Up Front and Personal

Remembering the Church of My Youth

By Giedré Maria Kumpikas, PhD

There are many reasons why I love the Catholic Church. I was raised in the faith of my parents. From early childhood, I loved the mysticism, the rites, the sacramental vestments, the statues of the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the prayers in Latin, which seemed more spiritual than what we have today.

As a teenager, I believed that if I prayed very fervently, my prayers would be answered, and some were, but I also knew that I had to do my own part: “God helps those who help themselves.”

My education from the age of 9 until 17 was by sisters. At first, they were Dominicans with white habits, then the Sisters of St. Francis and St. Joseph. Many were lovely, sweet, kind, and excellent teachers. Going to Catholic school was a great advantage because the education was first-class and free.

At that time, in the 1950s, the Diocese of Brooklyn took the two best students from each parish school in the graduating eighth grade and placed them into girls’ and boys’ Catholic high schools. I attended Queen of All Saints in Brooklyn for two years, then Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School, near Prospect Park, also in Brooklyn. Queen of All Saints was a beautiful old building that also housed a church and small chapels. Every morning Mass was celebrated, and if I came early enough, I attended.

Bishop McDonnell had a stellar reputation academically. We were known as “Bishop’s Girls” and were highly regarded. Our teachers inspired us, not just educated us. We were taught truthfulness, politeness, manners, and respect for them and for each other. The sisters lived in convents and wore the habits of their particular order.

Then, the times changed, and sisters became modernized. Convents were closed. They no longer wore habits but rather jeans and had short hair. To me, it was less spiritual, less inspiring. I could no longer distinguish them from the populace. It lost something holy, self-sacrificing, and exceptional.

One day, not so many years ago, I saw an elderly sister with a lady companion walking toward me on a busy street near my home. She was wearing a black habit with a traditional head veil and had a large cross hanging from a long chain on her chest. I stopped, and almost with tears in my eyes, I managed to say: “Sister, I am so happy to see you wearing a habit.” She looked at me and said sweetly, “Thank you, my dear.” I told her that I had attended Bishop McDonnell. She smiled and again, in her sweet, old voice, said, “Stay well, my dear, and pray. Goodbye.”

Sometime later, as I was waiting for my car to be serviced in an auto shop, there was another woman also waiting for her car. She was dressed in everyday clothes, but there was something distinguishing about her, so I began a conversation. She said that she was a sister. I realized that something in her quiet bearing was so familiar. I asked her why sisters no longer wore habits, and she said that very often, they were harassed and insulted. I was shocked and saddened.

The world has become so secular and disparaging toward religion, especially toward Catholicism. When Muslims or Jews are attacked in their religion, they react; we Catholics turn the other cheek. Catholicism is a very difficult religion — it teaches us to forgive our enemies and to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have been observing the increasing attacks on the Church with dismay.

When I was in France some years ago and visited Le Mont St. Michel as well as other churches and cathedrals, I was upset to see that these churches were, for the most part, no longer houses of worship but had become tourist attractions.

The message of Christianity is good and uplifting, in spite of the human failings of some of its representatives.

Many years ago, I visited Lourdes in southern France, the famous town where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl. The resplendent Basilica on the hill, the grotto, the spring with its purported miraculous waters, and the evening candlelight processions of the faithful chanting “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria” was awe-inspiring. Such faith cannot be mistaken. If anyone has any doubts about the existence of God, they should visit Lourdes. It is a place where one can feel the presence of God.

The story of Saint Bernadette is quite moving. Franz Werfel, a Czech-born Jew who was running from the Nazis, came to the grotto and prayed to the Blessed Mother. He vowed that if he escaped, he would write the story of Lourdes and Saint Bernadette. His prayers were answered, and he kept his vow. His book “The Song of Bernadette” was published in 1941, in German, and made into a film in 1943.

Saint Bernadette was interrogated, questioned, and examined by both town police and the clergy. The doctor in the town admitted that he had seen such miraculous cures that science could not explain, and his statement is appropriate with which to end this article: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

Giedré Maria Kumpikas is a professor of French, English, and German at Long Island University and attends the Church of the Annunciation.