A REQUIEM FOR ST. ALOYSIUS
by STEVE ERDMANN
A Sunday morning at church should be a mellow, refreshing thing; a visit that replenishes your body and soul. It should be a time for reprieve, contemplation and rebirth through restitution. But Saint Aloysius, my church, had fallen on tough times. It would have closed down had not the Council come up with some hard and fast salvation.
The demise had long been foreseen when the neighborhood took on curious and gradual changes. Not quite a St. Charles, Missouri, with a higher class of people, Carondelet, Missouri, at one time at least, was considered quaint and original: friendly Germans, Irish, Jews and Czechs. A few Hispanic families dotted along Broadway and there was a black church and pockets of Negro families nestled throughout the village. Some citizens were very Appalachian. Most were not the richest people in the world, but industrious, studious and striving. At least that was the way it seemed to me back in my more formative years – the 1950s and 60s – things seemed stable. They really weren’t. They just seemed that way. Things seemed toned-down.
We had atomic and hydrogen bombs. We had ‘duck and cover drills’. But we had ‘play time’. Those times when we could watch Walt Disney and Dave Garroway and go to the movies at the Michigan Theater to see the latest science-fiction flick with phony monsters that looked like phony monsters. And no matter how hard things seemed, we had our childhood to fall back on, the enjoyment of Halloween, Christmas and Easter; the make-believe of the Saturday morning adventure of Space Patrol, Hop Along Cassidy and Roy Rogers. Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz was a yearly favorite.
Back then, Sunday afternoon dinners were big events. While they happened on Sunday, their preparation began sometime earlier in the week, coming to a final crescendo in a bouquet of food and drink that afternoon, often visited by an on-going stream of friends and relatives marching by to visit until late that evening. A special-event dinner or banquet at the church often substituted for home dinner and, dressed in our best, we’d join a long line of members and neighbors, cash our tickets, and partake of the speeches, feasting and frivolity that usually accompany church activities. Kids were running helter-skelter, sneaking off to play small pranks or trying to steal a kiss from each other. But nothing stands out as hair-raising.
From what I remember, many Sunday services were standing-room-only, especially at holidays like Easter and Christmas. Sure, there were controversies back then; snide remarks about this one or that one. The news talked about political struggle of one type or another. But we all somehow weathered them and, looking back, they seemed so innocuous, mundane and weak. Church and school picnics loom as giant events in our Church life; especially the opportunity to see our most mature, body rippling female eighth-grader work in the ‘dunking machine’. Modern pornography of the time didn’t hold our attention and anticipation as much.
Christmas and Easter choir rehearsals were much anticipated events that allowed time out of class. When it came time to perform, oh, how we loved to dress up in our little suits and the girls decorated in pink and yellow fashion and bonnets. Vacations were glued to meetings with church events. There was always some festivity or event that highlighted the city: the 1960 World Exposition on the river front, festivals in South County Jefferson Barracks, the Boy Scouts Grand Jamboree, so many others. The Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn adventures of my next-door neighbor and I, trailblazing trips along the railroad tracks out to a distant Cliff’s Cave. Maybe because we were just young kids and children, but the sun seemed to shine in the summer and winter equally bright and cheerful.
Was it because we had left behind childhood and adolescent dreams? I can’t say. But something was changing; indeed, in looking back now, something ‘had’ changed.
What may have been the first calamity in panoply of calamities was the loss of my beautiful wife, Rosie. Her name had been Rosie Smith: a luscious, vibrant young girl of Cherokee Indian ancestry; her beauty would grip your soul with lust and longing. Her youth, her erotic features and flowing long black hair would titillate any healthy man or boy. Rosie Fortipton had become my soul mate and lover.
Rosie and I bought a small three-room home in the heart of Carondelet. She said it reminded her of an Indian wigwam; but she decorated it to be very modern. Between love-making in the countryside, we would explore the town as if two kids out for weekend adventure. One of the ventures was ‘church-hopping’. Rosie always was on a spiritual quest of one sort or another, saying it was part of her Indian heritage. It was in this way we came to visit and then decide to join St. Aloysius. Rosie became a committed and active member.
Though Rosie was part of the rural and Appalachian background folk and history in Carondelet, she always looked upon the place as representing a more contemporary and modern-day period in her life. She carried a special pride of her locality. But even she began to see neighborhood and societal changes that dismayed her and could even dim her beauty. She began to clasp my hands often in some kind of fear. Indians seemed mystic in that way. She would speak of dreams and prophecy and ‘the dread that was to come’. Sometimes she would chant in Cherokee. Often she would sit on the front porch and just gaze out longingly and searching for something sight-unseen.
