When my family moved from Buffalo, NY to Dearborn, MI in the early 1980s, I remember we took some time checking out the variety of nearby parishes. We eventually settled upon St. Joseph, a midcentury church that looked a bit like a dentist office from the outside but felt much cozier inside. I fondly recall Christmas Eve masses there – the candle-lit woodsy interior and the altar overflowing with poinsettias. Unfortunately, that spirit of passionate warmth didn’t extend to the congregation; much like our neighborhood, it was full of World War II generation retirees of the “stay off my lawn” variety. They weren’t exactly welcoming to a family with seven children.
So we maintained a couple side parishes we’d frequent as needed. St. Barbara hosted a 6:30 Sunday morning speed mass for the elderly – no sermon, no kneeling, and over in twenty minutes. Sometimes I’d go there with my dad, if he had an urge to get his churchgoing done early. Part of me liked St. Barbara best, and not just for getting us in and out quickly. To me the building seemed like a more proper, old-fashioned, mini cathedral style church, but not in a scary way. The space felt bright. Plus they had a neat little marble pulpit built into a corner beside the altar. I’d daydream about how fun it would be to recite grand monologues from there.
Sometimes after a lazy Sunday morning we’d trudge to 5:30pm mass at St. Alphonsus, an enormous, dreary brick church with heavy stale air that put me to sleep during a long homily; eventually the blaring organ pipes would shock me to my feet when it was time to rise. As a child fascinated by big old buildings, stained glass, and ornate detail, I felt like I should love St. Alphonsus. But being there that late in the day — especially on a northern winter school night — felt like punishment.
Nevertheless, St. Al’s spookiness definitely sparked my curiosity, particularly the flat little cemetery we’d walk through on our way from the parking lot to the side entrance. The big monuments that sat closer to the road intimidated me, especially the life-size crucified Jesus who seemed to stand guard at the corner of Schaefer and Calhoun. But from the path alongside the church, I often noticed several little tombstones. One summer evening when I was eleven, I checked the dates and realized the people buried in those small plots didn’t live very long. And they all seemed to die at the same time. I asked my mom, “Why did so many babies and kids die in 1918 and 1919?”
She thought about it for a moment and said, “I think that was the flu pandemic.”
“The FLU?!” I’d had the flu before. It was super gross. We all got sick, just a bunch of us kids laid out in the living room with our own special barf bowls because we had just one toilet to share. But nobody came close to dying. “How could so many people die from the flu?”
“It was different back then. They weren’t able to manage it like we can now. Even these days, some people die from the flu. Like if they’re very old.”
I felt a chill as I stared at the graves and thought of all these long-dead babies, the only memory of their existence enshrined in this dreadful little cemetery on a strip of land between a scary old church and Schaefer Rd. What a terrible thing to be alive during a pandemic, I thought. I felt glad that things like that didn’t happen anymore.
In the past weeks, I’ve thought about that walk in and out of St. Alphonsus more times than I’ve thought about it in the last twenty years put together.
This week I’ve been perusing my childhood parishes’ websites, falling down pictorial rabbit holes, exploring interiors I never thought I’d see again (perhaps in a time of quarantine, it’s natural to want to revisit these familiar-yet-distant spaces). I glanced through the most recent Sunday bulletin from St. Kateri (née Joesph), which captured the sense of shock so many of us are feeling these days, saying, “Unlike the black and white news reels from the Depression, our experience of the pandemic is seen in color and with a technology that brings all the fear and suffering closer than we would like.” If you’d asked 11-year-old me to envision the pandemic my mother described, I would have thought of a black and white photo. Hell, 41-year-old me would have done the same. It’s weird to think that just three months ago I still lived under the illusion I wouldn’t be alive during that kind of pandemic.