Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Shadows? Flickering candles? Moving statues? I must be in church!

What's the scariest place you knew when you were a kid? Some people will say the dentist's office, or the doctor's office, or the principal's office, or maybe the corner you had to pass on your way home where all the bigger, meaner kids hung out. I admit all of those places had their particular terrors, but probably one of the scariest places I knew when I was a kid was none other than the church I attended.

Before anyone starts questioning how I could be frightened in a house of worship, let me explain. I grew up on the North Side of Chicago and belonged to a Catholic parish that had a huge, old church. And I mean HUGE and OLD. The church was built in the very early 1900's (or was that late 1800's?) and was fashioned after a cathedral in Italy, so it had a cathedral-high ceiling, a row of statues down each side wall, three confessionals built conveniently into the shadows, three or four different stations for votive candles with kneelers in front of them, and an altar space that was probably the size of my current house. There was a first balcony in case the enormous first floor was packed to capacity, which happened for Midnight Mass at Christmas as well as the services during Holy Week, and above that was the second balcony where the pipe organ and the choir lived. And Lent, leading up to Holy Week, was the scariest time of all.

Why? Because by tradition, every statue in the church was covered in purple cloth, head to toe. Try sitting in a shadowy church with approximately twelve to eighteen statues, all life-sized, completely covered in purple. Sure, I knew that underneath this covering was the benevolent statue of St. Joseph, and under that one was the loving statue of Mary. On the other hand, cover them all in purple and all bets are off. If you stared at any one of them long enough, you were sure to see movement under that cloth. Maybe just a head turning slightly? Or a hand raising a little bit higher, just enough to tweak the cloth? Or a weight shift that would make the entire purple shroud twitch? And that was what those purple covers looked exactly like: shrouds.

So there I would sit in the church during Lent, doing my best to focus on the Mass and keeping watch on every statue out of the corner of my eye. There! I know that moved! I saw it! And the cloth is
still moving...

Yeah, the church could be pretty frightening. I knew it for sure when I went up to the second balcony with a friend of mine who was learning to play the pipe organ and needed to practice after school. We were the only ones in that cavernous, dark, shrouded-statue space and while her practice went great, no one ever could explain to us how it should happen that when she and I were going down the old wooden staircase on our way out of the building, that organ should suddenly start to play itself in the dark. Even though we had switched it off. Even though no one else was there.

That church scared the daylights out of me, but you know what? When I go into the bright, light-filled modern churches out here in the suburbs of Chicago, I find myself thinking that it just doesn't feel the same without all the dark corners and the shadowy side aisles. And none of them ever seem to have a pipe organ.

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  1. Ophelia,

    Those are the kind of churches I grew up around, I don't consider previously used grocery or 7-11 store as a church. Going to those doesn't feel the same, I don't feel Authority there. Well done gal!



  2. Ah, yes. The last air escaping from the pipes, making a weird little groaning sound as if Aunt Matilda's ghost had just arrived and replaced your young friend at the organ. Those are the memories that stick with us forever. Fun, but spooky!