Then she was diagnosed with cancer. The day she died her body had lost all of its vibrancy and spunk; she had become a cellophane mass of tissue and bones supporting her. As she fought to raise her head to murmur her last words, some Indian saying, her eyes had become wide and dilated. She collapsed with a final breath and was gone from me. Left were the vivid, sometimes painful, memories of her splendor and excitement.
The movie and book industries seemed to gradually evolve to horrid presentations equal to or, rather, far surpassing what was seen on the streets. A flood of home security devices sprung up on each lawn as if flowers throughout the neighborhood. Homes became broken-down sanctuaries and older people feared to be on the streets at any time of the day, let alone at night. In my old age, I rarely ventured out of my immediate neighborhood, and I began to spend most of my time isolated at home. I only occasionally attended church. But church was still my sanctuary, a reprieve from the fears and frustrations of the changing neighborhood. Until the Sunday I was brutally attacked on the front steps of the property. What was so hurtful, so devastating, was that I could swear the individual, hidden beneath a hood and handkerchief, was Orville Weber, a fellow congregation member.
Of course, despite pleas by some members, my attendance dropped off, drastically. The nights seemed to be filled with more howls and yelps and cries for help; the crashing of traffic. Strange people showed up at my door asking for money or if they could use my telephone. I, of course, rebuffed them. I had special locks put on my doors. I bought a–perhaps too friendly–dog and special outdoor lighting that would announce visitors and intruders along with a booming voice to cease and desist from the property. At a great expense to me, I had a reluctant security company build a metal and barb-wire fence around my property. To my detriment, I disinterred a gun from the attic that my wife had bought for protection before she passed away. I just stared at it with fear and disgust as it sat on the coffee table.
I hunkered down and stayed home a lot. I became a recluse of sorts, well, I became a ‘recluse’, yes—that’s it. I stocked up on canned goods and put a lot of food into the freezer; grocery stores were becoming odd places to shop. Patrons would do the oddest things there; mill around aimlessly while thievery was the staple of the day. Security guards attacked fellow security guards, and eventually, they were not attendant at the stores. I stopped watching the news and movies. They all seemed a matrix of crime, horror and vile calamity. I stuck to the music channels and the so-called religious channels. They all seemed to have migrated into a surreal dirge of the macabre. I no longer brought newspapers into my house or any other kind of literature. News outlets seemed to change too, as time went on. It was as if a virus, a plague, had come upon the neighborhood.
Bit by bit, as if a creeping infection, various localities divorced themselves of first responders and city services. Indeed, public services spasmodically disappeared throughout my neighborhood. Homes burned to the ground. In the days that followed, a lingering, skulking succession of miscommunication with family and friends occurred; telephone disconnects, no television or radio broadcasts, no mail delivery, no personal visits.
Changes could definitely be seen at church during this same period of evolutionary morphing. Herbert, the kindly and effable usher, no longer smiled, but his face seemed strained and insensible. “You gonna just sit there, or go up to receive the Lord’s Supper?” he snapped once when he was ushering. Orville Weber would sit across the aisle from me, continually stare at me, and smile. The expression wasn’t his usual, normal expression; more like a glare, a longing, or a wanting. When I sat in the vestibule before the service, the older ladies would gather together like little chicks and mumble and gossip. I believed I could hear bits of conversation about myself, my name mentioned, probably concerning my growing lack of church attendance and contribution. Sometimes the conversation would venture into ‘regular’ conversation. How the old parish building next to the school was being broken into by vandals and all the copper and aluminum taken out. How gangs of kids would gather in the outside steps and hallways, taking drugs and smoking pot. How the committee would have to vote on new fences and security cameras or, at least hire a security guard. It was usually voted that the congregation couldn’t afford these luxuries.
Snide little remarks kept creeping in the conversations, along with peculiar facial or body movements. Harold Reed would walk up to me now and then, give me a blank look into my face as if searching for something he had lost there, raise his arms and hands above my head as if to bring them down upon me – then suddenly turn and walk away. When the collection basket was passed around, the usher would jab it into my chest and mumble low but angrily. When parishioners left the service and greeted the pastor, there would be a moaning and grumbling as they walked to shake the pastor’s hand. But then, it was not just a handshake: they would grab him and hug him in a rather mysterious and sensuous grip.
