May Processions….true Catholic identity!

Growing up in an urban Catholic parish always included the annual tradition of the May Procession. It seemed most logical to have a procession during the school year to honor Mary, the Mother of Jesus and give all of the grade school students something to practice towards. Remember, Catholic grammar school in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a far cry from the classrooms of today. Frequently, in those days there were four classrooms to each grade and the headcount in each classroom could surpass fifty students. There were a lot of children in the post-World War II baby boom and we all wore parochial school uniforms.
The May Procession was always an event of great anticipation. When we returned from our Easter vacation, it was time to pull out the old songbooks and get our voices in tune for the Marian festival. Sr. Maureen Rose, I.H.M. was always responsible for whipping our adolescent voices into great shape in time for the festivities. Of course, the traditional Lourdes hymn was always the main opener, and we sang the song about 1000 times as we circled around Saint Gabriel Church and filed into our pews.
The altar devoted to Mary was festooned with gold and blue draperies and the Virgin Mother was of course crowned with a tiara of paste diamonds. We really didn’t know they were paste diamonds…when you’re a kid the illusion is part of the reality. When the procession started the organ boomed out the notes, everyone sang and processed. Interestingly enough, all of the girls wore veils over their hair. If one unfortunate girl forgot her veil, one of the obliging Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary fashioned a veil out of a few Kleenex and pinned it to the poor girl’s head. It still fascinates me that nuns were able to construct just about anything with the resources that were hidden behind those scapulars.
Of course, the boys sat on the Saint Joseph side of the Church. There was no mingling of the genders going on in Catholic parochial school. Wearing ties and suit jackets the boys were all dressed up as if they were ready for a family wedding or even funeral. There was always a I.H.M. sister with a clicker as well. That was to make sure everyone properly genuflected and bowed at the proper times and places with regimented pre-Vatican II liturgical precision. In the middle of all of this, the priests with altar boys processed to the sanctuary, where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for adoration. Great clouds of smoke filled the air as the altar boys swung the incense filled thurible and we welcomed the Eucharistic Lord into our cacophonic mix of Marian selections.
In those days, you had a real sense of being part of the Church Militant as you went marching around the neighborhood and the Church in precision lockstep. The music was triumphant and militaristic, the procession was spectacular and colorful and the singing was deafening. Every time I think of the May Procession, I think of Sr. Maureen Rose blasting out the melody while waving her arms to keep the company of compliant children singing at the top of their voices.
May Processions were always a memorable part of the ethnic Irish Catholic experience in Gray’s Ferry. Everyone in the neighborhood poured out into the streets to watch the procession. Unusually enough, even the local “tap rooms” emptied and the men that usually held up the bar stools, tipped their hats as the procession went bye. Saint Gabriel Church was filled to capacity, with the fragrance of incense, freshly cut flowers, newly cut grass in the churchyard and about 1000 school children being whipped into a Marian frenzy.
We need to bring back May Processions to their former glory. They were and are superlative examples of the living faith of a parish and community. While our Catholic schools might not have the multitudes of children they once had, even a modest procession is worth the effort. For one thing, it celebrates Mary, the Mother of God as an integral component of our living and developing Catholic traditions. For another reason, it gives Catholic students a chance to get out there and experience the great satisfaction that comes with growing up Catholic in parochial environment.

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