Monday, March 10, 2008

Jean, of Blessed Memory

Why is my sister a Catholic?
by Charlie Leck

My sister lies dying, within moments of the end of her life, as I write this. I have been suffering through this period and sharing with my closest friends some of my agony as I also keep them up to date on the last moments of her life. The kindnesses they have returned to me have been remarkable and I will always be grateful for that. One friend, a dear Jewish woman, wondered why my sister is so religiously different than I, a liberal protestant to the core. She asked: "Why is your sister a catholic?" I emailed her back the following answer. [My sister died at 6:30 a.m., while I was writing this about her.]

This blog was posted once, a week ago, for about an hour. A friend recommended I take it down and repost it after the funeral and burial. I took his advice.

My mother was raised as a catholic. My father was a protestant. (Forgive all the lower case errors; it’s partly philosophical with me.)

When my mother was 17 and my father 29, they decided they wanted to marry. My grandmother, Emma Svejda, was furious about the age difference and also the religious difference and forbade the marriage. Mother and father went off to Elkton, Maryland, a town that married couples without blood tests or a waiting period. They were married there by a justice of the peace. Of course, my grandmother was really infuriated and then more so when my mother started going to my father’s church on Sundays. In the eyes of the church, my mother was no longer a catholic because she had been married outside of it.

When my sister was born in 1929, my grandmother hovered over her like a bear over its cub. The crash had come and things got very tough. My Grandpa Svejda had a city job that was rather secure. My father’s job was not. My parents both tried to find whatever work they could to keep afloat. My grandmother took care of my sister, virtually, around the clock and going to mass regularly was a part of that care. My grandparents enrolled her in a catholic school and part of that included everyday mass.

So, dear Jean simply became a catholic as a matter of circumstance.

My grandmother Svejda and father never became close. In the years I remember, there was always a strained relationship between them but my father was, at least, polite and civil. My grandfather and father had always been pals, even long before he took a fancy to my mother. In fact, when my mother was a wee one, my father, as a teenager, used to regularly baby sit her for evenings while grandma and grandpa went out on the town. My grandpa Svejda was a big baseball and boxing fan and so was my father. They went to ball games together and to fights when my dad was a boy. Their relationship remained close through all the problems my father had with my grandmother.

Fast forward about twenty years. My sister was working in NYC and commuting back and forth from our home in NJ by train. She had a very nice job with the Woolworth Company as the special assistant to a woman in charge of all product buying for the company stores. Jean was given enormous attention by all the salesman who came and went and our home was filled with special gifts for her at Christmas time, Easter, Valentine’s Day and on her birthday. Among the goodies she received from salesmen were very special tickets to events at Madison Square Garden, the Polo Ground, Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium. I always had choice seats at the Greatest Show on Earth and the Rodeo, and box seats at ball games. Man, I wanted her to keep her job at Woolworth’s.

However, she met a fellow who was a fast-fry cook at a cafeteria in the building. He was a bullshitter and a con man and, damned to all tar nation, she fell in love with him. Of course, you can imagine how the story goes! She brought him home to introduce him and to announce that she was going to marry him. My mother was furious and refused to allow it. My father stood back and remembered his own private, marriage by flight. He knew my sister would do the same and she did.

But, here’s the twist that brings us back to catholicism. In her anger, my mother informed the local priest that the man was both not a catholic and divorced from an early marriage. My sister was excommunicated for not having been married within the rights of the church -- a sacrament.

Strange, my sister had become the most loyal and devoted catholic known to mankind. Here she was, in a moment, outside the church and not allowed its sacraments or services. She had children -- two boys. She lived in a house within two-hundred yards of our own. My mother hated my sister’s husband. I must admit, he was a rotten guy. He couldn’t hold a job. He couldn’t make a living. He lied like crazy and he was wiling to live off charity from anyone who would offer it. There was eventually an event disastrous enough that caused him to be sent to prison. My sister divorced him. It is difficult to please the catholic church. The divorce was a bad thing in the church’s eye even though they had also disapproved of the marriage. Talk about a catch-22.

My sister never regained official readmittance to the church. Nevertheless, she remarried, moved with her new husband and her young boys to Dallas and took up life. She, of course, went to her local parish and became an intensely important part of it. No one knew or asked about her former relationship with the church. She worked with the poor, homeless and misfortunate as only a saint might. She was unable to refuse the needy. She worked with the elderly in nursing homes and volunteered in hospitals. In her church she became a symbol of what it meant to be as Jesus would have us be. She became the cook and organizer for all the church dinners. The poor and hungry in the town knew they could stop by during a day when she was preparing a feast for the parishioners and be fed generously. The officials of the church always pretended not to know, but they did. My sister never took a penny for all her work within the church.

Eventually, the parish built a new church building and, with my sister’s help, they designed a very special, large commercial kitchen because the highlight of community and church life within that congregation revolved around food and dining together. I wonder why! Dinner was served every Sunday at noon. There was a weekly evening dinner. My sister organized them all.
When the New Orleans disaster happened, Dallas took huge numbers of those refugees and found them housing. Each night of the week, some church had a dinner for the refugees. My sister’s parish, at her urging, offered to be a dining site once each week. About two hundred refugees were bused to the church for dinner. My sister raised the funds to pay for the program, organized the dinners and found the necessary volunteers and cooked the meals. This went on for well over a year, though the numbers who came dwindled as people found jobs and set up their own homes.

Last year, the kitchen was completely remodeled under my sister’s direction. The parishioners insisted that it be named the "Jean Davidson Kitchen of Life." She had become too ill to cook regularly, but she found the volunteers to do it and she trained. them and she remained in charge of purchasing up until just a few weeks ago.

All of this she did as acts of contrition for her sins, for her inappropriate and failed marriage. Fortunately for her, she had a good, hard-working husband who was willing to pay for these acts of saintliness.

She never asked that her excommunication be over-turned or reversed or lifted. Her boys, strangely, became protestants -- one very devoted and the other in name only.

Now these people come to my sister’s bedside, as if needing to look upon her face one more time or to touch her kindly and in reverence, as if touching a contemporary saint. They leave on her bed rosaries, crucifixes and other religious pins and medals. They are so numerous that her sons need to clear them away from time to time because of the weight of them. The waiting line to visit her is long and worshipfully silent.

I have known many kind people who have devoted their lives to service in the name of their God. I have never known anyone like my sister. She is truly one of God’s very special servants and I am very proud of her. If there is a special place in heaven for the saints, she will certainly be allowed entry.

So, the question becomes not "why she is a catholic?" but really "is she a catholic?"

I have always harbored a special ill will for the catholic church and, for that reason, do not capitalize it when I spell it out. I simply don’t understand how an institution of the Jesus I know could cast off someone who was (is) so faithful and so Christ-like in character. It will always be one of life’s great mysteries for me.

You asked what time it is. I built a watch for you! However, this will now become a part of the stories I am preserving and setting aside for my grandchildren.

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