I should have stayed atop of these controversies, to get a better understanding of the mechanics of church hierarchy, but, incongruously, I stopped going to church. Quite honestly, I was afraid. It had been months. The last time I had spied a newspaper headline on the street, the stock market had closed down and Wall Street was in shambles. The “specter” was not only feeding in Carondelet, but had spread throughout the city-proper. Church after church closed, business after business, family after family. Hospitals kept their morgues operating at a break neck capacity; bodies came in, many were shipped out at some point, no one was even sure, and apparently, they didn’t seem to care. The city, for the most part, had blacked out and electricity was not available. Even candlelight was almost nonexistent. But when a handwritten and weathered plea for help was found on my porch informing citizens that all Social Security had been cut off, I felt that I needed a particular amount of support. The only place I could think of was my church, the only possible place to find love and friendship, or so it should be hoped.
And the ‘truth’ came out at church last Sunday, really just a few hours ago, matter of fact, surprisingly, removing all mystery and questions about their concern, devotion, love for me; their true feelings; what a comfort. We always were truly “a band of brothers”.
That service yesterday, however, seemed so very unusual at that time. The congregation had only two realities: they either smiled at each other as if in some kind of senility, or sat limp, all with expressions of the forlorn and hopeless. They would sometimes let out grunts or moans or some kind of whispers. The pews were barely illuminated from the morning sunlight that struggled through stained-glass windows to meet the parishioners inside. The sermon was done, in almost ‘Nazi Fuerher’ oratory style, on the topic of “acceptance”. Pastor Milnor would thrust his hands into the air, pound the podium, exhorting the parishioners to ‘‘accept”, accept before it was “too late”. He said we must “all partake to receive the salvation that had been offered us”.
Awkwardly, they prevented me from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. How sad. Herbert even blocked my passage out into the aisle! The procedure must have changed drastically. A large platter of meat was passed around as they stood at the altar and the people would mumble, moan, snarl and grunt as they took their pieces off the platter. After-service banquets were always big events at church, but never during the service.
Quite frankly, I was going to be very happy when the service was over and I would be exiting the building; it was such a disappointment from my expectations. Since I sat in the last pew, I would be the first to leave ahead of the train of disgruntled and unhappy people. However, one of the Macomb family members had somehow gotten ahead of me and was whispering aside to the pastor. Their heads bent low and submerged in conversation, they deliberately avoided looking at me, though I suspected they were talking about me somehow. It was taking a long time, too long. I patted the pastor’s shoulder as I passed him, an attempt to give camaraderie and a sign of comfort and acknowledgement that I was leaving and he should have a good day. I headed out of the vestibule.
“Oh, no, no, in a big hurry, big, big hurry, you are! Can’t stay for a minute, got a lot of things to do?” The pastor had swung about, grabbing my coat sleeve. He projected a rather crazed and carnivorous look of desperation. Then I heard the parishioners yell and moan aloud in strained unison: “Stay, John! Yes, John, stay!” And I looked upon them: limping, struggling, lifeless bodies with looks of pleading and pain and frustration – no, hunger and desperation – white, sunken and shriveling faces - blood upon their mouths from, apparently, what had been a sacrificial supper at the altar. Their fingers and arms outstretched, beckoning to me. Their sunken, taunt, wrinkled and white faces looked like stone. Their eyes, bulged and dilated, reaching out as if to pop out of their heads, much like the tips of their fingers stretched to the limit of human capability to grasp me before I could leave. I felt their contact with me as they pulled me into their swarthy and foul-smelling midst.
It was then apparent to me the meaning of true acceptance and love. It had come home to meet me and enfold me. The frustration that had hounded me the previous months at St. Aloysius is, now, suddenly dwindling away.
Steve Erdmann, having spent a lifetime living and struggling in the ways and styles of a born and breed Midwestern, now wants to share the experiences of fellow St. Louisans and those of the Mississippi Basin. In the past, he has attended Washington and Webster Universities, has written on the paranormal, and is highly concerned with the Divorce Racket and government conspiracies. He has written for Our Sunday Visitor, Probe the Unknown, Liberty, Gnostica News, Beyond Reality, Forum Magazine, Caveat Emptor, The Green Egg, Forum, UFO Enigma, UFO Digest, Necrology Shorts, FATE Magazine, UN-X Magazine, Pound of Flash and several others. He currently belongs to the Carondelet Historical Society. He can be reached through this editor or at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and seen at www.facebook.com/#!/stephen.erdmann1
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