Don't call me Mrs.

When the local Catholics couldn't face my surname, I went church shopping.

Topics: Christmas,

I am taking classes to learn how to be
an Episcopalian and I’m primed for the
usual jokes: that I’ll start taking the
crust off my white bread, speak with a
WASPy lockjaw accent, leave thank-you
notes for the newspaperman. But I don’t
believe any of those things will happen.
Roman Catholicism remains thick in my
blood, from my Italian surname, to my
respect for higher authority, to my
belief in angels and saints.

As a child, I went to church every
Sunday with my mother and six siblings.
We were always late, usually coming in
during the priest’s invariably deadly
dull sermon or, if we were lucky,
afterward, during the interminable
Apostles’ Creed. I am old enough to
remember the pre-Vatican II Council
Masses that were celebrated in Latin, and at 4
years old I could respond to the
priest’s “The Lord be with you” with a
respectable “Et cum spiritu tuo.”

The only part of the Mass that held my
interest was the transubstantiation –
the dramatic moment when the priest
holds up the host and chalice and
declares them to be the body and blood
of Christ. The altar boys would ring the
bells and everyone, except me, would bow
their heads in reverential prayer. I
always kept my head up watching and
waiting. I was determined to witness
Jesus coming down from the cross and
becoming one with the offering.

For 12 years I attended Catholic
schools. In grammar school I learned the
Baltimore Catechism by rote. I made my
first Holy Communion at 7, my
confirmation at 13. As a freshman in
high school (an all-girls one, taught by
the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of
Mary) I experienced my first crush on a
nun — Sister Barbara Jablonski, a
sprite, clever, suffer-no-fools teacher
who caused me to love Latin almost as
much as she did. (To this day I can
decline “agricola” in my sleep.)

I don’t have a litany of nun-bashing
stories to relate from my childhood. In
fact, I have great respect for the nuns
who not only educated me but helped
form my moral background. One of the
greatest gifts anyone gave me came from
a nun, Sister Jeannine, who, in my
junior year, accepted me into her
coveted English honors class and was the
first person to tell me I was a writer.
Some years after I graduated, Jeannine
left the sisterhood to marry a former
priest — and the story of her departure
was the first article I published.

The church and I pretty much parted ways
in college, though not by way of any
dramatic schism. I was simply asserting
my independence. I do have a distinct
memory of going to Mass one Saturday
night (only because I had promised my
mother I would) with a Jewish guy after
we got high in his fraternity room.
Though stoned, I had remembered my
promise to my mother, and my date agreed
to come with me. He’d never been in a
church before and was so fascinated by
the rituals that he even took communion.
(At the time I didn’t know which was the
graver sin: that I’d taken the host
stoned or that he’d taken it as a Jew.)

I met my husband in my senior year of
college and remember feeling relieved
that he, too, was raised a Catholic. We
assumed that one day we would be married
in the church. While we lived in the
city, we attended a progressive Catholic
church and helped out in the homeless
women’s shelter in its basement. I was
struck then by the fact that while most
of the work seemed to be the domain of
the sisters of the parish, they still
could not serve on the altar.

Several years ago, my husband and I
bought a house in a small Westchester, N.Y.,
village. Soon after moving in, I called
my local Catholic church to
register in the parish. I gave the
church secretary my name and my
husband’s name (we have different
surnames). She was stymied. I assumed
she was having difficulty with the
spelling of my last name, so I gave it
to her. But she still didn’t get it. In
frustration I said, “Surely we’re not
the first couple to join your church to
have different last names.”

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“As a matter of fact,” she responded
tartly, “you are.”

As a matter of fact, I thought, I don’t
think this is the church for me. But we
did attend Mass for a short time,
finding little inspiration in the
priest’s fund-raising sermons and
lackluster community spirit. When, a few
weeks later, two sets of donation
envelopes arrived from the church, one
preprinted Mr. and Mrs. with my
husband’s last name, the other in my
name alone — as if I were the mistress
to the couple — I began church
shopping.

I visited a Polish Roman Catholic church
where I was the youngest by nearly 40
years. I went to a Unitarian Society
fellowship service where so many faiths
were recognized it seemed a hodgepodge
of political correctness. I stopped in
at a Presbyterian worship where the
ex-hippie priest quoted more T.S. Eliot
than Scripture. Then I came to a tiny
white Episcopalian church with a bright
red door that looked like it belonged
more in New England than in Westchester
County.

The rector was a woman whose two young
sons were among those seated around the
altar during the children’s homily. (I
figured one of them was hers when he
blurted out, “Do you have to talk about
Jesus again?”) The service was very
close to the Catholic Mass, with the most
apparent difference being that the
congregation responded “Ah-men” rather
than “Ay-men.”

The priest, a former financial analyst,
told a story in her sermon about
visiting her sister at Christmas some
years back, when her sister was a young
mother and the priest was not yet a
priest but a successful Wall Street
executive. Guests were
expected imminently at the sister’s house for
Christmas dinner, and to the future
priest’s ever-organized mind, her sister
was far from prepared: The house was a
mess, the turkey needed stuffing, the
kids were still in their pajamas. She
came upon her sister in the living room
with her little girl nestled in her lap,
both of them staring up at the Christmas
tree. The sister glanced up sheepishly.
“She loves to look at the tree,” she
said. “She wants me to look at it with
her.”

More than any other sermon I’ve ever
heard, that one has stuck with me. The
fact that it came from a priest who was
a woman and a wife and a mother helped
too. I’ve found a sense of community in
a church that has become much more than
a place to worship on Sundays. It not only
recognizes me as distinct from
my husband but even has a prayer in its
Book of Common Prayer for the adoption
of a child that’s been said three times
for each of our children. No bells are
rung during the consecration and all are
welcome to receive Holy Eucharist,
Episcopalians or not.

I still occasionally go to Mass with my
mother. There are those rituals I miss:
the lighting of votive candles, for
example, and seeing those statues of the
Blessed Virgin that I grew up with. I
don’t, however, miss the hierarchy that
prohibits women from being ordained. And
I still look up when the altar boy — or
girl, now — rings the bells. But the
difference now is that I’m not waiting
for anything to happen.

So I am taking classes to learn how to
be an Episcopalian, but I’m not
rejecting my Roman Catholic roots. I
think of it more as keeping my faith.

Donna Cornachio is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, among other publications.

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