By Contributor Fran Salone-Pelletier
I grew up in a pre-Vatican II Church, so my strongest memories are those of grammar school years. I was deeply affected by the doctrines, instructions, rules and regulations promulgated by the religious sisters who taught in the parochial schools I attended. We children were imbued with the solemnity and sanctity of Holy Week.
The week began with the long Palm Sunday service, replete with our standing still and tall, holding our palms unwaveringly upright as we listened to the reading of the Passion. We had been forewarned that we’d better practice self-discipline and not sit in our pews, do a pretend kneel or switch from foot to foot. Of course, this command was placed in the context of all Jesus endured on our behalf. With that vision planted in our heads, how could we not comply?
There was a degree of pageantry in the devotion practiced on Holy Thursday. Attired in white dresses, we girls processed in silence as the Communion host, ensconced in a special container called a monstrance, was carried by a priest whose hands were hidden in a white veil. The monstrance was carried from the main altar to its repository altar, ready for adoration by the congregants until the Good Friday communion service began.
As a very young child, probably in first grade, I recall wondering how I’d eat, drink and perform other bodily functions if I had to process around the sanctuary for what I perceived was 40 hours! Obviously, the number did not correspond to the time necessary for the actual procession! I also believed, because I saw it with my own eyes, that the statues placed on pedestals at various points in the church were watching me. I saw their eyes move as I moved. It was a thrilling and emotional experience. I felt so holy.
When I reached eighth grade, a number of us got together, after Mass, to walk to nine churches, beginning with our own, in the city. We’d stop at each one, pray for a while, and then continue our pilgrimage. It was our own journey to Calvary.
The ethnic churches provided the most moving moments. The Polish church, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, always left us gasping because there was a sarcophagus in the entry of the church that contained a life-sized statue of the dead Jesus.
Good Friday dawned as the day of complete silence. No radio would be played—nor television, though we didn’t own one. From noon to 3 p.m., we did not play or have any frivolity. This was prayer time that culminated in going to church to pray the Stations of the Cross. I could feel Mary’s pain as we sang Stabat Mater: “At the cross her station keeping, Mary stood in sorrow weeping.” The words brought me to the place where I knew I was there when they crucified my Lord.
Early in the morning of Holy Saturday, when it was still dark, I walked to church to sing in the choir. In those days, Lent was officially over at noon. Bells rang. Alleluias filled the air. Incense invaded the soul. It also meant a race home to eat the chocolates I had sacrificed during the past 40 days.
Easter was truly a new beginning. I felt resurrected from the sacrifices I had made. I had the present I created for my parents. It was called a spiritual bouquet—a card indicating the various prayers and good works I had said and performed for them during Lent.
I’ve often wondered how my folks felt about the gift. Neither of them were avid churchgoers. My religious fervor was born in, gleaned from, and nurtured by the Sisters of Mercy.
As for me, the memories remain as entryways to a deeper understanding of the meaning of sacrifice, redemptive suffering, self-denial, and glorious resurrection to ever-new life.