I love the quote from the inimitable Yogi Berra: "It's like deja vu all over again." That's the feeling I had yesterday as we sat at the 9:00 am Spanish-language Mass at St. Rose of Lima church in Meriden, Connecticut. This is a lovely church in a small town in Connecticut filled with Mexican immigrants, but it could have been Our Lady of Loreto church in 1950s Brooklyn filled with Italian immigrants; the similarities were remarkable. The entrance procession took a while. It was led by a group of middle-aged Mexican ladies, all seemingly under four feet tall, who were members of the St. Rose of Lima women's sodality. Dressed in red and black, they marched up the aisle, the veiled tops of their heads barely visible through the standing crowd, as they proudly carried their sodality's banners and sang the entrance hymn, in Spanish of course. Their lined, sunburned faces spoke of hard lives, but their faith gave them an inner glow as they basked in the attentions of their friends and family. In Our Lady of Loreto church 60 years ago, the scene would have been exactly the same except that the Italian women would have belonged to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel sodality and their uniforms would have been black and brown. My Aunt Anna was a ranking member of the Daughters of Mount Carmel.. Her manner was normally subservient, but when she marched up that aisle at the head of the sodality, she assumed an air of command that completely transformed her.
Father Jack began the mass in what I assume was fluent Spanish. He is a big man with a shaved head who looks more like a Russian hit man than a man of God, but the congregation's affection for him seems clear and vice-versa. Father Jack moves confidently through the liturgy attended by Mexican altar servers, lectors and singers who look like Munchkins alongside his towering presence. At Loreto, our counterpart to Father Jack was Monsignor Baretta, a small but no less imposing figure who presided over the church in its heyday. The Monsignor could be charming when he had to be, but I think it was his nature to be wary and cunning like a Sicilian Mafiosi. Like all Catholic priests, both men did what they had to do to keep their church vibrant...not always easy in poor neighborhoods where families had all they could do to put food on the table.
In both churches, the presence of families worshiping together was a common denominator, not something we see all that much, at least in our regular Staten Island church...people wearing their Sunday best to Mass... women in dresses, men in jackets and ties, and children scrubbed to within an inch of their lives. I was wearing shorts, and I'm sure the phrase "disrespectful gringo" was uttered more than once. The sense of family was reinforced when it came time to exchange a sign of peace. This took about five minutes as people wandered around the church greeting family and friends. The music was fabulous...a cross between Gregorian Chant and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I half expected a Conga line going up to Communion.
At the end of the service, nobody bolted for the door to be first out to the parking lot. Like at Our Lady of Loreto, congregants of St. Rose stayed in their pews until the last bars of the closing hymn. After Mass they mingled, catching up in small groups with goings-on and laughing like they had not a care in the world. Not only Father Jack, but all the ushers, gathered at the rear of the church to greet parishioners and visitors alike. It was interesting watching the mostly Caucasian members of the parish arriving for the next Mass. They seemed to wait inside their cars until all the smiling Mexicans departed, lest they be touched by their joy. African-Americans and Hispanics, in my limited experience, are more joyous in their religious services than up tight white people. My wife and I speak no Spanish, yet we felt like an integral part of that Mass because of the simple faith and celebratory mood of the people.
When you really think about it, twenty-first century Mexican-Americans are not very different from 1950s Italian-Americans. Both groups work hard to make things better for the next generation; education and religion are important parts of their lives; and family trumps everything else. So to the good people of St. Rose, thank you for making us feel welcome and for your reminder that worshiping God does not have to be all gloom and doom.
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