I was in an old church, late last year taking photographs of a pulpit, which are quite rare nowadays and are no longer used by the clergy to deliver their sermons. I became aware of faltering steps that were coming up behind me, when I turned around I was greeted by a stern old lady of about 80 years old , “what are you doing” she snapped at me, “photographing that old bloody thing, them things are a thing of the past. If I had a hammer, I’d knock that bloody thing down myself”. I sensed a story coming so I listened for more.
The old lady sat down in a pew beside me as I put my mobile phone away, she seemed in the mood to vent. Pointing to the pulpit she informed me, that “many a poor soul in days gone by, felt the lash of the tongue of them high and mighty priests, when I was but a slip of a girl, we lived in fear of doing anything wrong, like getting pregnant outside of marriage”. She raised her fists angrily, “that was the great sin”. The parish priest from the pulpit would have a ‘field day’ destroying the reputation of some poor girl and all belonging to her, who found herself pregnant. Raising her voice “never a word about the blackguard who put her in the family way. Old Mrs O Shay was so scared of the priest that it was rumoured that when her four daughters became of age, she sowed rosary beads into their knickers, to protect them from impurity. If you ask me it was the fella that was in need of the rosery beads.
Without stopping for breath she asked me “did I ever hear of churching?” I answered “no”. “Well let me tell you all about it, a neighbour of mine, Mrs O’ Conner, long since dead, when she had her first child, the following day her father died and because of the church she could not attend his funeral. She had to wait six weeks before going to the sacristy of the church, with a candle in her hand and a mantilla on her head and the priest would bless her with holy water and cleanse her from the act of having a child. What do you think of that then! young man”. I admit I was surprised. “Not very Christian was it, people don’t like to talk about those things nowadays. I’m sure you’ve heard of the dues. Yes I have heard of them. There was a lot less money around in my day, than there is now and yet we had to cough up money we didn’t have, to make sure them bloody priests were fed and watered. I knew one neighbour who sold her wedding ring, such was the fear she had about being read from the alter. “Them was cruel days, cruel days indeed” as her eyes welled up with tears looked into the box of memories, as if recalling the pain that she and her generation endured.
“Put your hand on the pulpit there son, and tell me what you think”. I did what she told me not quite sure what to expect. After about 10 seconds, she said “well” . I answered “what do you mean” . What sensation do you feel she asked me” “marvellous cold isn’t it”. I answered “yes” “Fine doctor you’d make, it has no pulse has it?”. I saw her point immediately and could see the sorrow and bitterness on her face as her voice crackled with anger. I hope to see this bloody pulpit knocked before my time is up and with that she got up to leave.
Do you remember the missions she said?. Indeed I do I said. With that she turned and left without looking back. She left me with much food for thought, for some reason, I ascended the pulpit. I had a clear view of every part of the church from the imposing height, at that instant I was transported back in time to when I was 16 old and attended my first mission given by Father Alphonsus O’Grady. Under my feet I could sense that this cold, pulseless pulpit was for a moment alive, in the moments I thought of Father O’Grady, and his fiery sermons on damnation and that most vial sins of impurity.
As I recall, Father Alphonsus O’Grady was a well-fed man, wide of girt and stern of face. His frame was covered from chest to knees by a fine pair of extra-large black rosary beads with a large crucifix hanging from his right hip, as if it were a gun. While we were reciting the sorrowful mysteries, he would walk solemnly along the pews with his eyes fixed on our hands, if he sopped, a pained expression would appear on his face. It meant that somebody had not their fingers intertwined with a cheap pair of white or blue rosary beads, his hand would fall to his hip, his fingers caressed the crucified saviour, it was enough, the poor sinner would ensure he had a rosary beads the following evening, he had no doubt. Father Alphonsus hovered about the pulpit like a boxer ready to get into the ring, word had it that he had been in Nigeria for many years, and had saved thousands of souls for Christ, his lips would move as if praying for divine intervention, I had a clear view of him sitting 2 rows from the pulpit.
On cue he leapt into the pulpit when he heard the word “amen”. I settled back into my seat waiting for the show to begin and Father Alphonsus didn’t disappoint. Even the dead in the nearby graveyard could hear his bellowing voice. He began by saying a few words on the power of the most holy rosary, most especially, the family rosary. He informed us that it was his family tradition, learned at his mother’s knee, that inclined all mighty god to bless and reward this filial devotion with his vocation to the priesthood. He lamented the sad decline, of the family rosary, most especially amongst the young who had fast become the plaything of the devil, which would lead to their predation.
(c) Michael Clemenger
Read Part 2 of this article here.
About Everybody Knew:
Michael Clemenger was handed over as a baby to the unloving care of a religious-run children’s home. Aged eight, he was transferred to St Joseph’s Industrial School.
Chosen as their ‘favourite’ by two Christian Brothers, Michael endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of both men. Brother Price struck at night, while Brother Roberts took pleasure in a weekly bathtime ritual. Although everybody at the institution knew, even the two Brothers’ ‘protection’ did not save Michael from merciless beatings by other sadistic men charged with his care.
Despite the unbelievable trauma of his early life, Michael emerged unbroken and determined to make something of himself. Everybody Knew is a story of remarkable spirit and courage.
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