February 07, 2010

Frogs on the altar

When I was a kid, our summertime church was the church near my parents’ camp. The gentle pastor, an old Irish priest, liked kids and frogs. He had a whole collection of frogs, in fact, stuffed frogs, statues of frogs, toy frogs, even an original painting of a frog done by Fairly Famous Local Artist. It’s always hard to figure out what kind of gift to give a priest so once the word was out that he liked frogs, people latched onto that idea and soon this well-loved priest had every frog knickknack that had ever been designed.

He kept these frogs on the side altar. “Adults are not allowed to touch the frogs,” Old Irish Priest would say. “But kids are allowed to play with them whenever they want.” And during Mass, you’d see kids going over to play with the frogs: the stuffed ones, the bone china ones, the expensive crystal ones.

I was too shy to go up and grab a frog, but I would stare at the collection and imagine them hopping over pews, croaking during the readings, filling the church with song.

This same priest would try to get the kids in the church to come up during the Sign of Peace, a ritual that involves shaking hands with your neighbor. He’d gather a pack of children on the altar, he’d whisper and joke with them, and then he’d send them weaving through the crowd to shake hands with the congregation. My brother and I would crouch down in the pews during the Sign of Peace, too shy to go up to the altar, but sometimes he’d see us and motion for us to come with one crooked finger.

The organist at that small town church knew only one song: “Let there be Peace on Earth.” But she played it faithfully, every Sunday, and we all sang along. Old Irish Priest would ask pregnant women to stay after church for a special blessing: he’d sprinkle their rounded bellies with holy water.

The local people were mostly poor, so Old Irish Priest would ask the tourists and summer people to give extra money to keep the church warm all winter: “the fuel collection” he called it. In return, he promised to keep his sermons to exactly one minute. “I can save your soul in sixty seconds,” he joked.

I don’t think he felt any pressure to save souls. His faith seemed to be in the frogs and the children and the women about to give birth.

11 comments:

Krista said...

I love this. And maybe it wants to be a poem?

jo(e) said...

Krista: I'm smiling at your comment because, in fact, I do have a poem about this. I rewrote this as prose just because thematically, it fits into the creative non-fiction manuscript I'm working on ....

jo(e) said...

Here's the poem:

PLACE OF WORSHIP

For Father Meehan

the old irish priest at saint cyril’s
thought frogs belonged
on the altar
hopping over pews
croaking during sermons
filling the church with song
every sunday
he would gather the children
send them weaving
through the crowd to shake hands
as a sign of peace
he asked pregnant
women to stay after mass
for a special blessing
their rounded bellies touched
with holy water
the organist knew only one song
let there be peace on earth
but she played it faithfully
local people were poor
he asked rich tourists to give money
to keep his parish warm all winter
in return he kept
his sermons to sixty seconds
he said he didn’t need to save souls
we had the frogs and the children
the women about to give birth
all these sacred places

Brigindo said...

Lovely. I like it as both a poem and a story.

kristin said...

I'm partial to your prose, lovely. And a 60 second sermon, oh how my kids would love to have a church like that

The Muser (aka Beautiful Mama) said...

What a fabulous priest--and faith: frogs, pregnant bellies, holy water. Lovely. And very Irish. Love this post and this little glimpse into your childhood.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

"All these sacred places." I love that.

I was re-reading Annie Dillard after a lapse of over 15 years & was struck by her comment that no one finds anything sacred anymore, that all our sacred places are gone. Is that true? Not for me...

nimiecat said...

I love this, too!

Magpie said...

I've never been a church goer, and I'm an atheist, but this is my idea of what a good church would be like.

lewis said...

This old priest loves this!

kathy a. said...

the frogs! i just love that, and that only the kids were allowed to touch them.