Where I Come From


My great-aunt Joan O’Brien accepting her honorary degree from Albertus Magnus College, May 20, 2012

A couple years back I took a writing class at the 92nd Street Y.

There was one assignment that I loved in particular. We could write whatever we wanted, but whatever we wrote had to include two things:

1. It had to take place in the 1960s
2. It had to start with the words “Where I come from”

Fascinating assignment. When we all read our pieces out loud it was just AMAZING to hear the differences, to see people’s creativity with those two simple instructions and where it led them. Some people honed in, of course, of the more stereotypical image of the 60s: drugs and the sexual revolution and hippies. Others wrote essays about their childhoods. It was hugely diverse.

I decided to write about Vatican II, something that had huge influence on all Catholics, of course, but I was interested in how it impacted my family. I knew some of the stories. I wanted to write a fictionalized piece including some of them.

I post this piece today because I just got back from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven where my great-aunt Joan O’Brien was just awarded an honorary degree. She taught there for many years, classics, and then moved on to a university in Illinois, where she has been ever since. She has written a couple of books on Sophocles. She speaks ancient Greek, among many other languages. She is one of my idols. She was a Dominican Nun, as was her sister Mary (they are my grandmother’s sisters), and while, post Vatican II, they both gave up the habits, I knew so well the pictures of them from family gatherings and old yearbooks, intellectual powerhouses in full habit. My Great-Aunt Joan is such a beautiful and inspiring example of someone who has devoted herself to a life of the mind, and approaches her topics with passion and fervor. She’s curious, hilarious, and up for anything. I was in an award-winning show in Chicago, and she drove up from her university with a friend to see it, and afterwards, she suggested we “go out for a beer” to talk about the show. So the closest bar was a dingy sports bar, with a pool table and a dart board, filled with young guys wearing shorts and flip-flops, being rowdy, and high-fiving, and all the rest. In we stroll, me and two women pushing 75 years old. I was so nervous. “Is this … should we find someplace … else?” And Joan looked around with her alert face and said, “This looks really lively. This is fine.” We approached the bar, and one of the guys in the shorts and flip-flops, saw us coming, leapt up and pulled out two stools for my elderly friends. I have no idea who this guy was, he looked like any other Cubs-hat-wearing 20-something Chicago male, but I remember his face, and I remember how he responded, and, in typical Sheila fashion, I think to myself, “Now there is a well-raised young man.” Joan, her friend, and I sat at the bar, had a couple of beers, and talked about the play. Both of these women speak ancient Greek and Latin, and there they were totally involved in critiquing our play (which was a beautiful adaptation of James Agee’s Death in the Family). They loved it, they loved talking about it, they loved hanging out and having beers with Joan’s young great-niece who was broke and couldn’t take them out to a nicer place. That night is a “keeper” for me. If I could take any memories when I shuffle off this mortal coil, going out with my great-aunt for beers in a Chicago sports bar would definitely be on the list. Like I said, she’s one of my idols.

I drove up to Albertus Magnus today, a college that is steeped in my family history. My mother went there, all my aunts went there, my grandmother went there. I’m shocked that I didn’t go there.

My great-aunt Joan had been “sent” to Illinois, because she was “rebellious” (her words), and there was a lot of fallout from events that went down in those crucial years of the 1960s. The church wrenching itself into the modern age. With the first Catholic president in office. These world-changing events were huge, in and of themselves, and Joan was actually sent to Ireland by her order to travel around to churches in the country and explain what the new “rules” were for the church, coming down from the Vatican. Her stories of those days are hilarious. She and a fellow nun would go from village to village, they would stay in the rectory or the house of someone in the parish, and bicycle around to neighboring villages, to visit the priests, most of whom were slacking off and had developed intense hobbies like gardening or stamp collecting, hobbies that took up far more of their time than tending to their flock. My great-aunt and her friend were fired up with excitement about Vatican II and had to put a fire under the priests. As always, it was the women who led the way. Great-aunt Joan would say she and her friend would come back to their room, take off their shoes, pour a pint, put their feet up, and laugh about the events of the day, exhausted. “How can we get these slackers on board?” Next morning, it would be back on their bikes to the next town.

