Category Archives: BLOG

Mary Our Queen

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Driving home from work today, I had mind to stop in to the cathedral to chat with Mary. It’s a modern cathedral built in the 1950s, a big place made of smooth stone where you have to walk a city block to get from the front door all the way to the back, to the Mary Chapel . I thought about slipping in a side entrance so I didn’t have to walk so far, but when I pulled up to the church, all of the front doors were wide open.

These are enormous and heavy brass doors that I have never seen propped open, even before mass or during special holy days. When I approached, cool air poured out, scented with incense. Inside, it was dark except for the light filtering through the narrow, four-story stained glass windows.

And I was all alone. Not a soul was in this massive cathedral. Right after work. On a busy thoroughfare. In the middle of a major city on the East Coast. Just me.

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It made me think of a visit to Poland last spring. Every church I ducked into–no matter the day of the week or the time of day–was full to spilling over with people of all ages.  Some had scored seats, others leaned against the walls, folks came in late and other slipped out early. I stopped into enough churches mid-mass to cobble together a whole mass during my week of traveling.

Yet here I was in this massive cathedral–the place where special funerals are held for police officers and fire fighters and revered sports figures, where the archbishop leads Christmas mass to a packed house–and I was all alone with the doors wide open.

Is this what it’s like being Catholic in America? I define my very ancestry–Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Irish–by Catholicsm. Yet I understand now why so many churches are consolidating and closing. You must have people to have a church.

I found the Mary Chapel so quiet in this stone fortress that my ears rang. The silence stayed with me as I  traversed the length of the long and quiet church again towards the exit, towards the light spilling through the open doors and into the church.

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Before stepping back into the sunlight, Mary met me one more time in the form of a statue at the door. She had wreath of flowers on her head and a reassuring smile on her face.

 

It’s the Epiphany

presipeOn the feast of the Epiphany, I’m sharing a handmade presepi by a friend of The Mary Project. A presepi is an Italian nativity landscape, and elaborate scenes of the three kings approaching Jesus in the manger can be found in windows, basements and yards throughout the Italian American community in New York City.

10483936_10154831462495384_4924634503781624329_oJoseph Sciorra is a scholar of Italian American culture and has captured pictures of many such scenes in his book, “Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City. This one he made himself in an old television. Wow!

I’m part Italian, and I’m sharing what my nativity scene looks like below. It is passed down from my mother, who was Italian and Irish and not from New York City—but I do believe it was made in Italy!

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And speaking of Epiphany, read Wally Lamb’s “Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal” for an imaginative musing on Jesus tracking down the three kings in their native lands. It’s like a Biblical Harry Potter.

A small gift

My goal with The Mary Project is to share the stories of many people–Catholic or not, religious or not, born here or there–and how they experience Mary in their lives. Each day, I’m bowled over by the power of this project and how Mary manifests in my life–and in the lives of others.

I offer this as Exhibit A:

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Last week, my neighbor and her boyfriend came to my house to carpool to a polka Christmas dance party. She loves to dance, he’s Slovenian, I’m part Polish. It was a guaranteed good time.

They had just been traveling through the Balkans and handed me a small package when they walked through the door.

“It’s just a little something,” she said. “Do you know Medjugorje?”

My face lit up. What? Of course, I know Medjugorje. It’s a place in the craggy hills of Bosnia where the Virgin Mary appears. They say the sun spins, rose petals fall from the sky, and crosses turn to gold around people’s necks. It has long been on my pilgrimage list.

“Yes, I know Medjugorje. I’ve always want to visit,” I say, as I look around my living room and wonder if they’ve noticed yet.

A white porcelain Mary statue sits on the fireplace mantle with the crumbling Polish lithograph of Mary with angels, a card from the Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre (Mary’s mother). A 3-foot tall plaster statue stands in the corner.

They’ve never been in my house before. They don’t know I collect Mary souvenirs from around the world. And I’ve never talked to them about Mary or The Mary Project.

The small paper package is printed with a blue drawing of Mary. Inside is  a small rosary bracelet, each bead depicting Mary and the Divine Mercy (I’ll get into that another day, but suffice it say that Pope Francis just announced this as a year of mercy, and just a few months ago I visited the very place  in Poland that this image was revealed to Saint Faustina.)

It was beautiful and delicate and sweet with two little crosses cinching the ties. I held the weight of it in my hand and marveled at the gift. Of all things they could have brought me from this part of the world, they brought me the thing that meant the most–and they had no idea.

The Barn

This morning before I set off on my journey, a dragonfly appeared hovering above my windshield. I was in a parking lot in a shopping mall, nowhere near a field or marsh. And it hung there as began to drive, flying just a few inches ahead of me, like it was leading somewhere. It stayed with me for a good ten seconds, and disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared.

* * * * *

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“There’s a barn up here with a beautiful painting of Our Guadalupe on it. I want to stop and take a picture of it,” I said. Cheryl and I were careening down a four-lane highway in rural Calvert County, better known for conservative Republican farmers than a Mexican barn-painting Catholic.

“We should travel across the country and write a book called ‘Mary in America,” Cheryl said, going on to explain the coffee table book we could work on together. She’d take the pictures of the people, places and things – and I’d write the stories.

I spotted the barn and hung a U-turn, rolling to a stop on the shoulder with cars whizzing by. Cheryl leaned out the window with her camera.

“Back up a little,” she said.

I backed up and the 4-foot-high panel under the eaves of the red barn came into better view between a powerline and pole. There was Our Lady of Guadalupe in all her glory. Green robe covered with stars, bursts of light behind her, angels at her feet. The plywood was weathering. The artwork was beautiful.

Next the red barn was a line a pick up trucks, and I couldn’t see the house for the trees.

“Back up a little more,” she said.

As I inched backwards on the highway, I saw a pickup truck approaching along the shoulder in my rear view mirror. The truck was twice the size of my little hatchback, jacked up on enormous wheels with rack of spotlights affixed to the top like Mickey Mouse.

“Oh my gosh, it’s the person who lives here!” I say.

He pulls into the driveway and rolls down his window. Halfway.

“We’re admiring your Mary. Is it okay if we take a picture,” Cheryl says, as she hops out of the car and approaches the truck.

By the time I get there, she’s run closer to the barn, and I’m looking up at the man behind the wheel. The cab is lined in blue flame upholstery. He’s about 250 pounds with a day’s growth of a beard and short, curly blond hair. He’s not Mexican. He’s 100 percent Calvert County. White, male, and country.

“I’ve passed this Mary before on your barn and I had to stop this time,” I said. “She’s beautiful.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, with a slight smile. His teeth were small compared to the rest of his body. “I asked a lady at my church to paint it for me. I saw what a wonderful job she had done before, so I asked her to paint Mary for my barn.”

He was warming up.

“I’d like to build a little structure to keep off the rain.,” he said proudly, “I used to have a light for it, but the kids kept running over it with the lawnmower.”

I laugh, and we introduce ourselves.

“I’m glad you like her,” he says.