Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Sunday Memory Drawer - My Childhood Church

It's the Lenten season and that's a mandate for self reflection. So, I'll join in here on the next few Sundays. Self reflecting.

All about my childhood church which is pictured above in its current condition.

St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church on East 219th Street in the Bronx. Still there, although now there is the recent addition of a fellowship hall to the building's right. Remarkably, the main portion of the church looks the same as it did when I first walked through its doors when I was around four or five.

Actually, I was in there a little sooner than that. I was baptized there at the age of four months. Despite my usually astute photographic memory, I recall little about that day. I am guessing my parents were in attendance, although I would not be shocked if my mother stayed home with one of her sinus headaches. And I'm pretty sure the sprinkling of the water would have freaked me out. But, I figure this was one of those mega-family events that dragged out from the woodwork every distant relative or friend. After all, there was the post-christening promise of good food and even better booze.

It was fitting that my family was there in this church on that day because pretty much everybody in our tribe attended St. Peter's. In European countries around the turn of the 20th century, the village church was the fulcrum of all activity. Everybody was the cousin of somebody else. Or married to the cousin of somebody else. And all social activities centered around whichever steeple dominated the center of town.

Those traditions followed these folks when they migrated to the United States. My grandparents and their compatriots all came from Germany and landed within a ten block radius. The center of the circle? St. Peter's. And, from everything my grandmother told me, pretty much everything they did for fun back when had some direct or remote connection to the church. Dances, parties, weddings, funerals. My family alone probably managed to keep the place open 24/7.

Now, of course, Grandma's recollections to me about the church needed to be taken with several grains of salt. Or a whole container of Morton's Salt. Maybe even Lot's wife herself. Because, as I remember her stories, I have been able to now poke some holes into the plotline.

Grandma told me that our family helped to construct the church. I bought that hook, line, and sinker. Except my recent Internet research tells me the church was built in 1894, a good 10 to 15 years before my grandparents got off whatever boat they came over on. There were some other urban legends as well. When I heard that Jesus himself had gone to the hardware store with my grandfather to pick up some nails, I knew that Grandma's memory had become a little fuzzy.

But, the story she told about the gala party held to celebrate the burning of the church mortgage is valid. It is mentioned prominently still on the church's current website. This happened around 1944, smack in the middle of World War II. Grandma was also right about how devastating that war was for our church. Of the total congregation, there were almost seventy people who served overseas in the conflict. Indeed, there were five who did not come back. Grandma's son, my uncle and the person I was named after, was one of them.

I've recently gone through some of my parents' wedding photos and all of them show off St. Peter's Church in glorious black and white. Probably fitting that they were not in color since my mother had experienced a nasty sunburn that day. To get a healthy tan for the wedding, she had gone to an apartment rooftop, "Tar Beach," the day before. And promptly fell asleep. Still, the wedding photos of them exiting St. Peter's are still fun to look at.

Because, in retrospect, I don't remember seeing them at church very much when I was around.

While the church was a great part of my family's socializing early on, it became inexplicably less so once the next generation was born. Oh, the kids had to go to church. There was no hearing our argument otherwise. But, my parents, my aunts, and uncles seemed to get a hall pass on the in-person worship. From time to time, I would ask my mother why she didn't go to church.

"It's a long story."

I'd ask my father.

"It's a long story."

What had happened? I didn't understand. Grandma and Grandpa were still going. There was a conveniently scheduled German-spoken service every Sunday after the English worship. I asked Grandma why my parents didn't go to church.

"Go ask them."

Er, I did. It's apparently a long story.

And a mystery that was never ever solved for me.

But, dutifully, my dad would drive me there every week while I went to Sunday school, which began for me as soon as I entered kindergarten.

And sit in the car outside reading the Sunday funnies.

To be continued...

Dinner last night: Bacon turkey burger at Magnolia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We are both named after dead uncles.