My parents were Catholics, and their three children were brought up as Catholics. My sister and I attended a convent school in South Africa and later I went to convents both in Britain and Northern Rhodesia. My brother was an altar boy for several years and aged nine, was sent to a Christian Brothers Boarding School in Kimberley from our home in Zambia, something he never forgave my parents for.
Our family attended mass every Sunday, and we had a close friendship with our parish priest, Fr. Claude. He was Franciscan and Swiss, he smoked like a chimney and he loved a drink, and often said he said he heard more confessions at the bar than in the confessional. He enjoyed a party and a dance, playing the ‘squash box’ for our entertainment, he was an engaging man, a real people’s person, and was friends with people of all religions, races and status. He told great stories and liked a joke – someone recently sent a photo of him christening someone’s baby, with that baby’s dummy in his mouth. He was known to be ‘a character’, a raconteur, a friend to all.
Mass was at 7 am every Sunday and his sermon was always very short, as he had to be at the golf club and on the green by 7.45 am, something which suited us all, as my mother would have to get home to her ‘roast’ – which had been placed in the oven before mass and which cooked for hours before lunch around 1 pm. Fr. Claude sometimes joined us for lunch after his game, and my Dad who was not a drinker, would chill several Castle or Lion beers for his consumption. I was sometimes embarrassed at lunch for Fr. Claude had heard all of my ‘sins’ during confession, but I reasoned he had heard everyone else’s ‘sins’ at the table and anyway, besides, I knew that some of my sins weren’t really sins, but something I made up to have something to say to him in the darkness of the confessional booth. He wasn’t supposed to know who we were, as it was dark in there and we were separated by a curtain, but he would always start and end by saying “Bless you Sandra” so I knew he knew who I was.
As a child I never questioned my faith, it was as much a part of my life as my family was, and besides, there were church fetes, church dances, and church socials – which were an essential part of our entertainment in the small mining town we lived in, in the middle of the bush.
The nuns attended mass too, sitting in two rows, their tropical white habits stark against the dark wood of the pews. They were a big part of my life – for there was school, the convent.
After our return from the UK during the Congo Uprising and the strict, sadistic German nuns at St. Mary’s in Mill Hill, London, these American nuns at Sacred Heart Convent were a delight. I adored them and I loved that school, and I wore my ‘Marshall’ (Prefect) white leadership webbing with great pride. My Dad taught me how to whitewash it, and it would rub off on to my aubergine coloured tunic. When the school finally got a bus, my father taught all the nuns to drive, but he swore that he aged a decade in doing so. They however, considered him a hero, and were very fond of him, which perhaps helped to create the close bond I had with them. They occasionally attended the bioscope on a Saturday afternoon, they shopped in our town, and generally behaved like ‘normal people’. They all lined up to have their fortunes told at our annual Church Fete, crossing Granny Longhurst’s (the grandmother of the man I later married) hand with a piece of silver, and giggled like kids themselves. Sister Vincent de Paul was an exceptional soccer player, and would hitch up her skirts, run up and down that field, and belt that ball with unerring skill. Sister Barbara Ann was exasperated with my propensity for speech (“Sandra talks all the time”) – yet she saw a talent in me and spent hours sitting in the corridor, giving me extra lessons in English and writing. (Thank you Sister Barbara Ann.) Sister Zalia taught 45 kids in kindergarten, including my brother. For that alone, I am sure she attained martyrdom. I enjoyed helping her ensure they all got fed during lunch break, observing her patience and a quiet strictness that even my brother seemed to pay attention to. I was once sent to collect something from the kitchen in the house the nuns lived in on the school grounds. There I encountered Mother Mary Rose without her wimple, she averted her gaze and hurried away, as I did. Her uncovered head and hair was as shocking as if I had witnessed her stark naked.
I went to high school and began to mix with ‘non-Catholic’ kids, and whilst I began to question my boundaries and the world and my parents, I never questioned my belief in my Catholicism. Indeed it was the source of many agonising hours of self flagellation as my boyfriend (the one who became my husband in my late teens, and remains so) and I explored our sexuality. We would have frequent heated sexual exchanges and then heated bouts of guilt and blame, followed by yet another visit to the confessional with Fr. Claude, when we admitted our disgraceful acts under the guise of ‘impure thoughts and deeds’, which I somehow discovered was an acceptable explanation without being too specific. At seventeen, away at secretarial college in Rhodesia, my girlfriend Marian will to this day attest, that I said my rosary last thing at night, every night, rattling those beads till she shrieked in frustration “Stop all that bloody praying, for God’s sake!”
It was only after I was married that my faith began to slip. I was 19 and in the first month of my marriage, our local priest called to welcome us, the new family, into the district. I opened the door in shorts and pigtails, and he politely enquired “Is your Mother home?” I drew myself to my full five feet three inches, and replied “I AM the Mother in this house” – even though I was years away from becoming a mother. We lived a fair way from town, we only had one car, and my husband often worked weekends. The habit of Sunday mass began to erode over a few years, my parents lived far away, and if Gerald was home, it was our ‘special’ time.
After a life changing car accident, we decided to emigrate to Australia. One of my first phone calls in Gladstone in Queensland, was to the Catholic Church, asking if I could volunteer my services, explaining I would not be working for the nine months we would be there. The priest asked me if I was a teacher or a nurse, and when I said no, and told him I was a secretary, he said, “No, we have nothing for you to do.” Well, I never went to mass in Gladstone, I can tell you. This was not the kind of priest I was accustomed to. I volunteered with Meals on Wheels instead, and loved it.