Joan being “sent” to Illinois for her “rebellion” had been, in many ways, a wrenching separation, and it had reverberations that lasted decades. So to be called back, to the place where she began her career, the place where all this controversy went down, to be honored with an honorary degree was – as Joan said in her very moving acceptance speech – “healing”. Her faith in God is a sight to behold, and she backs it up with intellectual questioning and deep contemplation. She accepts all. One of her areas of study is feminist theology. She’s a revolutionary, my beautiful great-aunt, who is now 80 years old.

Back to the “Where I Come From” assignment: Once I knew I wanted to write about Vatican II, I got my great-aunt Joan on the horn and interviewed her about the whole thing. Much of the details in the story below come from her, from members of our family, from people she knew, from her own life. I made stuff up too. I put it all together, trying to give a sense of that time and how momentous it was for Catholics.

It was quite a journey today. My mother was there, Ben, my sister Jean, my aunt Geddy and her husband Doug, my mother’s cousin Jean, and other family members. We had lunch in the campus center on the beautiful Albertus Magnus Campus. They were having commencement later today. The brand new Albertus Magnus choir sang a couple of songs, and the girls were young, sweet, and Jean and I kept mopping up tears from our table. There were three other honorees, and everyone had a moving story. There are phenomenal people on this earth.

An interesting coda to the story below which involves a rosary: In 2009, when I was having a hard time (to put it mildly), I got a gift in the mail from an old high school friend. The date on this post gives me the shivers – June to September of 2009, shivers of dread, but I will never ever forget the feeling I got when I opened that gift. And a beautiful coincidence: another friend, totally independent of that other friend, also sent me a rosary during that time (the psychic spheres colliding – I clearly needed Mary!!) – one she had made, and it is a work of art. I placed them both beside my bed for protection which I felt I needed during that season of bad juju. I suppose that that is somehow in the story below, too. That’s what I added to the stories my great-aunt Joan told me (even though this story far pre-dates the rosary gifts. The need was still there.)

My great-aunt Joan is one of the most inspiring people I know. Congratulations, dear Joan, and thank you for your great example.

WHERE I COME FROM

Where I come from, Latin wasn’t a dead language. Mass began with: “In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Introibo ad altare Dei.” Where I come from, south Boston, everyone is Catholic.

I was born on a holy day, I can’t remember which one, but I know it was a Wednesday. July 15, 1945. Four days later, my mother left me in the care of one of my older sisters and went to confession. Father O’Brien sat behind the grate, and my mother, mantilla pinned hastily to her head, blurted out her horrible sin: she had missed mass on a holy day. There was a brief pause, and then came Father O’Brien’s voice, the brogue of western Ireland still strong on his tongue: “Molly, am I mistaken, or did you not just give birth?” “Yes, Father. I gave birth on the holy day.” There was another pause and then: “Molly. For God’s sake, the Lord forgives you. Go home. Rest.” My mother loved to tell that story. She regaled her sisters with it, on long summer evenings in our cramped back yard, as they sat around, all 6 of them, drinking vodka tonics in the cool of twilight, letting their kids run wild through the streets until it was time for bed. My mother and her sisters did competing imitations of Father O’Brien, a priest who had baptized them, confirmed them, married them, and then baptized their children.

Where I come from, you don’t miss mass lightly, even if you just gave birth, and your breasts are leaking milk, and you can barely walk. You get your ass in the pew.

My grandmother gave me her rosary beads as a gift for my confirmation, and I loved them. I loved the sparkle, and I loved them because grown-ups had them, and I was fifteen, on the cusp. I still have them, even though I haven’t done the rosary in ages. I resist. There’s something there that cuts too deep. And yet I look at my rosary beads – the multi-faceted rainbow-sparkles, the old silver crucifix dangling on the end, the solidity of the object and yet also its grace – and all I can see is my grandmother, brogue still strong even after forty years in this country, her pale-as-paper wrinkled hands, the raw bony fingers moving from stone to stone to stone, hop-skipping from one to the next as though she were in a creek and she needed to get to the other side. The imprint of my grandmother is there in the beads. I can’t say the Hail Mary anymore without feeling burning tears at the back of my eyes. The emotion feels like loss, but that baffles me.

I found church very boring as a kid, especially the Latin part, although I grew to have an appreciation for it once everything changed. To a child, that mass was the height of psychological boredom, meant to break you. It almost drove me to hysteria.

Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison
Kyrie eleison

Good grief. But I loved the mysticism hovering on the edges of all the rigidity, the glimpses of a mystery at the heart of the mass. Sometimes, usually during the Lenten masses, when everything got horribly solemn, it would be as though a sheer curtain fluttered back, giving me a seconds-only view of a glorious awful world of pain and beauty and redemption. But those were just moments. For the most part, it was insufferable. The quiet chill face of Mary stared down from her niche up on the altar. She didn’t really care. She was above it all. But when I said the rosary, to myself at night, in the way my grandmother taught me, I felt like I got closer. Closer to Mary, certainly, but it was more about getting close to the wordlessness at the heart of the entire ritual.

When “For the kingdom, and the power and the glory are yours, now and forever” was tacked on to the Lord’s Prayer after Vatican II, my father (never a zealot really, his Catholicism was more of a cultural thing, an Irish thing) was outraged. Not for any theological reason, he couldn’t back up his opinion with verse and chapter from the Bible. No. He was outraged because that was how the Protestants had always said the prayer, and to my father “Protestant” was a dirty word. And when, after Vatican II, they introduced the “sign of peace” into the mass, where the congregation turns to each other and shakes hands, saying, “Peace be with you”, my father stopped going to church altogether, which nearly broke my mother’s heart. He stood over the smoking grill in the backyard, turning hamburgers over, saying, “Goddammit, Molly, I don’t go to church to make friends.”

Pope John XXIII, during the Second Ecumenical Council, said that the church needed to “open a window”, and open it they did. My grandmother died in 1962, so she missed the opening of the window, although she did live long enough to see “one of ours” elected President of the United States. Oh, I remember her laughing, on election day, that open-throated guffaw we all loved. She sat in her kitchen, listening to the election returns coming in on the radio, a gleam of tears in her eyes. She kept saying, over and over, “I never thought I’d see the day. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I never thought I’d see the day.” And then that laugh – free and loud. Not only was he “one of ours” because he was Catholic, but he was from Boston, and he was Irish. It was a great great day for all of us.

When Kennedy was assassinated a year and change later, my grandmother was already dead and buried. As awful as it was for our country, in and of itself, there were a couple of moments, during that excruciating time, when I would think, “I’m so glad she didn’t live to see this. It would have killed her.”

Two years after the assassination came the tumult of Vatican II. Every morning, I woke up in my dorm room at the small women’s Catholic college I went to in Connecticut, and rushed downstairs in my robe and curlers, to pick up the New York Times from Sister Agnes, and bring it back up to my room. My roommate Moira would make instant coffee, and I would read aloud the latest dispatches from Rome. No more “In nomine Patri et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Introibo ad altare Dei.” Now it was “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. I will go to the altar of God.” It was still an incantation, a call to worship, only it was now in English. Traditions upended, altered, shifted, thrown out, preserved but only in different forms.

I wondered what my grandmother would have had to say about all of it. The Latin mass was her tradition, and also her connection to her girlhood home in Ireland. What would it have done to her to give it up? Many adapted to the changes in the Mass, and many were unable to adapt, and instead drove three hours on Sunday mornings to the one church in the one county in the next state that still had a Latin mass on Sunday.

Although the Catholic Church remained, many of the old rituals did not survive the opening of the window. And now my rosary beads might as well be a relic from an ancient archaeological dig, for people in the present-day to puzzle over, and speculate about what they were once used for. Maybe someday I will remember.

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17 Responses to Where I Come From

  1. ted says:

    Lovely post, dear friend. The essay you include is a really nice piece of writing. I love how you take on a character that is your’s, only not quite, but in reading the piece about Joan you know where she comes from and together the two pieces work as a whole. Lovely writing.

    On a totally diff note, when I see you, we have to talk about Blue Valentine. Watched it last night.

  2. sheila says:

    Ted – yes, the story of the holy day and the mother going to confession was Joan’s mother, my great-grandmother. Hysterical! She has so many great stories. Such an amazing woman.

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Blue Valentine! I probably won’t be free now until after the script reading – but I’ll keep you posted. Busy times, exciting!

    • Sifeman says:

      I was a student of Dr Goodman’s (1994-6) and aplpaud her continuous ability to examine, synthesize and write and speak succinctly about the most essential components of educating children.Well done Penn is lucky to have Joan in their halls!!

  3. Shelley says:

    Glad your bad juju is over!

