In the late 1950s, I attended catechism classes at a Catholic school called Our Lady of Czestochowa. This particular incarnation of the Madonna had a long history among Polish Catholics because the story goes that her gold-framed portrait hung in Jasna Gora monastery in Poland. One day in the 1400s, a fire erupted and the flames darkened the flesh-tone pigments. The church was miraculously saved and the icon became known as the Black Madonna.
In another incident, Hussites (Bohemian nationalists) stormed the monastery and stole the icon. One plunderer used his sword to inflict two strikes on the face. As he attempted a third strike, he fell to the ground and died. Matka Boska Czestochowska (Mother of God) returned safely again to her treasured spot in the monastery church.
The school was run by an order of Polish nuns with odd names, mostly Mexican sounding — Sister Leonita, Sister Jonita, Sister Assumpta. But they were Poles through and through, possessing the wide Eastern European faces and noses found on encyclopedia pages illustrating the Slavs. (I despised that word because it was so similar to “slobs.”) I think I was ethnically confused.
As an 8-year-old, I prepared for my first communion on Wednesday afternoons during “release time” from public school. For a year, we memorized the Baltimore Catechism’s rote questions and answers: “Who made us?” God made us. “Why did God make us?” To give him glory and honor all the days of our lives. We became dogmatic machines, spitting out phrases we never computed fully yet anxiously recited in front of captive classmates, praying for collective mercy. There’s nothing like the wrath of a strong-willed but weary nun who needs a coffee break or a swig of altar wine.
Sister Leonita seemed to have descended from heaven, possessing a pale white but beatific face. I remember her slender hands as they straightened a long brown veil; she tugged at each side as if fidgeting with unruly locks of hair. Long fingers that appeared ready to play the harp glided over her wooden cross, a weighty pendant on her chest. Unlike the stricter, older versions of the Felician sisters teaching in the dark cavernous classrooms with desks fastened to the floors, young Sister Leonita wore a perpetual smile and spoke with a slight accent. I don’t think she would call us “Protestants,” as I once heard the older nuns refer to us when we entered the school building after the parochial school kids had left.
As spring approached, we were readied to receive the Lord in our first communion. In late April, all of the communion classes convened in the ornate church with its multiple bloodied and pain-ridden statues. Every nook and cranny, niche and dome, possessed a glorification of martyrdom and self-immolation, quite a contrast to the Disney characters or our favorite Mouseketeers from black-and-white TVs we watched in our suburban homes. “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true!” No Tinker Bell or moon dust detected anywhere in the otherworldly domain of Polish Roman Catholicism. Just incense during High Mass or special novenas.
We processed two by two, girls on the right and boys on the left, short in front and tall in the back. Then we filed into long wooden pews and sat, soldiers awaiting our orders. Like clockwork, we rose in unison, walked the spacious main aisle to the altar railing with hands pointing upward, praying for relief. We knelt on the cold marble step, rehearsed receiving the host without dropping it, rose together without faltering, and returned via the side aisles. Nuns stood like centurion guards, signaling with silent gestures and occasional glaring eyes. This was not child’s play. We were receiving the Lord into our bodies, our physical homes, his temples. Were we ready? Ready or not, here I come!
As part of the tradition, each communicant had an angel, a younger sibling or cousin who dressed in long pastel dresses and trailed behind the priests and altar boys on that special day in May. Our private celestial escorts. My younger sister, Teeny, wore a beautiful pale green dress over a petticoat with a hoop at the bottom edge. Around her head, she wore a crown with dainty flowers and thin white streamers that cascaded on her poker straight blond hair.
Actually taking time off from school, I shopped for my communion dress with my Polish grandmother Baci and my mother. We drove to the East Side, the Polish neighborhood of Buffalo, where the wafting scents reminded immigrant families of Warsaw’s pastry shops. The artisans from Krakow, who tended the churches on every corner, tipped their worn and faded woolen caps with a “Yak sie masz?” How are you? It was expected that we would stop at Sattler’s Department Store at 998 Broadway, but pronounced “Broadvay,” a tooth bite on the bottom lip for emphasis, almost Yiddish.
White patent-leather shoes and white tights would accompany the dress. Layers of organza and crinoline gathered slightly at the waist allowed for delightful draping. A wide grosgrain ribbon, tied at the back, hung gracefully over the material. The veil whispered simplicity and had a crown as well to keep it anchored on my big head. It was presented in a small box fit for a bride-to-be. The dress hung on a padded hanger on the back of the bedroom door until the day arrived.
Before the ceremony, I was required to be on a retreat! Contemplation and silence were suggested by the nuns for at least three days prior to our big day. So, left to my own meditative devices, I swung in our swing between the garage and our house, reaching for heaven as I pumped away with my holey aqua Keds. I mused on nature, the pink and yellow roses growing from one bush up a tall white trellis, a grafting miracle, according to my father. Birds sang their carefree tunes about worms and wiggly bugs; maybe they had met God on their gossamer flights. Did they summon each other to get a quick peek at him as pictured in children’s books I’d read, before drifting behind the cumulus clouds?
I heard the snap of pillowcases and sheets billowing on the clotheslines behind the garage and thought of those thin leather whips I had seen in church art. Had I sinned? Sneaked a chocolate candy from the double-tiered dish on the table in the dining room? Called my older sister a swinie, a pig, when she slurped her favorite pop? Borrowed an arithmetic answer from a classmate? Committed adultery? Coveted my neighbor Wendy’s new bike? Had I taken the Lord’s name in vain? My father had, more than twice in a week! I prayed for him just in case he was busy at work. Kill two birds with one stone. Upiec dwie pieczenie przy jednym ogniu.
On May 29, I awoke early with butterflies dancing a polka in my stomach. I had fasted overnight, as required in those days before taking communion. Maybe that was actually hunger. I dressed with help from all female family members and then walked the stretch of sidewalk outside our house reserved for our Brownie camera moments. Dad photographed my beaming face as we prepared to leave for church in his 1954 Mercury with leather-tufted seats.
Inside the church, the ceremony was a blur of white and navy blue rushing back and forth, with the distant sound of Polish hymns and a pipe organ blasting chords as if to raise the dead. Later in the day, I celebrated with bubbling root beer from a large keg and accepted gifts of jewelry and money from friends and relatives. Baci and her brothers, my old great-uncles, sang Polish songs I didn’t understand and drank beer until they fell asleep sitting up. They never smiled. I guess they had forgotten the joy that religion could bring.
Marcia Mitrowski is the adult outreach coordinator at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton, where she teaches English as a second language classes. She lives in Sag Harbor.