BY JESSICA CORSI
We walked up to the church on Christmas Eve and ran smack into the TV cameras and a news anchor out in front. What the heck was this? The church is located in an area of Western Massachusetts small and rural enough to still be called a “village,” with a population of less than 2,000 people and nothing in it that I can remember, except an old hitching post, with the date of the village’s founding stamped on it.
The day had already gotten off to a weird start. Never in my life had I taken a bus into my mother’s home town on Christmas Eve, and she had already managed to “lose me” in a town so small she doesn’t even get mail delivered directly to her house. Yet now there were bright lights and a TV camera trained on a tiny little box of a small town church. What could possibly be going on? The church’s Christmas pageant was usually good, but not that good.
“Jessica, you do the talking,” my great aunt joked, nodding toward the camera and elbowing me.
“Why are they here?” I asked her.
“This is the last Mass of this church. It’s closing.” I could have used a little advance warning.
“Last Mass?” I asked. By this point we are already crossing ourselves as we enter and search out a pew. This is our Christmas Eve Church, because it puts on a hilarious Christmas pageant before the Mass, and because the priest that travels here just to do the Christmas Eve service does touching things like pass out candy to the children, who in turn do funny things like run around the church triumphantly eating candy. If that sounds mundane, you’ve never been to a Catholic Mass. It’s not usually a barrel of laughs.
We take a seat at the front of the Church, immediately behind the pews reserved for the pageant participants. The place is even more packed than usual, and, in contrast to previous years, the heat is on, for a change. I suppose they figure that, for their last night in existence, they could afford to blast the heat. That, and the fact that keeping it cold hadn’t exactly proven to be a strategy effective enough to keep them open.
They’ve printed a special bulletin just for the occasion, with “St. Bartholomew’s Parish, 130 years” on the cover and a history of the church inside. My great aunt starts pointing out family members that I didn’t know I had. “And this guy was out relative, and this one,” she says, tracing her finger down the list of priests and deacons. No wonder my mom is so religious, I think to myself, as I see just how many fruits on the family tree managed to wind up taking religious orders. I’m having that “How come no one ever tells me anything?” feeling again.
“And this nun was our cousin. My father used to pick her up, and she couldn’t leave the convent without another nun. Isn’t that crazy? And they had to sit in the backseat of the car; neither of them could sit up front with my Dad. Your mom was terrified of them.”
“That’s true,” my mom agreed. “I don’t know what it was but I was terrorized when they’d come over. I’d last about a minute before running and hiding.”
Habited nuns had walked the rooms of my grandparents’ house, the house I was staying in that night? Their rules about traveling with at least two women, not being able to drive, and their giant habits make me think of Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t so long ago that Catholic religious orders’ practices resembled the practices of Muslims. I remembered that before Vatican II, all of the girls and women had to cover their heads in Church.
The pageant was starting, sort of. The place was buzzing with chatter, packed as it was and with the show running late. The pageant coordinators were flying around the place looking like Hollywood agents stressed about their starlets being late for the red carpet, whispering to each other but offering us no explanation. Finally it came—the priest ascended to the pulpit and announced,
“Well, there’s been some mix-up. Father so-and so had the time wrong. I just reached him on his cell phone. He thought that Mass started 30 minutes later. So why don’t we just begin?”
The pipe organ began piping, and the choir began singing. The monotone teenage readers assumed their positions on stage, and someone began reciting the words that set the scene for the little town in Bethlehem. On cue, the angels began bouncing down the aisle. The littlest angel was giving new meaning to bounce: literally skipping around the church, twisting her head in all directions to get a better view. The toddler was making her halo flap and her sneakers flash red lights with the impact.
Soon, baby Jesus was there, and he was actually a real live baby, and also apparently the cutest baby in the entire world. As Joseph and Mary made their way around the altar pretending to look for a room at the in, Joseph’s staff got caught in the Christmas tree, a hazard I’m sure the original couple endured with as much grace. As they assumed their positions center stage and facing the congregation, the angels traipsed down the aisle once again.
But the world’s cutest toddler angel was, apparently, related to the world’s cutest baby Jesus. “Mommy! Hiiii!!!” she whispered, and as the angels walked right toward the holy couple and the others took a sharp left turn, she gleefully continued straight on, running towards her mother Mary to give her a hug and offer a kiss to the tiny Son of God. As Mary fumbled with both children, it became clear it was going to be hard to separate the newborn from his new guardian.
As Mass started, the joyfulness quickly wore off. The mood was tense, almost heartbreakingly sad. No one there wanted this to be the last Mass. Already there had been so many church closings; each weekend that I had gone home to visit my family my grandmother would read me the announcements from the local paper of which Chuch was closing here, which over there. I hadn’t thought too much about it. I knew that, in the U.S., Catholicism was faltering; that the dioceses everywhere were running out of money; and that the priesthood was hurting for new recruits. This Church had “borrowed” a priest from a village in Nigeria because there were no locals to draw upon.
As the Mass wore on, the whole parish began crying. I didn’t know what do to with myself; I’m entirely unused to seeing giant grown men standing in front of an altar decorated with Christmas flowers and bawling their eyes out. My own family was tearing up, and I got swept up in the moment. I only came to this church one night a year, but I knew that other people formed a community here each week, and that they were losing both that and a sense of their history. In an act of rebellion, one of the parish organizers announced that, “Tonight’s collection will not go to the Dioceses, because they haven’t taken care of us. It will go to Father’s church in Nigeria.” I’d never heard such defiance coming from the altar before.
“I really hope they don’t tear the building down,” my great aunt whispered.
It took 15 minutes to walk the 30 yards to the exit of the church. The parishoners had blocked the aisles greeting and hugging each other, mourning. My great aunt was off conversing with relatives no one bothers to tell me are my relatives. Later on, she would try and sketch out the family tree.
Back in the car, everyone let out a sigh.
“Did you see the angel’s shoes?” my mom asked.
“They lit up!” my aunt responded. We drove home.