I converted to Catholicism in my senior year at University, taking Catechism with a Jesuit professor. It was the South in the early 1970’s. North Carolina had been settled largely by the English and the Scotch; it was Bible Belt Country. My parents, though not themselves religious, had been raised more or less Methodist and Baptist, but I . . . I was an intellectual; if I was going to convert, I wanted it to be to something esoteric and exotic. In that day and time, in that place, that meant Catholic.
When I was a child in Indiana, the Flynns lived kitty cornered to us on the northwest corner of Rose and East Stadium. Mr. Flynn was MIA. The Flynn household was comprised of Mrs. Flynn, her sister, a leviathan of a woman we knew as Aunt Rose, her dipsomaniac brother, a.k.a. Uncle Bud, and her teenaged daughter Bridget. Later, when their parents were killed in a car crash outside Indianapolis, Mary and Joey, Mrs. Flynn’s niece and nephew, were added to the mix. Joey was my age and Mary was my brother Peter’s age.
Mrs. Flynn ran a daycare center out of her house at a time when few mothers worked outside the home unless compelled by dire circumstances. Certainly no mother of our acquaintance worked and we felt sorry for the woebegone and slightly tattered children consigned to Mrs. Flynn’s dubious care.
Sorry, but also intrigued.
In sharp contrast to our neatly kept and well-ordered homes, the Flynn household was haphazard, ramshackle and chaotic. The only person who would have knocked on the Flynns’ door would have been a Fuller Brush Man or an Avon lady. Everyone else – adult or child – walked in and out of the never locked house at will. Paint peeled, linoleum curled like thick old fingernails, furniture exhaled stuffing …. For one entire year a toilet seat lay abandoned on the landing of the stairs. As for the fenced in back yard with its rickety swing set, sagging monkey bars and the sandbox that served an astonishing array of villainous looking cats as a litter box and a smaller number of children as a locus for merriment, it boasted not a single blade of grass.
To our horror, we learned that waifish Mary slept in the same bed as Aunt Rose, meaning that she was in nightly peril of being crushed beneath her relative’s enormous bulk. Was it any wonder, our mothers exclaimedd, that the poor little orphan occupied her idle hours by standing on the corner, sans panties, flashing passing motorists?
As for grizzled Uncle Bud, he made his home in the coal cellar of the Flynn domicile, which he had wallpapered with old newspaper, and earned his small keep mowing lawns around the neighbourhood; it was an occupation upon the altar of which he was to sacrifice a half dozen toes over the course of his lifetime, proving once again that one should never mix alcohol and lawnmowers.
To render the Flynns even more bohemian in our eyes, they were Catholics – Catholics. Not only did Catholic schoolchildren like Mary and Joey get more holidays than those of us in the public system, they were taught by nuns whose feet had been chopped off when they entered the convent and replaced with roller skates. Moreover, Mary and Joey attended Mt. Carmel, which we heard as Mt. Caramel. Who in their right mind would prefer Morton School to Mt. Caramel?
But it was teenage Bridget who would earn the Flynns their permanent niche in my personal Hall of Fame for this reason: one hot summer’s day, Bridget rode the municipal bus to its last stop and upon disembarking, met Jesus Christ. He handed her a baby boy and promptly transcended, leaving Bridget no recourse but to return home with the baby, hereafter to be known as ‘Stevie’. Stevie was about three when we moved away and still in diapers. He was what our mothers used to describe as, “a little slow.”
A few years after my conversion, I was sitting in the kitchen of the rectory of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Toronto with a fellow graduate student of theology, a hip young parish priest and a bottle of Tia Maria. At some point in that evening a painting hung there on the kitchen wall by the pious Portuguese housekeeper caught my attention –a portrait of a flaxen-haired Jesus, looking as girlish as could be managed and still retain the beard. Emblazoned upon his chest was an apparently radioactive Sacred Heart pierced with a lance and wreathed in thorns. The heart was purple.
It was the exact same painting of Jesus that had hung on the wall of the Flynn’s kitchen, minus a few ketchup and peanut butter stains. And in that moment, that clarifying moment, I understood why I had converted to Catholicism in the first place . . . and it had a lot more to do with the Flynns than it did with the Trinity or the Mystery of Transubstantiation or how many angels could samba on the head of a pin.
My left-leaning sympathies did not allow me to linger long in the bosom of Mother Church. In time, I fell in with the great milling horde of other Lapsed Catholics who roam the world, mourning the disconnect, but unwilling to put up with the nonsense. However, my interest in Catholicism – profound and perverse – abides to this day. I have written a great many “Catholic” stories, including this one: Moving Violation, published in the Antigonish Review in 1992. It is the story of an old priest recalling, with sweetness and horror commingled, the one mortal sin of his life. To read it, click here.