I don’t often go to church, but when I don’t, I don’t feel guilty at all. When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, I went to church at least six times per week. So, now, I don’t feel any real need to attend church.If I average out my church attendance over the span of my life, I’ve gone to mass more times than many people who claim to be Catholic. Of course, I still go several times a year. This year, I’ve gone every time my son Alex went to mass before his football game. Last spring, I went to my second cousin’s confirmation. Last week, I went to my cousin Shirley’s funeral. But other than that, I haven’t gone to church. I’m not against going to church, but I never think of going on my own without any compelling reason for going.
I suppose the real question for me to answer is, “Do I believe in God?” Well, the answer is, “Once upon a time, I used to.” I was baptized a Catholic and I was confirmed by the time I was three months old. At one time when I was about twelve, I believed in God so much that I really wanted to become a priest. But then I saw the light. I realized that many Catholics were hypocrites, clergy included, and my faith in God was shaken.
When I was in the Marines, I used to go talk to the Catholic chaplain on a regular basis. I’ll be honest: I went to get out of my work detail, rather than discussing any true critical religious crisis. So I figured I had better make it good. I told the chaplain that I no longer believed in God. Which I didn’t at the time. And I still don’t. But I still feel Catholic. Since I was baptized and raised a Catholic, I plan to remain a Catholic and I will never convert to another religion. I’ve known Catholics who converted and became fanatical about their new religion.
I even baptized my sons as Catholics and sent them to a Catholic school. I’ve had friends ask me why I would do that if I’m not really Catholic. I like the sense of tradition.Two of my friends from Spain once grilled me about my Catholicism. “Are you Catholic?” “Yes.” “Do you go to church every Sunday?” “No.” “Then you’re not Catholic!” “I was baptized a Catholic!” “Are your sons Catholic?” “They were baptized Catholic.” “But you’re not Catholic! Why did you baptize them?” “If nothing else, we have something in common.” They were dumbfounded by my logic.
This morning I took my son Alex to his football mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church. I remembered most of the prayers, but there were some new ones. My mind drifted away from the mass several times. I recalled how mass used to be when I was a boy. Things were so different now. When I was an altar boy, only males were allowed near the altar during mass. Today, there were no altar boys. Only altar girls. And about half of the Eucharist ministers were women. And the dress code is no longer the stringent dress shirt with a tie and dress pants for males and nice dresses for females with their heads covered. I was shocked to see worshipers coming to mass wearing jeans, shorts, gym shoes, flip flops, and t-shirts. On the other hand, the church was fairly full and most people participated in the prayers and hymns. Overall, I got the feeling that they were true believers.
I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, despite my protests. It all started when I was in the seventh grade at Holy Cross School. Two seminaries, Divine Heart Seminary and Divine Word Seminary, sent priests to talk to the boys about vocations. When I was thirteen, I thought I might be interested in becoming a priest. After all, I attended mass almost everyday. My father and all his brothers attended a seminary in Montezuma, New Mexico. My aunt was a nun, and two of my uncles were priests. But I had my doubts about the priesthood because I would have to take vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy. Celibacy? Now wait a minute. The vow of celibacy was my main stumbling block. I knew that someday I would like to have children. Anyway, I gave both priests my name because I said I might be interested in the priesthood. Then, I forgot all about their visit.
In the eighth grade, Divine Heart Seminary called me to see if I wanted to visit their campus. They would come to my house to pick me up and drive me all the way to Donaldson, Indiana. How could I say no? Before I went to visit DHS, I truly wondered if I wanted to become a priest. I was an altar boy then and a very devout Catholic, but I did have my mischievous side. Overall, I considered myself a good person.
At the Divine Heart, I saw how the seminarians lived. I spent one weekend there and got a taste of seminary life. I slept in the dorm where I would sleep as a freshman and I got a tour of the campus with the “big brother” that I was assigned. I got to see how real seminarians lived! Well, I was disillusioned by the seminary life. I didn’t think that potential future priests should behave like these seminarians.
At Holy Cross, I was taught that just about everything was a sin: swearing, smoking, playing pool, etc. Well, I was shocked to hear the boys swearing when their were no priests or brothers present! And they were going to be priests? Then, my big brother showed me the smoking lounge. These boys were allowed to smoke? I thought smoking was a sin. But my biggest shock of all was that they had pools tables! Not one or two pool tables, but many pool tables. In fact, there were several rooms that were exclusively reserved for playing pool. At that moment, I decided that future priests should not behave like these seminarians. I absolutely knew that I would not attend this seminary because they lived sinful lives.
Later, when I had forgotten all about my visit to Divine Heart Seminary, Sister Cecilia, the principal, called me outside of the classroom to talk to me. I thought I was in trouble for something I did. She told me that DHS called and wanted to know if I was still interested in attending their seminary. I immediately told her, “No.” She said, “You’re just too shy to admit it.” We went back into the classroom, I sat down, and she addressed the class, “Well, boys and girls, you are all very fortunate! David has received a vocation. He will become a priest someday! Next year, David will be attending Divine Heart Seminary in Indiana.”
Well, that little announcement truly changed my life forever. I sure didn’t want to attend any seminary, let alone Divine Heart Seminary. Soon, my classmates started calling me Father David. In the neighborhood, the kids would see me coming and mutter under their breath, “Watch what you say. Here comes the priest.” The girl I really liked in the class lost all interest in me. The next morning when I served mass as an altar boy, Father Gilbert congratulated me on my vocation. I told him that I didn’t want to become a priest, but he didn’t believe me and said that I was just being modest.
I told my father about what had happened to me with the seminary. That’s when I learned he, too, had attended a seminary for many years. He was actually proud of the fact that I would also attend a seminary. When my mother found out about my “vocation,” she told me that she was so proud of me. No one would listen to me! I didn’t want to attend Divine Heart Seminary. I had narrowed down my choices for high school to Leo High School or De La Salle High School. Try as I might not to attend DHS, I was forced to attend DHS. Before I even started school there, I had already made up my mind that I would never become a priest. Yet everyone was so proud of me and the fact that I would attend Divine Heart Seminary!
After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.
Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.
The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.
I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.
Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.
Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.