I moved to Redwater, Texas from Hahira, Georgia in 2014, but I grew up in Syracuse, NY in the 1950s. The first time I went to Mass at Sacred Heart in Texarkana, I was pleasantly surprised that on the first Sunday of the month parts of the Mass were in Latin. The Kyrie, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei were like comfort foods. This year during Lent, all the Sunday Masses have some of the Latin including the Pater Noster. It has really been a throwback to my youth, and I love it.
As a cradle Catholic child, I took my faith for granted. My neighborhood was predominantly Catholic. Most of us went to parochial school, so it was only natural that my friends shared my faith. Almost everything I did and everyone I knew was centered around St. Lucy’s school and parish in Syracuse. Like so many other things, church was another part of growing up; going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation didn’t seem strange to us at all.
In the summer of 1958, a new girl, Joanne, moved into a house around the corner from me. She was a few years older than I was, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. Her dark hair and brown eyes were a stark contrast to my blonde hair and blue eyes. We liked a lot of the same things and got along famously.
One Saturday she invited me for a sleepover. When I showed up with a dress along with my pajamas, she was confused. I told her I had to go to 9:00 Mass in the morning. She didn’t know what Mass was, and since I was only eight at the time, I simply said, “Church.”
“I want to go,” she said.
But when she told her mom and dad, they said, “No!” I could spend the night, but they didn’t want her going to a Catholic Church.
The next morning, I headed out the door when Joanne’s mother called to me.
“You didn’t have any breakfast. Come sit down.”
“I can’t eat breakfast until after I go to Mass,” I replied with a smile. The mother shook her head. She probably thought it was barbaric that I had to go to church before I could eat. I never gave it a second thought. The practice was another part of life that I accepted without question.
My friendship with Joanne grew as the summer droned on, and she was more and more insistent that she be allowed to go to Mass with me. Her father agreed but warned her, “Don’t give them any money! It just goes to golden candlesticks and fancy robes!”
She was in awe from the moment she first entered the church. The stained-glass windows, the bigger-than-life statues, and the candles were a lot to take in, but that was nothing compared to what she experienced once the Mass began. I handed her a missal and showed her how to follow it in English. She was intrigued with the Latin. She had a lot of questions afterward.
“That is so cool! I didn’t know you could speak another language,” she stated with real admiration.
“I can’t. Not really. I only know what to say at Mass.”
“But it’s another language! And you were saying it like you knew what it meant,” she said.
“I do know what it means!”
“Then say something to me in Latin,” she said. “Tell me how pretty I look in my new dress.”
“I can’t. It’s a dead language. People don’t really use it. It’s only alive in church,” I replied sadly.
Joanne said, “Well then tell me what all that stuff that you said means.”
“Why didn’t you just read the English side?” I asked her.
Her look of disbelief was more like a dare and I wasn’t about to back down.
“Kyrie eleison means ‘Lord have mercy.’ Christi eleison means ‘Christ have mercy.’” I looked her in the eye, aware that I had won that round.
She said, “Those were easy ones. What about that long one? Bet you don’t know what all that meant.”
I smiled. “You must mean the Pater Noster. That’s the Our Father, the Lord’s prayer.”
“Really? Teach it to me. I want to pray it in Latin!”
“Well…” My look of superiority descended rapidly. “I don’t know it by heart. I have to read it.”
Joanne was downhearted, and we walked the rest of the way home in silence. Later that afternoon sitting on her front porch, she turned to me.
“Okay. This is what you’ve got to do. School starts next week. After school, before you come home, sneak into the church when nobody’s in there, and copy it down for me.”
“Copy what down? What are you talking about? I can’t do that. If Sister catches me going into church after school I might get in trouble.” I couldn’t believe she would put me in such jeopardy. Then again, she didn’t have the sisters for teachers at the public school.
“I want to learn to say the Our Father in Latin, and you’re the only one that can help me.”
True to my word, though in truth, I’m not sure I ever gave her my word, at the end of the first day of school, I snuck into the church. It was darker than it was on Sundays and eerily quiet. I could hear myself breathing, and my heart felt like it was about to jump out of my chest. I just knew I was going to get caught.
I slipped into the last pew and retrieved a missal. I copied the Pater Noster letter for letter, all the while certain of my own demise. I slipped the paper into one of my school books and sighed with relief. I got out of the pew, genuflected, and turned around to see Mother Superior. I froze in my steps. She motioned me to come forward, and as I did, she opened the door to the vestibule. Once we were outside the sanctuary, she smiled.
“What a beautiful way to start the school year; with a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.” With that, she walked away, and I breathed again.
Joanne practiced pronunciation, and I helped her. It wasn’t long before she had it memorized. She knew it better than I did. Her parents were not impressed and encouraged her to go to a different church.
Eventually, she went to a Methodist church that was farther away. She even joined their choir. But it was a long walk, and her family didn’t go with her. She knew I went to church every Sunday, and she missed saying the Latin prayers. So she came back to St. Lucy’s with me. One day she asked if other Catholic churches said prayers in Latin too, or if it was just our church.
“Latin is the language of the church.” I replied. “It’s universal. You can go to any Roman Catholic church anywhere in the world and it’s the same prayers.”
She said that made her feel like she was a special part of something. She really wanted to receive Communion, but her parents wouldn’t hear of her joining the Church. She just had to be content with what she had.
A couple years went by and at the ripe old age of 14 she confided in me that she knew exactly what she was going to do when she grew up. She was going to be a nurse, marry a much older boy whom she had a mad crush on, and she was going to become Catholic.
She is the only person I’ve ever known that fulfilled all her childhood dreams. After graduation, she started nursing school. Although she dated boys her age throughout high school, she and her old crush started dating in her early twenties. Around that same time, she began instruction and came into the church. Their wedding was spectacular. Joanne and her fiance were married in St. Lucy’s Catholic Church. She had special missalettes printed up to make it easier for her parents and other family and friends to follow along. Joanne and her husband welcomed a beautiful daughter and were married for thirty years until he passed away in 1997. Joanne’s daughter now lives in Austin, TX.
Joanne still lives in the Central New York area. She and I have been separated by many miles for many years but still manage to stay in touch. Joanne never remarried and is still a practicing Catholic. She tells everyone that it was the Pater Noster that led her to conversion and home to the Catholic Church.
Pater noster, qui es in caelis,
sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum.
Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,
et dimitte nobis debita nostra
sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo.