Taking the Sunday scenic route in quest for spiritual fulfillment

October 13, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

WHEN IT CAME to Sunday morning religious observance, my family did not take the easy route. In fact, we took many streets.

We thought of churches and their pastors the way other families thought of department stores, brands of scrapple and sports teams: We picked and we chose. A Sunday was not complete at the old house on Guilford Avenue if our family members had not covered three, maybe four, sacred altars.

It all began at 5 in the morning when Great Aunt Cora shattered the Sabbath's silence by smashing down her massive front bedroom windows, the sign her night's slumber was over, and she was up and dressing for 6 a.m. Mass. No matter what the season or the weather, Cora dressed for the occasion, wearing her Sunday best: a wool suit with a mink stole this time of the year, sheared beaver in the deep winter. In addition to rosary beads, there was gold jewelry and her best Hutzler Brothers hat, too.

I occasionally accompanied her on her darkened walk across 29th Street to SS. Philip and James. I thought to myself, but never dared to ask: Why dress up so much at an hour when no one will see you? She wasn't alone. Many others dressed to reflect the glory of the Lord's Day.

One of the first happy moments of childhood independence was permission to go to church on your own - no parental assistance needed. There was not too much chance of skipping out, because the neighborhood was full of friends who would surely report your absence.

And that trick worked both ways. On Sunday mornings out in Charles Village, you could report the goings-on of other people. After all, one of the chief assets of living in an old neighborhood is people watching, then discussing their actions over the great Baltimore breakfasts served later in the morning.

My mother took the prize for seeking unusual religious houses - she detested incense, loathed bad church music and excoriated airhead sermons. And she was never big on trendy congregations and ostentatious Sunday dressing. Just to be different, she would go the opposite direction - say to St. Ann's at Greenmount and 22nd, to her old alma mater, Notre Dame College's chapel, or better yet, at 10:04, announce she was going to dash off on foot to the nearest 10 a.m. Mass.

True to her style, when she died eight years ago, she had served as the president of not one but two parish councils.

My father started going regularly to St. Ignatius on Calvert Street in 1931, and 70 years later, he's still there. I occasionally opted for St. Ignatius' 1950s solemn High Masses. To a child, the sermons were interminable, but were made palatable by the congregation. The ancients of Baltimore posted for the Jesuits. People arrived in vintage cars seen in old movies and driven only on Sundays. The women's clothes were also treasures from O'Neill's department store, where many of the congregation actually worked. It was a hoot - and still is.

My grandfather, family patriarch Edward Jacques Monaghan, traveled the farthest each Sunday. Dressed in his best three-piece suit, with some sort of fancy gold watch chain and fob, overcoat and hat, he headed for St. Vincent de Paul Church, which sits across Fayette Street from the Shot Tower.

Some of his friends called for him in a big green car - and the report was that when they exited their pews, the next stop was Little Italy, where they remained far longer than the lengthiest sermon might last. Whatever was being served on High Street, Pop Monaghan was home for 5 p.m. Sunday supper, a meal that was invariably confected from leftovers of the night before.

Why? To honor the Sabbath, no heavy cooking was allowed.

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