by SHARON BARRETT
Of the people who knew her, few would have said of Cathy Richards that she was spirited. At twenty-two, she was married with three children and another on the way; she appeared to be firmly on the path of her female ancestry. The middle child in a good Catholic family, Cathy was one of nine. Her mother had been one of seven, and her grandmother Rita, one of thirteen.
Cathy had grown up “lost in the shuffle,” as Grammy Rita habitually described her. Not a stand-out on any front. She’d sung alto in the high school choir and been one of 60 members of Yell Club, the cheering section for basketball games. She did well in typing and shorthand, but disliked chemistry and physics. What girl didn’t?
She’d married Jerry Richards when he returned home to Salsport in 1953, after four years in the Navy, and just after she’d graduated from Salsport High School.
So most people were shocked that Sunday in March, the first Sunday of Lent, during 10 a.m. Mass, when Cathy Richards stood up in the congregation. She stood while the rest of the approximately 200 souls who were in attendance, including Jerry, sat quietly, listening to Father Gerhard Nielsen, before his homily, announce plans to add a “cry room” to the church. She was in the third pew on the St. Joseph side of the altar and was visible to most of the congregation when she arose.
The cry room, Father Nielsen had intoned, would be built off stage-left of the altar, walled up behind the side of the church traditionally reserved for a statue of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
Mary who had only one child, thought Cathy.
Mary, who, according to Catholic faith, only once had suffered the myriad discomforts of pregnancy.
In this, her fourth pregnancy, Cathy sometimes wondered how much discomfort Mary really had gone through, given who the father was believed to be among the congregants of St. Francis Xavier Church in Salsport. Perhaps Mary had got a special dispensation from on high: no morning sickness, no swollen ankles, no leaking breasts.
Whenever her mind lighted on such heresies, Cathy tried to shut them out and offer up to the Virgin her own ailments in exchange for divine help with energy and patience needed to have yet another baby. And money; they always needed money. Jerry was a mechanic at Foster’s Filling Station, and his salary paid the bills only because of Cathy’s talent with bookkeeping.
So, when Cathy, beset by worry and fatigue, heard Father Nielsen’s announcement about the cry room, she went “berserk.”
That’s the way Grammy Rita reported it to her friend Beatrice, who was housebound and unable to attend Mass. Father Nielsen brought Beatrice communion once a week and Rita brought her the news.
“News.” They were careful to use this word because gossiping was at least a venial sin. And Rita had no doubt that plenty of gossiping was going on this week about her granddaughter Cathy and what she had done in church Sunday.
She had stood had up and spoken very loudly, yelled, some reported: “I will not set foot in a ‘cry room! It’s not fair.” And here, some say, her voice faltered, and it appeared for a moment she might cry. But bolstered by a deep breath and hands clutching her skirt from a child on either side of her, plus a baby in her arms, she spoke again. “The church says we should have all these kids, and then when we do, you don’t want them around.”
Maybe her inability to walk out on her children, even though her husband, Jerry, was there to take over – was what kept her from furthering the drama by turning her back on Father Nielsen and flouncing down the aisle and out of the church. What she did instead was kneel. All over the church, up and down pews, people exchanged raised eyebrows. Then they turned their eyes to Father Nielsen:
“Cathy,” Father Nielsen said. He felt comfortable with her first name because he had known her since she was a child, even though he had not been in St. Francis Xavier parish all the years she was growing up. He had been the priest there eighteen years earlier when Cathy made her First Communion. He’d been transferred to three other parishes during the intervening years, and only a year ago had returned to St. Francis – a coast-into-retirement job, some parishioners thought, given that he had just turned 64 and cancelled three week-day Masses plus the 8 o’clock one on Sunday mornings. And that he never watered any of the flowers his predecessor, Father James, had so carefully cultivated around the rectory and the outdoor grotto-like shrine to Mary.
