Monday, December 17, 2007

In Church at Christmas

I don't remember a lot about attending church at Christmas when I was a child. I'm absolutely positively certain that I did because no good Catholic would miss going to Mass at Christmas. And my family definitely fell into the category of "good Catholics". It would've been a mass on Christmas morning that I attended because children were not allowed to attend the midnight mass until 14 years of age. But like a lot of kids, going to church at Christmas was kinda boring for me. It was so anticlimactic compared to all the other holiday excitement. About the only thing I can remember fondly about going to Mass at Christmas was singing Christmas carols.

Our church was small and very, very, plain. It was initially built with the idea that it would become the gymnasium for the parish's grade school when the parish grew enough to need a bigger church. Only we never got the bigger church. We didn't have stained glass windows, there weren't many statues, there were very few decorations of any sort. It was a large parish for such a small church building and most of the room was taken up with pews. So when it came time for holiday decorating there wasn't much room to decorate. I remember one artificial Christmas tree near the front altar, green wreaths with red bows by each of the stations of the cross, and a nativity scene that wasn't all that impressive. And that's it. Pretty common for suburban Catholic churches in our area.

Contrast that with my current parish. Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church is the largest church in the archdiocese of Detroit. It was built by polish immigrants who could only be classified as "great Catholics" in terms of their commitment and dedication to the church. The church is massive. Built in 1892, it is truly a thing of beauty. With award winning stained glass windows that soar over 60 feet in the air, a main altar that's two stories high and detailed with gold leaf, over 30 life-size statues, and 3-D stations of the cross... it really doesn't need anything more to decorate it. But the parishioners go all out to decorate this beautiful church for Christmas just the same.

Each year at the beginning of December the pastor puts out a call for all able hands to come decorate the church for Christmas. One day is selected (on a weekend close to Christmas) and everyone is asked to come early. Lunch is provided because the decorating is an all day affair. In addition to putting up a large and beautiful nativity scene, there are 30 Christmas trees put up, about 50 poinsettia plants to set out, and a myriad of other decorations put in place. The decorations stay up until Candlemas, on February 2nd.

Midnight Mass on Christmas (Pasterka) at Sweetest Heart of Mary church is the most moving and spiritual religious service I have ever attended. It begins about 11:00 PM when the organist and choir begin singing a variety of Christmas songs in both Polish and English. The church is dimly lit until just before the stroke of midnight when it goes dark. The pastor and his procession of attendants lineup for their entrance. As they begin to make their way down the long main aisle of the church the overhead lights begin to come on one by one from the back of the church to the front. And then all the lights of the Christmas trees and the nativity burst with color… almost like a fireworks show with a finale at the end!

The mass is very traditional. It's in English, but almost all the music sung is in Polish with a few English carols thrown in. The church is always packed with people who are dressed in their best holiday attire. There are very few children in attendance due to the late hour.

As I sit in the pew, surrounded by my family, I take in all of the grandeur of the church and the beautiful Christmas decorations. I think of both my maternal and paternal grandparents who were married in this church when they were new immigrants to America. I reflect on what it must've been like for them to be celebrating Christmas so far from their loved ones back in Poland. I think of how they must have worried about their family members during the Christmases of WWI. And I marvel at the strength and courage it took for them to make a life for themselves here in Detroit. Then I pray for the souls of my ancestors who went before me, those who attended this church as well as those back in Poland. If there's any one physical place that connects me with my ancestors, this is it for me.

As I sing the Polish carols I imagine my ancestors singing the very same carols. As I sit in the pew I wonder if my ancestors sat in that very same pew. As the tears well up in my eyes, I wonder how many tears they cried in this very same church. And as the joy of Christmas fills my heart I imagine how it filled theirs as well.

Photos can't capture the grandeur of this church but maybe you can get an idea of it from my pics. The first ones with the warm golden glow were taken at Mass on Christmas. The later ones (in daylight) were taken on Candlemas Day. The last 4 are of the stained glass windows. They are truly magnificent and I'm sorry that I have no way for you to experience them beside these measly photos.