I think my fascination with Catholicism was born at St. Anthony’s Hospital where my mother gave birth to me. Somewhere in my early growing-up years, I heard rumors that before nuns brought babies to their mommies, priests baptized tiny infants. I therefore concluded that I had dual citizenship in the Catholic and the Mormon Churches. I may have even told a few people that I was Catholic.
I vaguely remember one or two neighbor children who were bona fide Catholics, but it wasn’t until 1954 when we moved across the street from Vern and Mary and their daughters Ginger, Susan, and Sharon that I learned some details of my “alter-religion”. Susan was closest to my age, and so I assume she served as my mentor in all things Catholic. While she shared some complaints about her faith, I loved everything I learned. For example, I really liked the idea of confession and the resulting absolution from sin. Yes, I know that a tenet of Mormon theology includes repentance, but when I prayed for forgiveness of what I considered many grave transgressions, I wasn’t sure I had been forgiven. I wanted somebody to make it official. Additionally, I was a repeat offender so the idea of frequent trips to the confessional bothered me not in the least. And because I thought of myself as pretty sinful, I also longed to pay penance. For example, I welcomed saying extra prayers especially if I could use a beautiful rosary to keep track of my efforts. In fact, I once bought an early treasure while vacationing at San Juan Capistrano when I was eight: a bracelet designed like a rosary, cross and all.
I really liked the idea of sacrifice, too – at least the ones my friends made. When I was young, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, not just during Lent, and Fridays were my favorite school lunch days. Cafeteria workers at Lewis and Clark Elementary and Alameda Junior High always served fish sticks or toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup to all students, Catholic or otherwise. I even wanted to “give up” something for Lent. Susan and her sisters usually said goodbye to candy for the six weeks prior to Easter. I think I may have tried to do the same, but if I did, I doubt I lasted 6 days, let alone 40. (Recently I gave up Diet Coke. While this “abstinence” correlates with the Lenten season, it was unintentional, AND I plan to make this a permanent change. I know friends and family are snickering at this – “oh ye of little faith!”)
The biggest attraction to the Catholic faith, however, was First Communion – not because of the importance of receiving the Eucharist for the first time, but because of the beautiful little “wedding” dresses Susan and then Sharon wore. I was SO jealous. When I was baptized into the Mormon/LDS Church at age 8, I wore white knee-length bloomers and a white blouse. I didn’t get a new frock – white or otherwise – for my confirmation. No veil either. Not even white gloves. The adorable Easter dresses and bonnets Mom always bought or made for us did little to diminish my Communion-dress envy.
Looking back at that experience, I find it interesting how religion was often a topic of our childhood conversations. And while my interest in the Catholic Church was fleeting, there was a significant reason I was enamored with my Catholic friends. They were such good, good people. The family was fun and kind. Mom Mary’s wide smile invited friendships, and the girls were intelligent, talented, and beautiful. One summer Ginger kept us busy when she organized a backyard carnival. Under her tutelage, her sisters and we friends created booths by hanging blankets from their clothes line. We featured all sorts of games and prizes, and promoted the event beyond our street to nearby neighborhoods. We charged for the activities but then donated the money – which I don’t recall as being very much, maybe $12 or $15 – to a local charity. Somewhere in my archives is a newspaper photo of us presenting our profits to the organization.
Then there was Dad Vern; quiet and unassuming, he spent winter nights watering down their back yard to create an ice skating rink. Small at first, the rink’s popularity inspired him to enlarge the square footage until several inches of ice covered all but a tiny corner of their yard. We loved the rink and often hurried home from school to spend a couple of hours there before dinner. I remember one particularly freezing week when schools closed for fear of bursting pipes; nevertheless, the temperatures didn’t dip enough to keep us off the ice. Everyday we spent time playing Crack the Whip and other games with our friends, taking breaks now and again to thaw our toes or sip hot cocoa before resuming.
When I think of how much time we spent there, I wonder that Vern and Mary rued the day they started that tradition. I can’t imagine how many times children rang their doorbell to ask permission to take the ice, but I don’t remember being turned away very often.
Because of this neighborhood experience, my sister Connie and I became skating devotees, and while our “expertise” did not qualify us for the 1964 Winter Olympics, Mom believed that our love of the sport warranted red corduroy skating dresses!!
The best outcome of that neighborhood skating rink, however, was the closeness we felt to our friends and neighbors. Vern and Mary created lifelong memories of a fun, happy, and safe place for all of us to enjoy regardless of our differences – religious or otherwise. I’ll never forget them!