One family's faith in '90s 3 generations may disagree, but remain indelibly Catholic

October 06, 1995|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ | RAFAEL ALVAREZ,SUN STAFF

It falls to 16-year-old Corrine Livingston to carry her family's Catholicism into Christianity's third millennium. A senior at Mercy High School, she attends Mass when she can fit it in, which isn't too often. "With work and school and doing plays, I never have time," she says.

Her 39-year-old father, Michael, who left his parents' East Baltimore rowhouse at 13 to enter a seminary high school, makes Mass only about twice a month.

The spotty attendance distresses 69-year-old family matriarch Marie Livingston, whose life has been devoted to St. Wenceslaus, the old Bohemian church that struggles to survive across the street from her North Collington Street home.

"In my day, there weren't any excuses," says Mrs. Livingston. "Whether you could walk or not, you went." Mrs. Livingston, the only member of her family with a ticket to see Pope John Paul II at Camden Yards on Sunday, celebrates Mass three to four times a week.

Compared with the Depression-era Catholicism that defined Mrs. Livingston, it would appear that the years have diluted the fervor of her family's faith.

Mrs. Livingston carries a rosary wherever she goes, dipping often into her pocket to finger the beads and recite Hail Marys. Michael Livingston sometimes prays the rosary on his fingers during long drives. Corrine was taught the devotion, but rarely does it. Family rituals such as kneeling around the dining room table together to say the rosary during Lent have not survived.

Pronounced differences

On matters of doctrine, the generational differences are pronounced. Corinne is the most liberal, standing apart in her desire for a church that ordains women and belief that each woman has a right to choose on the issue of abortion. Unlike his mother, Michael supports birth control, favors abortion in cases of rape or incest and believes priests should be able to marry.

"In real life, I can't agree with everything I was taught," says Michael, a data processing supervisor for T. Rowe Price. But "I know what I have inside -- faith in God and a strong background in doing what's right. I may say a prayer to myself going down the street, but it's not something I'm going to talk about in a bar."

In a time when the American Catholic Church has been fundamentally changed by the Second Vatican Council, the women's movement, a shortage of candidates for the convent and priesthood, and postwar prosperity that transformed working-class urban Catholics into middle-class suburban ones, the Livingstons have remained indelibly Catholic.

Michael and his wife, Diane -- a Catholic who works for the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart nuns in Towson -- invited a priest to bless their new home when they moved from Bradshaw to Havre de Grace about two years ago. Their son Benjamin, 12, goes to St. Stephen School in Bradshaw.

A Crucifix on her wall

And the first thing Corrine did when her folks moved into the Bayview Estates development was hang a Crucifix on her bedroom wall.

"I know that God's with me, that He'll help me through things," says Corrine, who learned the value of faith two years ago when an uncle died suddenly. "I pray before I go to sleep, I've prayed for help getting jobs or passing tests or when I felt sick. And when I've had a fight with friends or my family, I talk to God about it. Just because I don't make it to church all the time doesn't mean I'm not Catholic."

Her father credits Catholic schools for much of Corrine's character.

"I wanted to give my kids the foundation for starting off in life, and Catholic school teaches values; hopefully it teaches you respect," he says. "Even when I was making $4 an hour, we were going to get them there."

About the only time Michael and his brothers return to the streets of their childhood is to visit their mother, virtually the last of the old parishioners who still lives within walking distance of St. Wenceslaus. Through the years, Mrs. Livingston's family members have tried to get her to move out, but they have learned to save their breath.

"The only place I'm going is from here to the funeral parlor and then to St. Wenceslaus" for her Mass of Christian burial, she says.

Her family worries about her safety in a neighborhood that has deteriorated severely in the past 25 years. "She said she was outside when a shooting occurred and saw the bullets flying," says Corrine. "I'm like: 'Grandma, you're out of control.' "

Homes where friends and relatives were born and raised are blighted and boarded; keeping trash from accumulating is "hopeless"; and attendance at St. Wenceslaus' 700-seat sanctuary has declined in Mrs. Livingston's lifetime from a half-dozen packed Masses every Sunday to fewer than 200 people for three weekend services.

'It won't ever be the way it was'

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