Some months later, we moved to Brisbane, and I met another Catholic priest, a man of the calibre of dear Fr. Claude. He was Fr. Joe, returned from New Guinea where he had served for several years, and was for some reason, living for months with a family close by. They had teenage kids and were understandably tired of sharing their home, and so Fr. Joe came to live with us. He was with us for a few months, and was an anchor for me, a reminder of my family and home and life in Africa, and supremely reassuring when we knew few people, and were so lacking in life skills. He guided us with humour and wisdom, he wrote us references, he introduced us to people who could support and mentor us. He was a stand in parent, and in return, I was his willing slave. I cooked him all the meals he loved, I ran him bubble baths, I drove him all over town, we talked and laughed and he taught us so much about our new land. I loved Fr. Joe and am grateful to him. It was he who urged us to take the promotion Gerald was offered, and move from Brisbane to Sydney. When our son was born soon after, it was Fr. Joe who christened him in the Catholic Church in Paddington. I took our son to church in his pram for perhaps a year or more, and then once again we moved, this time to Melbourne. Gerald had lost interest in mass years ago, and I found it hard getting there alone with the toddler and the pram so early on a Sunday. On the occasions I did go, our son was bored and noisy, so it was easy to find reasons not to go - and I stopped going to mass altogether. It was over a decade before I returned. No doubt the fact I left my marriage twice, once for seven years, contributed to my absence. I was a Fallen Woman. Always a Catholic however, I always went to mass at Christmas and at Easter, and I always took communion - that was just a ‘given’.
I visit all kinds of churches wherever we travel, I rejoice in hearing the mass spoken in other languages, am thrilled by their song, their clothing, their customs, I love observing how other people celebrate their beliefs, and I especially love the gospel churches of black America. Oh man, that is better than a James Brown concert, and I love the people who rejoice so freely! In Mexico, Spain, Ireland, Turkey, Germany, Africa, the Pacific and many other countries, I have sought solace and understanding, and never been disappointed.
But I really only returned to Sunday mass regularly about eighteen years ago, when we moved to a charming country village on the south coast of Sydney. We had bought my parents a house there a few years earlier, and they attended Sunday mass there at St. Patricks. Gerald and I came down every weekend to our ‘country home’ from Sydney, spending our two day weekend building a home and a garden, and each week I accompanied my Mom and Dad to Sunday mass. It was the one of the special things we still shared whilst living in different towns, only seeing each other on weekends. (That statement in itself is an anomaly today, I know, as many families today don't even see each other that often.) I enjoyed the peace, the familiar rituals, the friendliness of the people, the time to reflect, my parents pride in introducing me to all their new friends, and the love I basked in whenever I was with them. We always sat in the same pew, the last row on the left, right at the back. And I always sat between them, with my father on my right and my mother on my left. We always walked to communion together, my father leading, then me, and my mother behind, sometimes looped together by our hands. As the years past, my father walked with a stick, and later still, with his walking frame and my hands around his waist, present to his increasing frailty, with my mother’s supportive hands on my back. My Dad would stand at the end of mass at the back of the church, and shake hands with all the men, and kiss all the women, as they filed out of church, “Like the Pope,” as a friend good naturedly reminded me years after his death, laughing out loud and shaking his head, then added “Poor Fr. Pat would be waiting out the front, no doubt wondering why it was taking his congregation so long to exit the church!” After mass we would go back to their house two streets away for a cup of tea and some of my mother’s baking whilst she prepared the ritual of their roast Sunday lunch. I would go home to prepare the Sunday meal for Gerald and I, and often they would come to our house after their afternoon nap for a swim or to visit with friends. Sundays were always special.
They both had moving, beautiful funeral services in that church which was filled to overflowing with the congregation and with friends, with Fr. Pat and Fr. Ronan serving. They died only six months apart, it was a like “Ground Hog Day” - with a fine afternoon tea in the church hall and a fitting “knees up” our house afterwards, with a lot of singing, weeping, eating, dancing and drinking and celebratory speeches.
There is much I disagree with in the Catholic Church, too many things to detail here, and many things that disgust and disturb me. My mother told me once in my teens in a discussion about ‘the pill’, (which she approved of and the Church didn't) - “Take what you want and need from the Church, and leave the rest. God understands.” Perhaps those words informed me, as today, for those kids who opt out of religious instruction, I teach Ethics at our local primary school, something many older members of our church find hard to understand, believing I am ‘taking children from Christ’ (yes, there are some who still think that way.)
Yet I still go to mass every Sunday, I love the ceremony, I love the ritual, the candles, the flowers, the music and the hymns, and I especially love benediction. I love the kindness of the people and the familiar wordsof my childhood thatI recite automatically, words etched in my heart and soul. I sit in the same pew my parents and I used to, it is somehow without a word, always 'reserved' for us. I find great comfort reassurance there.
It is something some of my Ethics colleagues find hard to understand, a disbelief, the unasked question being “You teach ethics. You go to church? You believe in God?” I don’t know the answer to that.
I believe. I believe in goodness and truth and integrity and honour and kindness and generosity and freedom of thought and speech, and forgiveness and happiness and love. I believe our loved ones never leave us, and I believe that rituals are important.
I believe at 7.55 am on a Sunday morning, having dipped my right hand into the holy water and made the sign of the cross, when I genuflect and take my seat in our pew, careful to leave a space for my Dad on my right and a space for my Mom on my left, with their rosaries held tightly in my hands, that they are with me. I feel loved, I feel their presence, sometimes I even smell their smell. I feel uplifted, I feel renewed, I feel happy, I feel blessed, and I feel the presence of God.
I could be on a beach, in a field, a forest, in the ocean or a yoga class. I could be climbing a mountain.
But I am in a church, and at some point I cry, at every Sunday Mass.