Main | Thursday, July 15, 2004

St. Egbert

I was born a Catholic.

I almost used the usual expression 'born and raised', but decided that wasn't quite true. When I was a child, we never discussed God or religion, not at home anyway. There was no cross on our wall, no plaster Virgin Mary statue, no creepy Jesus picture with eyes that seemed to follow you. I never knelt at bedtime to say prayers, and we never said 'grace' at dinner.

No, in our home, our religion was for 'show.' We HAD to go to church, because otherwise, what would the neighbors say? I HAD to go to Sunday school, because otherwise, what would the church members say?

My birth certificate identifies me as Catholic.

Place of birth: Cherry Point, USMC Division Hospital.
Live birth Y/N: Yes.
Sex M/F: Male.
Name: Joseph William XXXXXXXXX
Religion: Catholic.
Parents married Y/N: Yes.
Mother Name/Age: Dorothy, 19.
Father Name/Age: William, 22.
Occupation Of Father: USMC, active duty.
Rank Of Father (If active duty): Lance Corporal.
Mother tested for syphilis Y/N: yes. Result: negative.

It probably says a lot about North Carolina (back then, at least) that they wanted to know the occupation of my father, but they only wanted to know whether my mother had been tested for syphilis.

So I came home from the base hospital as a 'Catholic'. Not surprisingly, rural coastal North Carolina was not littered with Catholic churches. Not back then, and I'm pretty sure, not right now.

After the Korean War, the three Marine bases clustered on the North Carolina coast (Cherry Point, Camp Lejeune, New River) dramatically increased in size and population as the new dynamics of modern warfare made the Marine Corp an increasingly vital and visible component of the U.S. military. By the time Vietnam came into the picture, the Marines were already a much larger entity and still growing.

Then, as now, the make-up of the armed forces, particularly the enlisted, tended to be the underclass. Then, as now, the underclass was much more Catholic than the general population. These new Marines...Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican (and others) flooded the area around the three bases. The Diocese of North Carolina, based hundreds of miles away in Raleigh, was caught unprepared to serve this surge of Catholics to the area.

For us, the closest Catholic church was St.Egbert, 25 miles away in Morehead City. Twenty-five miles of narrow country roads, with railroad crossings, 4-way stops, crawling farm equipment and the occasional herd of livestock to further slow your journey.

At yet we went, each Sunday. The Marine families would always arrive in waves, in long caravans of families following each other through the unfamiliar roads from their respective bases. My father always got us there early, so that we'd get 'good seats,' as the new wave of worshippers filled tiny St.Egbert to overflowing. My mother would spend this time gossiping in the parking lot with the other Marine wives, before Father Gallagher appeared on the steps and rang his bell to signal the start of Mass.

Father Gallagher had a peculiar manner of arm gestures when he spoke, waving his hands slowly and rhythmically, as if he were leading a symphony through a languid composition by Brahms. During the Mass, when he was speaking Latin, his head would tilt back and his eyes would seem to roll back in his head, never failing to elicit tittering from children.

And then there was his voice. Father Gallagher had a lisp. A very bad lisp. To me, he sounded exactly like the Looney Tunes character Sylvester The Cat, complete with uncontrolled spitting. We learned very quickly not to stand too close to Father Gallagher.

My dad did a pretty good impression of Father Gallagher, which he'd launch into whenever he was drunk and around other Marines. Only in my dad's hands, Father Gallagher's lisp was less Sylvester The Cat, and more Truman Capote. Dad would mince in a circle, waving his arms like Father Gallagher, but adding limp wrists.

Then he'd speak: 'In the name of the Father, the Thun, and the Holy Thpirit...God bleth you all.'

Sometimes after that, he'd point at a Marine and add, with a salacious wink, 'But ETHPETHIALLY bleth YOU, big boy!'

Everyone thought my dad's act was hilarious, including me, although I didn't understand the subtext of his mocking impression for many years.

My dad's attendance at St.Egbert declined over the years. By the time I was ready to start elementary school, he was only going on the 'big' days, Easter and Christmas. My sister and I would always use that when we complained about going ourselves.

'But DADDY isn't going!'

It never worked. We always had to go. In retrospect I realize that my mother's only real social contacts outside of our trailer park, were at St.Egbert.

One Sunday afternoon, about the time I was approaching my sixth birthday, I was sitting outside the confessional booth at St.Egbert. I was waiting for my mother, who was upstairs in the office, helping count the collection taken during Mass. A hand fell on my shoulder. It was Father Gallagher.

'Hello there, Joey! Did you enjoy the thervith today?'

What was I going to say..'No Father, you bored me shitless once again'?

Instead I just nodded. Father Gallagher looked around the empty pews.

'Ith your mother thtill upthtairs?'


'How old are you now, Joey?'

'Six and a half,' I answered. 

'I thought tho,' Father Gallagher answered, casting another look around the empty church.

He put his hand on my shoulder again.

'Why don't you come with me into my offith. There'th thomething I want to thow you.'

-To Be Continued-

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