Later, after Cathy’s outburst, some said Father Nielsen had come up with the cry room idea, not just because it was being done all over the country in other parishes, even across the world, thereby maintaining the definition of Catholic – universal cry rooms – but because he was old. And crotchety. He couldn’t stand the sound of babies crying or of toddlers speaking out loud about whatever caught their interest. “Mommy! Lookit,” they would say upon sighting the red-ribbon page-marker hanging from a hymnal.
Cathy had been married four years and had three children, ages 3, 2, and 10 months. She had worked for seven months as a secretary at Addison Steel Casting Company, the main employer in Salsport, before her first pregnancy became noticeable and she was forced to quit. Her boss, Mr. Addison’s nephew, said he hoped she’d have a girl who would grow up to take dictation as well as her mother.
But something in Cathy Richards’ appearance that Sunday – maybe those tykes on either side of her and the baby in her arms – must have caught the priest’s attention, because he addressed her again, this time as “Mrs. Richards.” Or maybe, despite her kneeling position, it was her stiff back and tight jaw, head raised in the opposite of eyes-downward obedience, that prompted him to give her a title.
“Mrs. Richards, I think you will change your mind once you see how comfortable the room will be.”
“If you would like,” he continued, addressing now all the women in the congregation, “we can discuss the cry room when the Rosary and Altar Society meets Thursday afternoon.”
With that, Father Nielsen skipped the sermon he had planned and returned to the altar and preparation of the Eucharist.
Cathy was not a regular attendee of the Rosary and Altar Society. She had no time for meetings, bound during the day as she was to her house and three children not yet in school, and in the evenings to baths and bedtime stories, and during the night, bad dreams and teething aches. Jerry helped by drying dishes after supper and pasting Green Stamps in the savings booklets from Kroger’s.
But when 2 p.m. Thursday arrived, Cathy was among the forty-nine women who signed the registry in the parish hall for the meeting. The turnout was unprecedented. A somewhat moribund organization, especially under the general neglect of Father Nielsen, the Rosary and Altar Society of St. Francis Xavier Parish was lucky to have ten or twelve ladies appear at the weekly meetings. Larger attendance – twenty or perhaps even thirty – could be counted on for special events, such as the summer ice cream social or the Christmas party for children. But nearly fifty!
Agnes Reynolds, who was president, looked around hopelessly for more folding chairs, and finally assigned several of the women to raid the nearest catechism classroom for anything suitable to sit on. They returned to the meeting room carrying chairs designed for kindergartners – no higher off the floor than footstools and with seats the size of writing tablets.
Agnes called the meeting to order, and after a reading of the minutes, noted two corrections from Mary Elizabeth Stout – who always had something to say — and this time wanted to change the description of the dessert that had been served at the previous meeting from “delicious cream puffs” to “okay cream puffs.” Mary Elizabeth, or Mary E. as she generally was known, had made the cream puffs and had not been satisfied that they were flaky enough.
Her second correction was to point out that her motion that people who arrived only for dessert should not be counted as having attended had failed by only five votes, not seven as the minutes reported.
Regular attendees knew that Mary E.’s motion about attendance likely was brought on by three people. Helen Robinson and Diane Duncan, always with an excuse – had to wait for a repairman, had to take a child to a dental appointment, had to stop at the dry cleaners – regularly arrived in time to have missed the business part of the meeting. But were always in time to have a slice of cake, or a few cookies, or Colonial Bread Pudding, a specialty of Carmen Richey.
The third person Mary E. could have been referring to was Father Nielsen himself. He almost always missed everything about a Rosary and Altar Society meeting, except the sweet dishes that came at the end. But today he was arriving much sooner. In time for the “new business.”
“So,” began Father Nielsen, rubbing his hands together as if to warm them. At 64, his hair, though thick and curly, was entirely white. He had broad shoulders and a belly – from too much beer, said some of the parishioners – that caused the buttons on the black cassock he wore to strain at their button holes.
After a few minutes of Father’s praising the practice of cry rooms, it became clear, even to the dimmest in the room, that Father Nielsen was there to justify what was already decided, not to entertain any alternatives to his plan to build a cry room off the main altar.
