When we were young kids in St. Mary of Celle Parish in Berwyn, our parents would often open the family meal with a prayer, “Bless us, oh Lord, and these Thy gifts …” But at Aunt Sue’s house in Lyons, I remember reciting instead the familiar, “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food.” Once after being led by our aunt’s recitation, my little, red-haired comic/sister Sue perked up and exclaimed, “Hey, we eat lettuce!” My aunt laughed about that remark for years.
That the food on our table, including the lettuce, was “blessed” came as no revelation to us. After all, so was everything else about our house. Mom and Dad embraced the Catholic vision of the home as a “domestic church.” Parish priests had sprinkled holy water in, and prayed over, every room — closets included. Holy water fonts hung next to the light switches in each bedroom. A painting of Mary, Joseph and little Jesus sharing a meal in the woods reminded us daily that the practice of shared food with Mom and Dad went back to the Holy Family.
A crucifix at the front entrance greeted guests. And yes, there were visitors! Although my sisters relate they were embarrassed that friends would see people praying the rosary on their knees in our living room, their mortification didn’t stop our parents from opening our house to periodic visits by the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima. I remember Mom rolling out a vinyl runner in the living room so people could take off their shoes before settling to their knees in front of the Madonna’s statue.
As a domestic church, our bungalow also served as a place of religious learning. Dad taught CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) classes in our living room for Catholic kids who attended public schools. In fact, I had to agree to take his class when I transferred from Fenwick to Morton West.
Our neighborhood oozed Catholicism. The church sponsored the Little League in a field adjacent to the convent and rectory. Most of the kids I knew went to its K-8 school, where enrollment at the time hovered near 1,000. I saw many of them and their parents at Sunday Mass, as well as daily in the classroom. I served as an altar boy, beginning in fifth grade. First Communion in second grade and Confirmation in fifth constituted major, life-marking events for just about every boy and girl I knew.
As I walk today along Lake Michigan, 60 years later, I carry that First Communion book in hand. It awakens memories of that different era. I have experienced continuity with that time, as well as separation from it. We’re parishioners at Ascension Church in Oak Park, across Roosevelt Road from the old parish in Berwyn. Our kids are adults — all married. They were baptized in Pennsylvania when we were worshipping at St. Thomas United Church of Christ outside Harrisburg. For a couple of years, three of them attended St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Harrisburg. All of them took First Communion at Ascension after we moved to Oak Park. Maureen has served as a cantor at the church since 1996. My sons have all sung in the parish choir, as I do still today.
The Oak Park in which we raised our children is rich in developmental opportunity, secular as well as faith-based. There is a vital, colorful and diverse mix of religious institutions in town. The public schools, which our kids attended, respect that diversity without promoting a particular tradition.
Healthy food is celebrated in Oak Park in many home gardens, as well as by organizations devoted to it. We grew a lot of it ourselves in our backyard, including beans, radishes, cucumbers, beets, potatoes, onions, peppers, carrots and of course, lettuce.
On Thanksgiving days around the dining room table, we would express our appreciation to the Lord for the bounty we had received, some of which we had harvested right out our back door.
This Thanksgiving, Maureen and I are preparing to return to Oak Park after a few years in the city, bringing us closer to Ascension, not far from what is now a very different St. Mary of Celle, and happily, just a few minutes from our grandchildren.
Much has changed since Aunt Sue led us in prayer, but God is still great, and God is still good.