How many people can pick one edifice, one spot, to visualize their life from childhood to adulthood?
By Karen T. Butler
How many people can pick one edifice, one spot, to visualize their life from childhood to adulthood? Sitting in a pew at Resurrection Church, three rows from the front on the right —my self-appointed assigned seat — I stare up at the stained glass window from which Christ looks out and appears ready to descend from heaven. I wait for him to move, but it never quite happens.
My path to that pew at Resurrection was not a straight one. In a sense, it had a miraculous quality to it. When I was 12 and a seventh grader at Rye Junior High, my girlfriends and I were playing jump rope. Traditionally somewhere around 6th or 7th grade Catholic children prepare for Confirmation. My friends were doing just that. One of my closest girlfriends and I somehow, it is vague now, discussed that although I had been baptized a Catholic, I had never received First Communion. She offered to arrange for a nun to privately tutor me for both. She did, and this sweet, roly-poly nun, all covered up in her black habit with a starched white band surrounding her smiley face, became my teacher. Her name was Sister Marietta de Sales who taught me lovingly.
My dad was Catholic and my mother was Protestant. Mixed marriages in their era were much more problematic then today. They were married in The Church of the Transfiguration, located around the corner from Fifth Avenue at 29th Street in New York City, a vintage Episcopalian Church worthy of a visit for its beauty and eclectic history. During World War II, that church married over a thousand couples a year because they were willing to perform “mixed” marriages, definitely not the norm then. GI’s came to New York City on leave, met by their bride-to-be, to be married in this church more often referred to as “The Little Church Around The Corner”.
My dad was what my sister, Lynn, and I jokingly refer to as a “Christmas Catholic,” once a year to church was his limit. So my spiritual upbringing fell to my mother. She was raised Baptist, Northern Baptist; not sure how that differs from Southern Baptist, with a bit of Lutheran thrown in.
Looking back on it, my Mother may not have seen it this way, but it seemed to me as a kid, she chose “the church du jour.” There were years when I went to Sunday school at Christ’s Church (Episcopalian) where Reverend Wendall Phillips would come floating down the center aisle of the sanctuary donning his long black cloak. He would come to give a talk to us children in Sunday school where he was a
Richard Burton-esque in style, thus a mesmerizing speaker. He showed us movies depicting bible stories and in every case we never saw Jesus’ face. That was left to our imaginations.
Other years, we went to the North Baptist Church in Port Chester, and some years to the Rye Presbyterian Church of Reverend Wasson. Somehow we skipped over the Methodist Church, and I am not sure why.
In between this potpourri of church going, were sprinkled Sunday’s at mass with my grandmother. Going to church for me over time, had the essence of being an adventure. To add to the mix, my mother’s brother was a pioneering missionary linguist with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, going to Mexico in the 1930s to translate and give a written language for the first time to the Totonac Indians in the form of the New Testament. He was the “go to” person as I was growing up, when he made his annual visit to our home. I pelted him with questions like: “What does God look like?” “Is there a heaven?” and many more.
So you can see when my young preteen friend suggested that I be tutored privately to receive First Communion, my innate curiosity made it something I could not turn down. Completing my studies I sat in the left front row of Resurrection Church with my Grandmother and received First Communion. Shortly after that I was confirmed with my classmates. I even have a photograph of me “cheek to cheek” with my dad taken by Rye’s famed photographer, Al Porto, to commemorate the day I was Confirmed.
With this right of passage—receiving First Communion and Confirmation—I was entitled to attend “religious instructions” on Thursday when we were dismissed from the public school early to attend. My “mixed” background gave me away.
At the end of my first class Sister had us recite “The Our Father”. I recited the Protestant version which had the additional words “for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever, amen.” That is what I had been taught. Of course the whole class laughed loudly. I was mortified. Sister gave them a lecture about their rudeness. Today most of that has been added to the Catholic version…so now I chuckle to myself that I was way ahead of my time.
Weeks after receiving First Communion and being Confirmed, I was overwhelmed with guilt that I had betrayed my Mother rejecting her Protestant heritage, even though she never uttered a word about such thoughts. My Dad was wonderful. I remember going to him one Sunday morning in tears saying: “Dad, I don’t want to be a Catholic.” He said: “Don’t worry about it sweetheart, you do what works for you.”
So when I sit on the time-worn wooden pews of Resurrection Church, the ones that have been there my whole life, I see my grandmother and me receiving First Communion. I see myself walking down the center aisle for Confirmation. I see Marty Butler and I skipping up the aisle as a young newly married bride and groom having just been married by Father Cornelius O’Brien (later to become a Monsignor). I visualize each of my four children being baptized there in an era when moms were not allowed to attend the christening, only the God-parents. It’s a place where I have greeted my friends young and old over the years. I have prayed there, I have cried there, I day-dreamed there, and even laughed there.
I buried the father of my children from Resurrection, following the casket down the aisle to several guitarists loudly strumming Bob Dylan’s famed “Blowing In the Wind” with Father McGuire standing on the alter singing it at the top of his lungs. All very revolutionary at the time. My husband, just before he died, had sent me to see the Monsignor with the message that his wishes be granted or he would choose to be buried in a different church. He wanted his funeral to have a spirit of hope for his children. The Monsignor understood and met what, at the time, was our daring request. Mom chose to be buried from the Presbyterian Church, since she was fond of Reverend Joe Bishop.
It is such a joy for me to sit in Resurrection Church and bask in those warm and loving memories of my life, and a few sad ones blended in as well. For that reason Resurrection Church is “hallowed ground,” as are the other churches in Rye that have helped me hone my faith. I lovingly learned many lessons about my spirituality. As time goes by, the term “Mother Church” takes on a more and more profound meaning. Today, I am most grateful to have one edifice, Resurrection Church, that quietly evokes so many landmark events of my life.