“Children, though we love them as Jesus himself did, — and does – can distract others from their worship of God.” Father Nielsen clasped his hands together and held them against his chest. “A baby crying – indeed wailing….” – and here the bulky priest raised his face heavenward before smiling out over the audience of women. “Lord knows, some of them have quite a set of lungs.” As he might have hoped, a few heads nodded in agreement. He went on, describing the size of the cry room, the comfortable chairs that would be placed in it, the one-way sound system that would allow those in the cry room to hear what the priest was saying, perhaps even the responses of the congregation, if they didn’t mumble, as they often did, to listen to the organ, the choir – but not allow the sounds of babies or toddlers to escape the confines of the Cry Room.
“So,” said Mary E., whose only living child was now a teenage boy (another son had died of a brain tumor when he was eleven, and yet a third had been stillborn), “that fancy sound system isn’t going to help the people in the cry roomhear over the wailing.” She said the word “wailing” as though she were trying to exercise every muscle in her face.
“Why should mothers with babies and young children even bother to come to church,” she continued, “when they could stay home and watch a Mass on television?”
That was not a practical solution for most people in Salsport where there was limited access to television channels that would broadcast Masses, Agnes Reynolds pointed out.
Throughout the meeting, many of the women had been keeping an eye on Cathy, and some, like Mary E., seemed eager to speak up any time it looked as though Cathy might be getting ready to do the same. Later some talked about trying to protect her, as if they had a feeling something might go very wrong – more wrong than her behavior in church the previous Sunday. It might even be possible, some of them had suggested on the telephone to others in the days before this meeting, that Father could excommunicate her. Popes used to do that to people – kings and such – who got out of line.
“A televised Mass would be a wonderful thing for someone like my dear friend Beatrice Cross,” Cathy’s grandmother Rita spoke up – “or would be if she had a television set.”
“But Beatrice Cross can’t leave her house. She doesn’t have a choice,” said Louise Stetler. “Mothers and their children, their babies, can leave their houses. Should leave ‘em. Should be able to go to God’s house and be welcome. Not shunted aside in some cry room.” Louise Stetler was the wife of Dr. Stetler, one of Salsport’s three dentists. She had taught seventh grade English before her five children were born.
By the time dessert was served, Father had revealed that a contractor had already been hired and plans had been discussed, if not actually drawn up, for the cry room. And Bishop Orly had approved.
Father Nielsen did not outright say he did not need the parishioners’ approval to build a cry room. He simply repeated that Bishop Orly had approved it.
Before the meeting ended, Cathy did manage to slip through her guarding angels and ask a question. “What will you do if no one uses the cry room?”
“For those who should be using it, I will refuse those people the sacraments.”
Spotty gasps met the remark. Father Nielsen would indeed ex-communicate Cathy and anyone else who didn’t use the cry room.
Could he really do that?
As if he had heard the silent question, Father Nielsen said such behavior would be regarded as wanton disobedience of authority, which is a sin. “I cannot give communion to someone in the state of sin.”
Father thanked the women for the “good meeting – good to clear the air.” And for the “excellent German chocolate cake; you must have known it’s my favorite cake.”
“If we had known, we wouldn’t have served it,” Mary E. said after Father left the hall.
Cathy’s Grammy Rita reported all the details to Beatrice. And continued to do so over the months as the building of the cry room took place. And then one week, in the bulletin, was the announcement that the cry room would be open for business, starting the last Sunday in August, the 18thSunday in Ordinary Time.
Cathy’s fourth baby, a boy, was two weeks old when the cry room was ready for use. But Cathy was not ready to attend church yet. Jerry showed up alone at the 10 a.m. Sunday Masses. Several people asked how Cathy and the baby were doing, but no one dared ask the question they all wanted to know the answer to: Where was Cathy going to sit when she and the children came back to church?
In the meantime, the cry room went begging. Rita, among others, would have sworn on a stack of Bibles there were more young families in the parish than Cathy and Jerry Richards’ family. But none was visible in the congregation these days. The church seemed void of children.
