Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Acre Memory: May Devotions

Grotto, 1890s
There are certain memories that are embedded in your very soul when you attend a parochial school, especially in the pre-Vatican II period.  There were First Friday Masses, novenas to the Saints, Parish Missions, 40 Hours Devotions.  You could add to the list yourself.  Maybe it was the sun that drew me outside to walk the backyard.  I looked at the lilac bush and the very first buds hinting of what to come were just showing themselves.  For me lilacs have an immediate connection to May, and if you went to a parochial school that meant the May Procession. 
I have friends who swear their time in parochial school put them into years of therapy.  Maybe they’re right.  I also see that many very successful people probably gained a firm foundation by “doing time.”   
Having gone through St. Patrick School with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur one can easily understand their instilling great devotion to Our Lady.  The history of the May Procession goes back to the earliest days of the school into the 1850s.  The tradition continued into the 1960s when I was there.  Devotion to the B.V.M. even flooded into the home.  Many Catholics wore the brown scapular and recited their daily rosary.  My mother at times would walk over and turn the TV off announcing it was time for the rosary, often in the middle of the Flintstones or I Dream of Jeanie.  Home May Altars were another custom associated with this time of year.  My grandfather would take old religious statues and repaint them.  To be honest he probably was not the greatest artist.  Often his artwork would give them haunting eyes that would follow you around.  Somewhere in the corner of the TV room would be set up a card table covered with a table cloth on which were arranged  plastic flowers, candlesticks, and the statue of Mary with Little Orphan Annie eyes.  The scene was carried out in homes of families and friends, sometimes with a note of competition.  One cousin had a mammoth set of rosary beads that had belonged on a nun’s habit.  If there was a winner, this was the gold medal. 
Back at school plans for the big procession started right after Easter.  Everyone knew that an 8th grade girl would be chosen to crown the statue of Mary.  This led some girls to be a little holier than thou in hopes of being among the elect.  Maybe they wouldn’t get to crown Mary, but possibly be part of the court that would dress in long satin robes and carry signs with the titles of the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary.  Each girl would wear a crown of plastic flowers.  There was quite a bit of campaigning going on for the honor.  Some girls would volunteer to carry Sister’s school bag or maybe drop a hint of a possible future vocation to the Oder.  They’d do anything to grab that crown.
In our classroom Sister Margaret Paul announced we were having a contest.  We were each to build a May Altar and bring it into class to compete for a very special prize.  In preparation for the big day, we were all corralled into the school hall to watch the 1950s classic, The Song of Bernadette on an ancient 16mm projector.  You could see the smiles on the Sisters’ faces while Bernadette was in the throes of her visions.  I was mesmerized by the old projector and watched the film go from one spool to the other.  The best part was when the film would split and you could watch it melt right there on the screen.  (Full disclosure:  I own a DVD of the Song of Bernadette and have to admit to secretly watching it.)
The night before the May Altar competition was due, we were at my Aunt’s house.  That’s when I announced to my parents I needed to go home and build and altar.  What????  Ok, even back then I waited until the last minute to do anything.  Luckily my cousin Armand had a tiny statute of Mary I could use.  (I still have the statue if Armand wants it back.)  We flew home in the ‘61 Ford.  My Dad took out a roll of Reynold’s Wrap and began constructing a tin foil grotto.  He then took my Easter eggs, ripped off the fancy foil (ate the chocolate), and created a backdrop.  A few cotton balls around Mary’s feet and voila!  It was done.  I don’t know what they got so bothered about. 
May Procession, 1953
On the way to school the next day I added a few dandelions for affect.  The classroom was heady with all the bouquets of lilacs kids had brought in.  Along the window sill were the 30 or so home-made May Altars.  Some were works of art.  Sister looked at mine and said, “Put it over there.”  My tin foil grotto was banished to the back of the room, after all my hard work. 
As the day wore on, one by one students’ heads began hitting the desks.  We were being drugged by the smell of lilacs like Dorothy and the poppies in the Wizard of Oz.  Sister banished the lilacs to the outdoors.  Mary would have to do with plastic flowers.  Of course the winner of the classroom competition was Sister’s pet who had given her a new Miraculous Medal as a bribe.  There’s one in every crowd.  I wasn’t too disappointed when I saw the big prize was a prayer card with 350 day of plenary indulgences attached to it.  But soon it was time for the grand procession.
There were about 300 students in the school at the time.  We were all lined up 2 by 2 to form a column that would march around the block to the church.  We were instructed that one person would begin the Hail Mary and the other would give the response.  The idea was great, but the reality was that as soon as Sister walked past, you started talking about something else.  For a few, rosary beads became weapons being used like helicopter blades spinning around your finger.  As soon as Sister would turn around you’d hear, “Holy Mary, Mother of God…….”
Our demeanor changed as we processed into the church alight with candles and the smell of incense.  As the voices of 300 children sang the strains of Immaculate Mary the tiny crown of flowers and ribbons crafted by one of the Sisters was placed upon the head of the statue.  How many generations of school children had carried out this same devotion gazing upon this same image?  We were a link in a chain that had traversed time continuing what our parents and theirs before them brought to this place.  Ave Maria.

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