By Georgiana Francisco | Correspondent
Not long before my mom went to live in an assisted living facility, she was sitting at her kitchen table reminiscing about her childhood.
Since she was celebrating her 100th birthday in a few months, she could have reminisced for a long time, but instead, she focused on her life at age 12, when she used to do a lot of things with her mother at their church, St. Ann Parish in Ossining, N.Y. She then asked if I had ever heard the song, “Good Night Sweet Jesus.”
“I’ve never heard that song, Mom,” I said.
She began to hum a few bars.
I still did not recognize it, or even the title of the song.
“When I was around 12 years old,” she said, “I would go to church for the different novenas with my mother. At the end of Rosary, the church lights were turned off, leaving just the altar candles lit. Then we would sing ‘Good Night Sweet Jesus’ before we left. Do you think you could find that song for me?”
I was intrigued. Having gone to Mass, received the Sacraments and attended Catholic schools for as long as I can remember, I was surprised that I had never heard this song.
So when I got home, I pulled up iTunes on the computer and entered the song title. To my surprise, I found it immediately. It was sung by Perry Como.
Realizing it would not help my mother to download the song, I went online and found the CD on which it appeared and promptly ordered it.
The next time I went to visit my mother, I opened her CD player in the kitchen and beckoned her to come in to hear something special. As she slowly arrived with her walker, I pressed play for “Good Night Sweet Jesus.”
The look of astonishment on her beautiful face was worth the little effort spent on finding it. Her eyes filled with tears.
“This takes me back such a long way to those beautiful novenas,” she said, finding it remarkable that I was so clever to have summoned up the song, as if out of thin air.
I explained that in today’s digital world, if something existed, one could find just about anything on the Internet. It was not I who was clever at all.
Weeks later, as her moving day to her new home in Brandywine Living at Voorhees approached, she told me she listened to that song each night before going to bed, taking with her this solemn childhood memory that had been brought back to life as if by magic.
Community of Faith
This entire experience got me to wondering if other seniors had fond childhood memories of faith customs that were no longer practiced, or if so, maybe they weren’t as prevalent as they were back in the day. So I asked a number of seniors I knew.
Friend and novelist Susan Dormady Eisenberg grew up in Cohoes, N.Y., a small city outside Albany. Because the town was settled by immigrants seeking work in various cotton mills, each of the ethnic groups built its own Catholic church: St. Marie and St. Joseph were French Canadian, St. Rita was Italian, St. Michael was Polish, and the Irish parish Eisenberg attended was St. Bernard. There were a few other Catholic churches as well.
“Being Catholic, one of my most cherished childhood memories came at the end of Lent,” she said. “Our family attended the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, after which we returned home for a spaghetti dinner in preparation for fasting on Good Friday. My dad and mom then would bundle up my brother and me – it was still cold in Cohoes at Easter – and we all got in in the car to take part in the ‘Visitation of the Seven Churches,’ a Lenten tradition in which our entire community participated.
“While the nuns at school told us we would receive a plenary indulgence, I was more excited by the rare opportunity to go out as a family after dark –there was something magical about visiting St. Bernard’s at night,” she continued. “Unlike on Sunday, people moved in and out of the pews in silence and whispered in low tones. I loved seeing the stained windows in the shadows and smelling the incense that lingered after Mass.
“But mostly, we were there to pray and view the side altars where the Eucharist was to reside until the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. Each one was artistically decorated, one more beautiful than the next. Purple fabrics were draped in different designs, accompanied by lighted candles and muted floral displays. I was captivated by the artistry,” she said.
Eisenberg remembers this as a time of reverence. “We prayed at each altar,” she said, “because we were taught that this was a way for us to keep Jesus company in the Garden of Gethsemane. As I look back, we were so fortunate to have many churches so close to each other that families in the mainly Catholic town of Cohoes could visit on foot.”
“Whenever I look back on my childhood,” Eisenberg said, “our Holy Thursday tradition stands out as one of the most memorable. Visiting the seven churches is still practiced in communities in Upstate New York, but many parishes no longer participate in this lovely ritual.”
As a young boy in Burlington, Walter Karpecik belonged to All Saints Parish, Burlington.
“Mine was a Polish parish,” said Karpecik, now a deacon in St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington, which was formed by the merger of All Saints and St. Paul Parishes 10 years ago. “One of my favorite childhood memories took place in church on Christmas Eve when, from 11 p.m. to midnight, the choir sang Polish Christmas carols. Even though I didn’t understand the language, the songs were sung with such reverence and beauty that it didn’t matter. I also loved that so many people were there – it was a truly communal experience – and somehow even as children who couldn’t understand a word of the songs, we knew this was a special time of devotion and sharing our own tradition.
“At the end of Midnight Mass, the choir would sing, ‘To the Manger Hasten Yonder,’” he continued. “Rather than exit through the back or side doors where they came in, parishioners would process down the center aisle of the church to say a prayer to the Child in the manger. This was something I looked forward to each Christmas Eve, even as a young boy, because that’s why we were there in the first place!
“Unfortunately, we don’t sing those beautiful Polish carols anymore and today, most parishioners are in a rush to get home to open presents rather than wait in line to kneel at the manger. So many other traditions have just gone by the wayside,” he said.
Deacon Karpecik also reflected on how it wasn’t common practice to have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. “Parishioners came from near and far for Adoration throughout the day and into the evening,” he said.
Sharing a personal family tradition that he practices to this day, he said, “My great-grandfather came from Poland. He could not speak English, but every Christmas Eve, he put a lighted candle in the window, signifying that Christ was born. I continue to do the same. In fact, some of our parishioners said they were going to do this as well.
“Maybe, in time, some of these more notable traditions that provided some of the glue to our parishes and parishioners will return someday,” he said.
Georgiana Francisco is an ad sales representative for The Monitor and frequent editorial contributor.