Suffer little children,Rita thought, although she wasn’t quite sure what those words were meant to express.
Cathy could see only one way out of the corner she was in: Go to another church. St. Boniface, in Lafayette, was only half an hour’s drive from Salsport.
But that plan never got off the ground because St. Boniface had also built a cry room. So had St. Ann’s in Fowler.
But not St. Joseph’s in Oxford.
Father Searles – Andrew Searles – did not know the young family that began arriving at St. Joseph’s on Sundays for 9:30 Mass. The four children, all looking to be under the age of four, were always scrubbed and impeccably attired. The wife wore a variety of hats, some so large-brimmed that Father Searles had to search for her tongue when he gave her communion. The wife and husband always traded off holding the infant while one and then the other took the Host.
During their time attending St. Joseph, the young couple did not, however, confess to Father Searles. He was aware they had been receiving communion for several months. But unlike other parishioners, they had not gone to confession each week, as was the practice of most serious Catholics during those days – before Vatican II and the relaxing of some rules it brought.
And then in October, when the baby was two months old and cherubic in looks, but sometimes babbling in behavior, Father Searles announced plans to build a cry room for St. Joseph Church.
Grammy Rita could not believe it when Cathy told her the news, and she said as much when she passed the information on to Beatrice.
“What will she do?” Beatrice asked.
“Maybe the priest there won’t excommunicate her if she doesn’t use the room.”
“There must be a company out there in the world called Cry Rooms Inc. or something; I wish I owned stock,” Beatrice said.
“Maybe Father Nielsen will retire.”
“Why would he do that? He’s got it made. A cushy job. He’s cut back on all kinds of duties – even Masses. He has a nice house to live in. A cook. A car. A decent salary.”
“And when he retires he gets to go to the Old Priests Nursing Home and drink whiskey.” Beatrice laughed. She had a cousin, Father Nicholas Pritchard, who’d done just that.
“Does Father Nielsen drink?”
“What priest doesn’t?” Beatrice said. “Except those who’ve had to dry out.”
“Goodness, you’re cynical,” Rita said.
“I’m old,” Beatrice corrected. “I’ve seen it all.”
At the annual children’s Christmas party in the St. Francis Xavier Hall, which Grandmother Rita had persuaded Cathy and Jerry to bring their family to even though they had not been attending Mass at St. Francis for some time, Rita considered spiking Father Nielsen’s punch cup with Four Roses whiskey. She kept a bottle in her pantry in case of a bad cough, and imagined she could smuggle several ounces into the hall in a pickle jar in her purse.
Rita’s notion was that if Father Nielsen got a little tipsy, he might be big-hearted and generous, the way some drinkers are, the way her father, patriarch of 13, was when he drank. And her own husband, God rest his soul, father of seven, when he drank.
She presented her plan to Beatrice, but Beatrice thought it might be a sin to deceive Father Nielsen, and if so, how could Rita confess it to him? Plus Beatrice herself would have to confess for having known of the plot.
In the end, Rita and Beatrice decided to trust in Cathy to defend herself, as she had been doing all along. Or trust in the Lord.
Father Nielsen held out his hands to Jerry and Cathy when they entered the parish hall with their family. Jerry had the baby in his right arm, so he was able only to extend an awkward left hand to Father Nielsen.
“How are you liking St. Joseph?” Father Nielsen asked, still holding Jerry’s and Cathy’s hands. He wasn’t going to pretend he didn’t know they’d defected, and where to. At least it wasn’t a Protestantdenomination, as other former parishioners sometimes opted for.
Then, maybe because he was old, and crotchety, and arrogant, and because he thought he had won, and because he couldn’t help himself, he asked them how they liked the new cry room that St. Joseph’s had just finished building.
Cathy, with a worried look from Jerry beside her, told Father they hadn’t tried it, and probably they wouldn’t because they were returning to St. Francis for church.
Father looked questioningly at Cathy: “Oh?”
