Memories of urban Irish Catholicism!

Palm Sunday always reminds me of the little things that made living in the Gray’s Ferry area of Philadelphia so memorable. Being the ethnic enclave of Irish Catholicism, Palm Sunday always was a full house at Saint Gabriel Church, everyone wanted to take palm home to weave crosses and distribute them among family and friends. It is really quite amazing, no matter where you go, Catholic’s always have blessed palm on display in their homes during the entire year. The freshly cut fragrance of palm always reminds me of being an altar boy at Saint Gabriel’s, and the great ceremony that began on Palm Sunday. All of my fellow Gray’s Ferry Catholics will remember the Sunday High Mass, which included a procession with palms, altar boys with gloves and red sashes, Holy Water sprinkling over the assembly and the smell of burning beeswax candles.

I always remember too the choir that used to sing the parts of the Mass and the great crescendo of the pipe organ…it used to rock the Church. In those days, the High Mass was filled. Solemnity was the keystone of the Palm Sunday celebration and Holy Week was gearing up.

It was always great to arrive at Palm Sunday. It meant that we had survived Lent, there was a much needed school break, and Easter was at hand. Growing up Irish Catholic always had a special bravado associated with it in Saint Gabriel Parish, and Palm Sunday just marked the beginning of the week’s solemnities. There were many priests during those years of the 1960’s and 1970’s that led the parish in the transitional phases of the liturgical changes of Vatican II. I remember with fondness the cigar smoke that surrounded Msgr. Waldron, the jovial laughter of Fr. Bob Kerwick, the nascent priesthood of Fr. Sam Shoemaker and the broken English of Jesuit Father Charles Le Blanc.

Going to church on Palm Sunday and during Holy Week was just a natural part of growing up Catholic. It was like brushing your teeth or putting on your coat. The parish community always offered a place for gathering together in worship, parish socials or even weekly ticket raffles with the multiple Waters family pulling out the tickets.

Parish life was always interesting, from the group of men in the Holy Name Society that gathered in a smoke filled room in the rectory basement to count the collection, to the sale of the Sunday Inquirer at the entrance to the Church, the 50/50 drawing after the last Mass to CYO Basketball games and parish newspaper drives. Growing up in the ethnic Irish section of Gray’s Ferry was a time capsule of parochial days gone by.

As a father of a young girl, I tell my daughter about fivecent….pretzels (not the grammatically corrects 5 cents), penny candy, juice boxes, nuns in religious habits, altar BOYS and kneeling for communion.

In the typical fashion of a 21st century only child, she asks me to repeat what I was saying. Her iPod was too loud, and she was surfing the internet.

I really wish it were possible to take her back to the Irish Catholic days of Gray’s Ferry. Being Catholic would be like a medieval experience for my 21st century daughter.

owever, she would know what the Friday fast was all about, being a bold brazen article and segregation of the Catholic boys from the Catholic girls. Even more important, she could appreciate the art of walking to Church, playing pimple ball and having someone stamp on your new shoes in Saint Gabriel School yard.

Ah, the memories of growing up Catholic and the memories of Holy Week…make me want to do it all over again.

Hugh McNichol writeson Catholic issues and muses on Irish Catholic heritage as lived in a 1960’s urban Philadelphia neighborhood.

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