Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas in the Acre - 1890s

Lowell 100 Yrs
The Sisters of Notre Dame, who still staff St Patrick School, faithfully kept a journal of daily activities from 1852 until 1958.  The Annals, as the volumes were referred to, were daily accounts of Masses attended, rosaries recited, and happenings within the school.  By custom the writers remained unnamed, though there are hints of authorship periodically.  One thread that runs throughout the decades was the visits made by the “mission angel.”  This was the Sisters’ way of saying who was being transferred, very often with little or no notice.  This fictional entry is a combination of facts gathered from the Annals of the Sisters recorded in the 19th century. 
The Portress has been busy today.  Many come to the door begging food for their children.  Our pantry is not heavily loaded, but we spare what we can.  As Mother Superior says one never knows when it is the Christ Child who is knocking at the door.  Many of the boarding students have gone home to celebrate Christmas with their families.  Those who remain behind are invited to dine with us in the Sisters’ refectory.  You can tell the students are not used to our custom of dining in silence.  I look at up them and see them looking rather uncomfortable while one of the Sisters reads the lives of the Saints as we eat our meal of soup and bread.  The fast before Christmas has begun meaning no meat until the holy day.  It was only a few years ago that I was a student like them, sitting in the same seats looking at the Sisters wondering if I had the call.
I sit here in the Sisters’ dormitory; our beds separated by a simple white sheet.  Already I hear the snores coming from Sister Fidelia’s bed.  On the other side are the rasping coughs coming from young Sister Lourdes.  Dr. Green says he cannot do much more for her.  I am fortunate to have a window that looks out into the convent gardens.  A number of years ago Mother Desiree, may she rest in peace, had a tall brick wall surround the entire school and convent property.  At the same time we were forbidden to join the parishioners in sitting with the congregation.  An opening was made between the convent and the church.  We were to sit behind this wall to attend Mass and all other liturgical functions.  Our Mother General feels this separation will help us focus on our devotions.  One of the priests comes to the opening to distribute Communion.  Looking at the bare trees and mounting snow can make one doubt her call.  Though we are not allowed to have personal conversations I have heard stories of Sisters who have returned to their families.  They have walked right out the door.  But my guardian placed me with the Sisters when I was a young girl, and the Sisters have become my family. 
After morning Mass the church doors were closed, and we were allowed to decorate the church for the Christmas feast.  Garland was strung from the ceiling to the altar.  Wreaths were hung on every column.  There are 22.  I counted them.  Some of the older women from the parish were allowed to help us.  It was nice to speak with someone new.  The best part of today was that I was given the chore of setting up the manger in our chapel.  It is a most beautiful place.  It was recently completed, designed by the famous Patrick Keely.  The colors are pink and blue and very uplifting.  Not as grand as the parish church, but it is where we spend many hours of the day reciting the Divine Office, rosaries, and being in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord.
But my heart is heavy this Christmas Eve.  I sit here waiting to hear the bells of the steeple ring in Christmas.  It is the custom of many, some as far away as across the river and into the city center, to wait until they hear the bells ring before they make their way to midnight Mass.  I sit here holding the little note that the Mission Angel has left on my pillow.  I leave to go to our academy in Roxbury right after Christmas.  I must say good bye to this place that has been my home as long as I can remember.  I recall the words of our foundress, Julie Billard.  “Ah qu’il est bon, le bon Dieu.” (How good the good God is.) 
The bells break the silence of this cold December darkness.  They ring out calling me.  Silent Night, Holy Night.

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