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This is the introduction to my book entitled Growing Up Catholic. Please follow upcoming posts for passages from various chapters within the text. Please understand that these are my personal musings. They appear as I saw/see them. The accuracy of what follows may or may not be exactly in step with historical facts. This is my reality based on the way I grew up in my town. Please know that this is NOT an non-fiction work or historical document. It is me.
Disclaimer: I am not a theologian nor a biblical scholar. My stories are as I experienced them first hand growing up in a strict Catholic family and attending Catholic Grade School in the late 1960's and early 1970's. The are my memories as they occurred. These are neither teachings nor are they anti-religion, anti-Catholicism in any way. Just a viewpoint.
Growing up in a small, mill town meant one thing - you HAD to be Catholic - it defined you - whether you liked it or not
Italians, Germans, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek - it didn't matter. And, just as there were at least three bars on every street, there was at least one Catholic church on every block - this is not a stretch. Please read on to understand. The church itself didn't necessarily have to be "generic" ROMAN Catholic, as long as it was Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Irish Catholic, German Catholic, Polish Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, Byzantine Catholic. (I know why it is called Roman Catholic, but I just don't get the idea of calling a sect by the name of those who tortured and killed so many of its believers. You know the story - Romans killing Christians: Romans helping to crucify Christ, Romans overseeing the politics and policing places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem - Tiberius, Caesar Augustus. This is a stretch, but I can't see the Jewish Church being called the "Nazi" Jewish Church - doesn't make sense whatsoever).
Anyway, I was one of the fortunate ones. My great grandparents immigrated from Germany and Slovenia, and somewhere in the mid 1800's, they, along with their fellow newcomers, decided to build a monstrously large church that was a very close replica of the Catholic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. At this time in Pittsburgh, obviously, the entire region was accepting Germans, Italians, Polish, Greek, etc., assimilating into their culture. See images relating to this article.
A interesting site to visit that explains the enormous cultural influx of members of all nationalities that took place in Pittsburgh and the surrounding regions was immense:
As is the case, places of worship had to be built, and thus they were - and, in my hometown, they had to be built everywhere. Note: since Slovenia and Germany were so close in culture and proximity in Europe, and there were a number of Slovenian/German marriages; so, the Slovenes (not Slovaks - according to my grandmother - they despised one another. I remembered so often being scolded by my grandmother who constantly told me "WE ARE NOT SLOVAKS. Remember, you are SLOVENIAN, and don't ever forget that) and Germans built this massive "cathedral-like" neighborhood church. My family sort of "owned" a church just by being who they were nationally, culturally, and relatively close. That sounds great in theory, but to me, and you will see in future essays, became quite a burden. Indeed, my grandparents had brass nameplates on "their" seats and pews in their church.
Twenty-twenty hindsight would say that all of these nationalities should have put aside differences and built one huge church for all the immigrants, but, as you read on, that wasn't going to happen. Refer to following historical references to the size, the dates, and the actual construction of St. Mary's Help of Christian Church in the following:
Obviously, language barriers, cultural significance, stood in the way of this occurring. In addition, these hard workers had little time to "organize" with other cultures and "waste" time planning something that might seem to be the "right" thing to do simply because they were working so hard in the mills and factories built by the Carnegie's and their kind. Simply getting together after work and having a drink, dinner, spending time with their families, getting some sleep, and, in many cases "dying" from overwork that probably someone saying "let's all get together, have a huge meeting, and plan a church" wasn't going to happen - hence - they built their own churches in their own "territories" and own culturally significant to their beliefs and the cultures.
What is a bit amusing regarding this exclusion of each other's culture and practices, at that time, ALL of the Catholic masses were said in Latin and not German or Lithuanian.
Please see history of the German Catholic Church dating back to the mid 1800's at the following site:
To build a church the size of St. Mary's was a HUGE undertaking by any stretch of the imagination, by any standards past and present. I have tried in vain to research the cost of such a church but to no avail (please see the first few photos on the IMAGE page to see how large St. Mary's is). And, to make my point even more bizarre, the Irish Catholic Church, built around the same period (also very large but nowhere near this size) was one block away. The orthodox denominations had their own special part of the town, as did the Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, and Greeks, most all built around the same time.
I have this picture in my mind of all of these nationalities scurrying to build churches, a competition to see who could build the biggest, most ornamental, most significant. A race for the ages.
My great-grandparents and grandparents had a hand in building this monolith, and, like good Catholics, since they were part of the first parishioners, they even had their own seats with name tags. Everyone had "their place" in this church that held at least 800 people - and, believe it or not, it was always crowded!
On the image page of this blog, you can see the many churches in my neighborhood; including St. Mary's, there are thirteen in all (that also includes St. Vincent DePaul Church that wasn't actually in McKees Rocks). It bordered the borough, and was only one half mile from St. Mary's and where I was born.