“Yes, we’ve figured out a way that will work for all. Jerry will attend the Saturday evening Mass while I stay home with the children, and I will attend the Sunday morning Mass while he stays home with them. We didn’t want to do that originally because we wanted to attend church as a family. But you leave us no choice,” Cathy said.
“When the older children can sit quietly for an hour, listening to your sermons, we’ll start bringing them.”
The priest cocked his head to one side, crossed his arms over his sizable chest, pursed his lips, then appeared to stop whatever he had thought to say.
So it was that, in December, Cathy Richards and her family returned to St. Francis Xavier in shifts.
Although Father Nielsen was not moved to do much in the way of decorating the church for Christmas, the altar was in full holiday bloom because the ladies in the Rosary and Altar Society had brought in poinsettias. And for the Virgin Mary’s side of the altar — in front of the cry room — they had fashioned a little grove of evergreen trees and set up a crèche containing nearly life-sized figures.
The story goes, as it was told years later to Cathy and Jerry’s six children – by then there were six of them – that during Mass on the first Saturday evening the crèche was up, during the solemn moment of consecration of the Host, a baby cried.
The sound did not escape Father Nielsen’s attention – especially since he had not heard such a sound in more than a year. Although he appeared to be concentrating on the Host, he was attuned to the possibility of another cry. And sure enough, say those who were present, there came another infant sound clearly from the crèche.
This realization provoked a variety of responses. Fright, say some. Amusement, say others. And for Jerry Richards, who was present at this Mass, a spine-tingling awareness that the baby Jesus was not in the cry room.
The sound persisted, growing not necessarily louder, but more constant. Finally, Father Nielsen was persuaded to put down the chalice and paten before distributing communion to the congregation. Slowly, almost stealthily, he walked to the crèche display.
He stood for a moment peering at the nearly life-sized three wise men, two standing, one kneeling, each with their gifts in hand. Then at a shepherd, with a staff and a plush, life-size lamb. Then Mary and Joseph, he standing, she kneeling. And finally the cradle. With blankets and the baby Jesus.
In the cradle, next to the Christ Child, was a cat hunkered under the blankets, now mewing non-stop. One of the servers, who had followed Father Nielsen to the display, saw the cat and later said it appeared to be terrified.
The priest and the server both thought better of trying to reach for the cat. Then Father, some say red in the face, turned to the congregation and asked if anyone recognized the mewling inhabitant of the cradle.
Finally, after much whispering and shuffling, a young man, presumably the father, with a girl about five or six years old, came forward. The cat, it later became known, belonged to the little girl and was accustomed to sleeping in the cradle, which also belonged to the little girl, and whose doll was impersonating the baby Jesus. Somehow the cat had been left in the cradle, or found its way there.
It wasn’t long before some people saw precedent in the fact that the baby Jesus – even if in doll form – was not banished, like other babies, to the cry room. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be a model to follow? If Mary didn’t have to take Him to the cry room, why should other mothers have to take their babies there?
The story about the crèche at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Salsport was soon circulating through other parishes, and then dioceses. In later years, the story became legend: the story about a crotchety priest who banished all babies to the cry room, and then was faced with the baby Jesus, in the church’s nativity scene, crying, and disrupting the Mass.
It was “divine intervention,” some said when they told the story, failing to note the lack of divine long-rangeintervention, since cry rooms continue to exist to this day.
Still others dismissed the whole thing as unbelievable.
But when Cathy’s children tell the story, and now her grandchildren, the only thing that always strikes them as unbelievable is the idea that Cathy, when she stood up to Father Nielsen, had gone “berserk.”
Sharon Barrett is a professor emeritus of the University of Montana School of Journalism. She was an assistant foreign editor for the Washington Post and long-time book reviewer for the now-deceased Chicago Daily News and then the Chicago Sun-Times. Her work also has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and a variety of magazines. She recently returned to writing fiction and her life-long love of short stories. That work has appeared in Potomac Review, Wind,Cimarron Review and Chicago Quarterly Review.