Essay

Church Visitors

By August 7, 2020 7 Comments

We were blessed to get into the place. The blasted Covid stuff is closing everything these days, and with good reason. But our permission to enter had some contingencies: “you can come and I can let you in, but if you want to get into church, you have to have a thermometer to test temperatures and everyone has to have a mask.” 

No one in the group thought requiring a mask was a vile abridgment of the First Amendment. And, when we got to St. Paul’s church and met Sister Pat, a 70-something lifelong “religious” among Native people, she was similarly adorned.

That was a handicap. I think the world of Sister Pat. She does joy with just about everything she says, and is, thus, the witness to God’s love she swore she would be when she took vows years and years ago. 

But with Sister Pat, the words always come in a torrent. What’s more, the sixty-some years she’s spent on remote South Dakota reservations has so focused her experience that she doesn’t grasp that the audience she’s speaking to probably doesn’t know much of Native American history, the only world she knows very well. She moves along quickly at low volume with references ordinary folks who don’t know Pocahontas from Sacajawea just don’t pick up.

And, like all of us last Saturday, she’d donned a mask, which, believe me, didn’t help.

Sister Pat left Youngstown, Ohio, when she was still a teenager. As a kid, she’d read a biography of Crazy Horse and determined that, for her, the religious life meant ministering to Native people. She can’t help but giggle today when she tells people that she’ll never forget the day her parents put her on the train west. She giggles–honestly, she giggles as she tells it. “I’ll never forget looking back at my mom and dad. There they were, holding each other and bawling, and I could hardly see them through my tears. I cried and cried and cried.”

Giggle. Giggle.

I love that story, love to have her tell it to people I bring around, especially to kids. It’s the most vivid sense of “calling” I know–leaving literally left everyone in tears, but not for a moment questioning what she was sure God wanted her to do. She went west and has spent all her years in ministry at places you’ve never heard of. Trust me, she knows how to smile, even with a mask.

She showed us the stained glass, the story of Jesus. She pointed out where Father DeSmet is still blessing the people, had us notice the handpainted stations of the cross and the little framed drawings surrounding the sanctuary–“the people are Navajo, not Dakota,” she told us, smiling. So is Mary, mother of God, and her son, Jesus. Neither are they Euro-American.

I hated to rush her, but I told her we had to be on the road.

“Oh, but you’ve got to see our Saint Tekakwitha yet,” she said and just like that she drove the whole gang, Moses-like, away from the door and over to an alcove where she climbed up the side of a darkened wall to find the light switch and then illuminate a bust of the only Native American Roman Catholic saint. 

Through Sister Pat’s mask, some of the gang heard some of the miracles the church credits Takakwitha with, but most, I think–including the kids–at least heard Sister Pat’s favorite saintly story. Tekakwitha was 19 when smallpox ravaged her community and left her face horribly pockmarked. She converted to Christianity, but died very young–just 23.

“And when she died,” Sister Pat told them, “all those horrible smallpox scars just disappeared and her skin became smooth and beautiful.”

Sweet. And blessed.

I don’t know whether everyone heard the story or not, but I know some kids did. They’re all Protestants, so I told them that Roman Catholic people like “saints” because they’re models of the Christian life. I don’t have a clue what those kids thought, but I loved the fact that they heard her tell the story so adoringly.

The clock was ticking. It was time to go. We were late already. Trust me, she would have talked longer if we’d allowed her. She would have talked and talked and talked. Behind that mask, she’d still be smiling too. 

The lights never really got lit in St. Paul’s on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t mean there was nothing to see. Or hear. 

I don’t know who started it, but the group that day was mostly one big family who loves to sing. One of them, on the way out, just started into the Doxology, which to me felt perfectly apt and delightfully Protestant in that old Catholic church–I’d wager that even Tekakwitha thought so, quite frankly. I have on good authority that she’s prompted a bunch of miracles. 

Trust me, that music sounded perfectly heavenly in all that space beneath those vaulted arches. Maybe it was just me who thought so. But Sister Pat loved it too. She sang along, stood there in her church and sang with. 

It’s not often in life you get to hear the music of the spheres, maybe especially on a day when everyone wears a mask. Saturday, thank the Lord, was one of them.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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