Writer's note: I needed to mention St. Vincent's Church because 1) it actually appears to be in the same town and only the locals would know that it wasn't, and 2) the love of my life and I were married there in 1983. St. Vincent was the Lithuanian Catholic church. The church my wife's family attended. As you can see in the image page, it looks more like a school (which it is) but the church was sort of in the basement. The original church burned down some time ago. In addition, on the image page, two churches, Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church looked more like a school (which it was) than a church. And St. Andrew the Apostle Romanian Orthodox Catholic Church looks more like a small banquet hall than a church. I would save this for later, but before St. Andrew the Apostle became St. Andrew the Apostle Church, it was a "worship" site when, as you might guess, four of the Roman Catholic churches merged in the 1980's to form on church - St. John of God - but that has no bearing on my story.
In 1960, McKees Rocks, my home town, had 11 (yes ELEVEN) Catholic or Catholic denominations churches (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Byzantine Orthodox) churches ALL WITHIN A TWO MILE RADIUS OF EACH OTHER - in one area of town - referred to "the Bottoms," five catholic churches consisting of five different catholic denominations all occupied one city block!
Pay attention closely: this is certainly information you need to know in order for me to set up my "story." I really need you to understand the importance of being Catholic growing up in my town - what it meant and what it symbolized. It gets to the "root" of the issue.
I realized later in life that most of the church ladies with their husbands in tow (in my early childhood, husbands were always in tow) on Sundays probably went to the 7:00 am mass, the 9:00 am mass, the 10:30 am mass, and the noon mass, as well as the Sunday evening Vigil Mass held each week at 7:00 pm. All masses crowded all of the time (except for the 7:00 am mass). The population of McKees Rocks at the time of my adolescence was roughly 13,000 (according to the 1960 census). It wasn't as though our town was huge by any stretch of the imagination, but how in the world could one Roman German Catholic church hold that many people for every mass?
The Irish, Polish, Greeks, Italians were all celebrating this feast or that feast in their own churches. No, don't say that they probably went to different masses based on the time - ALL THE MASSES WERE AT THE SAME TIME. Plus, back then, no self respecting German would set foot in an Irish church, just like no self important Italian would ever have the gall to attend mass in a German or Greek church (Important note: this point will become a major theme in this story.) It was important that all supported their heritage (Watch the movie Gangs of New York and you can have a better picture of what I am building).
You not only had to be Catholic, but it was expected, insisted on, actually, beat into you, attending church on Sundays and every last one of the holy days, including the entire Easter vigil, midnight mass (lasting for hours), Stations of the Cross, this holy day, that holy day. I don't need to remind anyone reading this is that the Catholic Church has a HUGE AMOUNT OF SAINTS. And, I do not have to remind you that every day seemed to be the celebration of this saint or that saint. What that meant was that, including the 7:00 am mass, the church remained open all day because some saint was being celebrated that day. I sort of lucked out on this because my name is Stephen (no, not STEVEN or even Steve - Stephen), and yes, for all of you Catholics out there, St. Stephen's "Feast" Day occurs the day after Christmas - yep, December 26. I even feel the adults tired of all the church ceremonies after the long Advent season, and that meant I kind of skated out of going to church on December 26th. I was the only Stephen in my group of friends. Heaven help you if your name was Mary, Joseph, John, David, or even Stanislaus (STAN - but I assumed you got that one), or any other Catholic name than Stephen. There is only one St. Stephen in the Catholic dictionary - so I happily only had one day, and that day was actually a day I either never mentioned, hid, or was nowhere to be found. By the way, as this story grows, for your information, St. Stephen was the FIRST, YES, THE VERY FIRST, saint to be MARTYRED. That was always a source of pride for me - heck, who else could make that claim. However, it also became a bane, as you read on, because I often felt as if I was martyred every day of my life - but we'll save that for later.
I can hear my mother now on Christmas, "Don't forget tomorrow is St. Stephen's Feast Day. Don't forget about getting up early to go to church for St. Stephen's Feast day" time and time again.
FEAST DAY? Where in the world did the Catholics come up with the word "feast" - we weren't eating the saints, at least that was what I thought. Yes, I know there is a reason for calling it a feast day just as there is a reason for calling anything any name. But I won't research that because I like to believe my own feelings that come to mind when hearing the Catholic term "feast." (There will be more to come on these issues).
Back to my point, obviously, in my young life, church was THE happening event of the week. This was soon to change. The Church Ladies would be put to the test and their solemnity put in question for all to see.
No, I am not in the least doubting their theology, their commitment to God, their commitment to their religion and ideology. But the tides of "church going" would soon change, and going to church would take on another turn, which, in its turn, allowed us to see exactly how committed our local church goers were to their cause. This extremely pious group of women (and some men) would, in my mind, challenge this piety with some of their actions. This too shall come later.
I know I have rambled about the beginnings of my church, and what, you ask, has this to do with the title of this piece "Church Ladies on Steroids" - but it will all come together as you read future blogs. Please be patient with this history that is so important to framing my present.
Next installation: THE SATURDAY NIGHT MASS!!!!!