Monday, August 31, 2009

Growing-Up In The Shadow of The Spires

by Dick Mac

I grew-up on McGreevey Way in the Mission Hill Housing Projects. Both of my parents were born in Mission Hill: my mom grew-up on Hillside Street, my dad on Kempton Street (the projects had not been built when they were born in the 1930s).

The projects are at the northeastern base of Mission Hill near the fens of the Muddy River, and McGreevey Way is basically the second street on the Hill as you head up Huntington Avenue (Route 9), which forms the western border of the Hill. The eastern base of the Hill, which is now Columbus Avenue, is also the Stony Brook, now an aqueduct running underground. The southern base of the Hill is Heath Street, dividing Roxbury's Mission Hill from Jamaica Plain.

The neighborhood is the home of a Roman basilica named for Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It is informally called the Mission Church. The basilica is a remarkable building, and it is the Church where my parents were baptized, my siblings and I were baptized, where we received our First Holy Communions, where my brothers were married, and my parents' and grandparents' funerals were held. When you add all of my friends' and relatives' similar events held at the basilica, you understand that this church has been a big part of my life, and that I have attended scores of life-altering events there.

The basilica formed and informed my ideas of church and churches. I learned about apses and alters and steeples and colonnades and sanctuaries and chapels, the conopaeum and the tintinnabulum (basically an umbrella and a bell!). I heard that the Pope only says Mass in a basilica, or outdoors, and that our basilica was known around the world for miracles that are alleged to have taken place after petitions to Our Lady. An altar includes a rack of canes, crutches and braces that were no longer needed by the lame who had been cured by miraculous intervention in the basilica. Believe what you will.

It is an imposing building, with twin spires rising high into the air, and visible from far distances. I saw those spires and the massive church every day of my childhood, and I always remember them fondly. The basilica is up the Hill from the Projects, looking over the working-poor tenants of the Projects. The placement above the projects makes it an even more formidable neighbor that it might have been to those who lived "above" it, further up the Hill.

Upon entering, even the most confident person feels diminutive. The vaulted ceilings and magnificent columns dwarf everyone. The splendor of the main altar glows at the other end of the long aisle. If I remember correctly, my brothers' weddings required a white runner that was well over 100 feet long, and it took the ushers a noticeable effort to roll it the length of the church.

Everything about the church is amazing. Everyone I know has been impressed by it upon their first visit.

My last visit to the church was a sad one, for my mother's funeral.

It was a wet day in March, 2001. I had flown to Boston a few days earlier from my home in London, leaving Mrs. Mac there, to visit my mother in the hospital. It was not supposed to be her last stay in the hospital (is it ever?) and the next day it was obvious that I wouldn't be returning to London anytime soon. Mrs. Mac got a flight to Boston and upon her arrival, after we were all gathered in the hospital room, we ordered food to be delivered (Chinese?), commandeered some extra chairs from around the ICU, and started playing Whist. Mrs. Mac and my sister painted my mother's nails and it was a joyous time. The whole family was together and we were doing what Irish families in our neighborhood always did, we were doing the things my mother loved to do: we ate, drank, and played cards, we laughed and told stories, like the Irish do. We invited the nurses and other families to join us. We were having a good time. Seemingly within minutes of us all being in a groove, my mother passed away the way she wanted: Quietly. Dignified. Surrounded by family.

Through the chaotic haze that makes-up my memory of the funeral, I remember sitting in the back of a limousine approching the Hill from the east and riding up Tremont Street. As the car approached the top of a rise, bagpipes in front of the church sounded the strains Amazing Grace.

This past Saturday, Senator Ted Kennedy's funeral was held at the same basilica.

I watched on television as some of the most famous and powerful members of the United States government gathered in the pews and aisles that are so familiar to me. I watched presidents stand in front of the confessionals where I have talked about my deepest fears and scariest secrets. I watched Barrack Obama deliver a eulogy in the same pulpit from which my brother eulogized my mother, and from which I read bible verses in celebration of my other brother’s marriage. I watched the entire Kennedy clan and their closest friends walk across the same modest brick plaza that I crossed so many times, whether to celebrate a simple communion or an elaborate ritual.

In Brooklyn, NY, I could feel the drizzle and the familiar breeze and I remembered the smell of the church, I could smell the burning wax and the incense. I could hear the familiar organ and I remembered my sister singing Amazing Grace as my mother's casket made its way into the church.

I remembered my thoughts while walking that long aisle and I wondered how different my thoughts were, or your thoughts were, from the Kennedy clans' thoughts while walking alone in a crowd during the funeral of a loved one.

I wonder.

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