    I have fond associations with Albertus Magnus because a dear friend from years ago, Judy, I forget her last name (she was short, cute, taught elementary school, then married a Yalie and moved away) went there. We’ve lost touch, but if she’s any example of that college, it is an excellent one.

  4. “Goddammit Molly, I don’t go to church to make friends!”

    Fascinating cultural history. I grew up i a world where most Protestants felt the same way–and watched it change rather mysteriously into a world where socializing routinely took precedence over theology. Love when you write about religion because it opens up a world I have so little grasp of and yet find in many ways oh-so-familiar!

    • sheila says:

      The church I go to is pretty formal, which i like. Religion is really private to me.

      I remember my childhood church made us hold hands when we said the Our Father, and my father was always quietly grumpy about it. Hahaha.

      • sheila says:

        and there’s a huge church in Manhattan that still does a Latin mass. I don’t go often – but I do go sometimes. Vatican II pre-dates me, but boy, I love those Latin masses.

  5. amelie /rae says:

    “Molly. For God’s sake, the Lord forgives you. Go home. Rest.”

    I guffawed! What a wonderful piece. ^_^

    Your great-aunt Joan sounds like the classiest of ladies — congratulations to her!

  6. Bethann says:

    By far my favorite piece of your abundance of work, poignant and humorous all at the same time. It’s something that I ‘get’ and have lived and have listened to and have been steeped in my entire life. You really made my day, Sheila. Thank you.

  7. Lou says:

    Sheila: Nice post. Nice memories. Congratulations to your Great Aunt. It made me think of my Aunt Rose, a divine teacher, loving aunt, and legendary disciplinarian. She wasn’t let out of the convent much, but on a weekend pass in 1970 or possibly 1972 she took me, my brother Patrick, my cousins Rob, and Maureen out to the movies. Aunty Rose had on her full habit (check out on the habit and wimple on the website “Nuns & Sisters…Devoted to Preserving Images of Tradition”). her uniform of the day also included the large clicking rosary beads that wrapped around her sincture. What did we see at the movies…you got it…The Sound of Music. We went into the theater with our “strict aunt”. We strutted out of that theater as if Julie Andrews was holding our hands.
    On another note the Kyrie Elieson is Greek.

  8. sheila says:

    Sound of Music! Ha! That is so awesome!

    and thanks for the Greek correction. It is my great sorrow that I can’t speak either, despite taking a couple of years in Latin in high school, which I loved.

    At Albertus Magnus on Sunday, my mother and her cousin were reminiscing about my Great-aunt Mary (God rest her soul) who loved to drive, and would always drive anyone anywhere in the convent who needed to go anywhere. In her full habit, of course. She was driving a fellow nun up to Boston and her friend said, (and she obviously didn’t get out much), “The other drivers are so polite! They all get out of your way!” (Meaning: my Great-Aunt Mary was clearly tailgating like a maniac.) The other funny story about Mary (who was an awesome person) has to do with driving: she was driving on a highway and probably speeding as well as tailgating. She pulled off into a rest area to get gas. A guy at the pump next to her said, “Can I ask you something?” She, in her full habit, said, “yes, of course,” expecting that he would want to confess something, or say something personal. She was used to that, being a nun. Instead he said, “Were you ever a New York cabbie?” He had been watching her dare-devil driving on the highway for about 50 miles. Hilarious.

    • Lou says:

      Sheila,

      Yes the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) I believe is the only serviving part of the mass in the current Roman Rite, as well as the usus antiquitor (Tridentine Mass) that remained in the original Greek. I think it was a holdover from that point in history when the people of the empire could no longer speak both Greek and Latin. So the mass was translated into Latin. Why we only kept the Greek Kyrie is a point I think I will read up on.

      Great Aunt Mary sounds awesome! I love the driving stories what a great lady.
      Isn’t it awesome that we’ve had the time with these relatives to share in their stories, histories, and succeses.

      Lou

  9. sheila says:

    Let me know what you find out about the Kyrie. It is such a pretty phrase, even though I make fun of it here.

    and yes, it is awesome!

  10. Regina Bartkoff says:

    Very funny, the two of you! “This place looks lively.” and “Now there is a well-raised young man.”
    And your Great Aunt’s simple statements give you a true insight into what faith is. Where she just describes it as for one second a sheer curtain fluttering back. Beautiful.
    What an inspiring person and
    story, thank you.

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