Monday, July 02, 2007

When Mothers Become Contemplative Nuns - Part II

Pencil Drawing by Matthew Pleva
Original 2 x 3 inches

Early this spring, I asked for some feedback from visitors to this blog concerning what kept them coming and what was of interest to them. A number declared their curiosity about my vocation story. Part I of that story appeared in May '07. You can see it by going to the Archives in the sidebar.

Before marrying in 1967, I had lived every day of my life in the same house in which my mother was raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York. My Sicilian grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran of World War I, visited Sicily in the early 1920s and returned to the States with a young bride and her eight-year old sister in tow. By 1931 he was a widower with two young children, jobless and just managing to hold on to his house and family in the midst of the Great Depression.

My father arrived in the United States at age seven with his parents and sister. They were escaping the dire post-World War I inflationary economic conditions in Germany. My mother says that my father's family did well during the depression in comparison to hers because my paternal grandfather brought master machinist skills with him and took on the job of superintendent in their Bronx apartment building to minimize the rent. Dad speaks of getting barrels of coal ash to the street each Saturday morning and washing the floors of long hallways. My mother has memories of food baskets left at the door, long lines waiting for shoes and caring for her little brother who never knew his mother.

How did these folks meet? My grandfather brought his seventeen-year old daughter to a party sponsored by the International Ladies Garments Workers Union and my father, newly minted member of the U.S. Air Corps, was there with a friend. At the end of the evening, he told his buddy, "I am going to marry that girl." They will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary next month.

I grew up in a three generation culturally Italian household. This was the family to which my father returned as a veteran of World War II with service in the Pacific. He'd been a freshman in City College in 1939. He became a draftsman and finished his education at night graduating with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

We lived across the street from St. Mary Mother of Jesus Church. None of the adults in our household went to church but my sister and I were sent. We remember Sunday morning children's masses, confession lines on Saturday afternoon, Novena on Tuesday night, the Sisters of St. Joseph who taught us in CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and the Baltimore Catechism. We did not attend the Catholic School because our parents preferred the public school as a better reflection of multi-cultural society in which we lived and would, one day, work and raise families.

Even among these comparatively mild Roman Catholic influences God spoke to my heart at an early age. My oldest memory of being deeply touched is situated at Holy Thursday morning High Mass. I watched the procession all a glitter in gold, mystified by incense and awash in tutti frutti colored sunlight filtered by stained glass windows. I was only seven or eight years old but nonetheless awestruck as the Eucharist was carried to the altar of repose. I knew something 'other' was present there.

When it came time for high school the notion of religious vocation was percolating in my heart. Perhaps a bit concerned about their daughter's welfare in a big public high school, my parents agreed to my request to attend Fontbonne Hall Academy, a small school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. The school was located on the banks of The Narrows, the entrance into the harbor of New York City, flanked by the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Today that stretch is dominated by the Verrezano Narrows Bridge. After four years of the excellent general education provided by the sisters, I went on to Hunter College of the City University of New York. I am in debt to Hunter for its highly prescribed (before all the curriculum changes wrought by the tumult of the late 60s and early 70s) liberal arts education - double major in History and Elementary Education, minor in English - and graduated in 1967.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

It was comforting to hear that your Italian-American family was nonchurchgoing like mine! They sent us along to church nevertheless. I got to go to Catholic school only when I won a scholarship. There's no stopping our God from getting through now, is there?