that I had cast upon her. Now, with her spirit bent double inside her, she struggled through each day.
Carl Parsons, a former manufacturing manager for TRW Automotive, has had a secondary career as a college instructor of rhetoric and literature. Now retired, he serves as a Master Gardener for the University of Tennessee Extension office and contributes essays on botanical subjects to Hey, Smokies! (an online travel magazine). He has also served as associate editor for Heater, a crime fiction magazine. Currently, he is an active member of Scribophile online writers’ workshop. Born in Parkersburg, WV, he now resides in Kodak, TN. Publication Credits: • Crime Novella, Jukes, to be published in March 2020 by Dark Passages Publishing • Short story, “Judith and Phillip,” published by Foundling House (2019) • Short story, “Another Bus Ride for Sunny,” published by Spillwords Press (2019) • Two poems published with Literary Yard (2019) • Two poems published with Plum Tree Tavern (2019)