Religious holidays were a big deal when I was a parochial school kid in Indiana back in the early sixties. On Christmas Eve the church was packed for Midnight Mass, lit only with candles and filled with the spicy scent that trailed behind when the priest walked up the aisle swinging the incense holder. On Good Friday when we filed in for morning mass, as we did every weekday before school, all twelve Stations of the Cross—and all the other statues in church—were shrouded in spooky purple satin. (On Easter Sunday the shrouds were removed to celebrate the return of the savior.)
Yet for the first- and second-generation Irish nuns and priests who had dominion over our school (where all the students were African-American) the most important holiday by far was St. Patrick’s Day. You never saw so much green in your life. There must have been a basement room somewhere in the school building filled with nothing but St. Patrick’s Day bling. Banners, streamers, posters, shamrocks, leprechauns…and hand-made signs the students spent most of the previous week crafting during study period. I wish I had a videotape of us little black kids singing "Oh the Sound of the Kerry Dancers" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smilin."
Our keepers celebrated the birth and resurrection of the Son of God, but let’s face it; Jesus wasn’t Irish. The nuns never explained why St. Pat was such a big deal (something to do with snakes?) But then again they never explained much of anything. If you had a question about religion, you just looked up the correct answer in the catechism.
The early sixties were something of a Golden Age for the Irish in this country. After decades of prejudice and repression they’d made amazing progress weaving themselves into the fabric of American life. And there was a son of Ireland in the White House! One who’d successfully challenged immigration policies that blatantly favored northern Europeans over Irish.
And to many of these immigrants, sports were just as important as politics. The priests at St. Bridgets idolized from afar the Boston Celtics--winners of eight straight NBA titles starting in 1959. And they were out of their minds in 1966 when Notre Dame was rated number one by one sportswriters college football poll and second to Michigan State in the other. These Goliaths were meeting to settle the matter once and for all, and the Friday before the epic contest (that ended in a tie) our pastor Father Ryan made his usual Friday morning visit to the school. Here was the exchange as he stood smiling like a visiting dignitary at the front of our classroom:
Father Ryan: “Is everyone studying hard?”
Class: “Yes, Father Ryan.”
Father Ryan: “Is everyone saying their prayers at night?”
Class: “Yes, Father Ryan.”
Father Ryan: “Good. Well, say an extra prayer tonight. Notre Dame plays Michigan State tomorrow for the National Championship...”
Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: “All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents” and “Picnic on the Moon,” both published by Leapfrog Press. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary reviews and anthologies, including Poesis, The Mom Egg, Solstice Literary Review, and Urban Nature. He is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Charles’s poems have been set by a number of composers, including Beth Denisch, Julia Carey and Robert Moran. A short film based on his poem “Fortress” is currently in production by filmmaker Roberto Mighty. Charles is co-chair of the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, a labor union for freelance writers. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” His novella, "Spin Cycles," was published in November, 2014 by Gemma Media.