12:10 Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul in downtown Birmingham. I spent my entire young life in and around Birmingham, and I never walked inside this building until today. I don’t remember ever even seeing it till I was in my 30’s. I frequently ate at the Social Grill, just a block away, when I was in college at Birmingham-Southern. I discovered the Birmingham Art Museum when I was in my ’20s. But St. Paul’s Cathedral? Nada…till today.
As I prayed the Mass with 50 or so others amid the polished marble and stained glass and all the quietly contained beauty and otherness, I couldn’t help wondering, “Why did nobody ever tell me about this?” And, or course the reason was, nobody around me knew. I grew up Southern Baptist, way out on the north eastern edge of town, and we knew the Bible. We knew heartfelt extemporaneous prayer. We knew how to sing the great revival hymns of the 19th century with spirited fervor. But we didn’t know anything about THIS. Somewhere, within just a few miles of our home, the people of God called Catholic were celebrating this, the Eucharistic feast, day in and day out, right here in this cathedral and in any number of small Catholic churches all over Jefferson county. And we never knew.
As I reflected with thanks on all that I did know and experience growing up, and wondered with astonishment that I had no idea of this, one corrective recollection did begin to percolate…
She stood in a corner, alabaster white,. How did I know who she was? Was she holding her baby? I can’t remember. I do remember her face, and an irresistible attraction.
It was 1968 and I was unaware of many things. We lived in Birmingham, but at age ten, I was completely in the dark about race relations and the raging civil rights struggle. Vietnam was featured on the news via Huntley and Brinkley every evening, but I didn’t watch the news if I could help it. McGovern and Nixon were vague names that no one in my world seemed to care much about. Martin Luther King? I’d only heard the pastor in our Southern Baptist Church proclaim from the pulpit that he was a “Child of the Devil.”
Sometime the summer before, my Aunt Thelma, a second mother to my brother and me, developed a mysterious, acute pain in her legs. At first the doctors called it phlebitis, but the diagnosis didn’t hold up. They called it psychosomatic, but that didn’t fit either. In the summer of ’68 the doctors at the Mayo Clinic would be as puzzled as those in Birmingham. She ultimately just learned to manage the pain, and somebody, somewhere, years later, labeled the ailment as fibromyalgia: muscle pain. Well, duh.
That first spring, however, soon after the onset of the problem, Aunt Thelma, or “Auntie” (pronounced “ainee,” just as ants were, and still are in many areas of the south, pronounced “aints”) began her long travail at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Birmingham’s South Side, way across town from where we lived in Centerpoint, out on the northeastern edge of the city.
Saint Vincent’s was, and is, Birmingham’s Catholic Hospital and, though our family was exclusively Southern Baptist, Auntie went to St. Vincent’s because her internist occupied an office near there and that’s where he had privileges. I liked the word “Catholic.” It sounded important, momentous. I don’t even remember ever hearing the word “Catholic” before that night at the hospital.
It was an adventure getting to South Side from Centerpoint. It was a distant and foreign world. St. Vincent’s Hospital was only a mile or two from “downtown,” but it might just as well have been another planet. I’d been downtown (the north side) with Auntie a number of times to movies at the Melba Theater, or the Empire or the Alabama, all grand old movie houses with neo-baroque pretensions and velvet curtains that parted or raised with a flourish just before the main feature. We’d enjoyed all the Disney classics together. Before she learned to drive, at around age 30, we took taxi cabs from her apartment in East Lake, the drivers of which all looked vaguely sinister. At Christmas time, our whole family would drive downtown, always with Auntie, to see the mechanically animated department store windows: Yeildings, Lovemans, Pizitz, Newberry’s, Woolworth. Auntie was my guide to all things new, exciting, and different, my opener of new worlds. She was unmarried, would never marry, and I was the love of her life.
I sensed anxiety in the car as we, just Daddy and me as I remember, found our way through the dark, unfamiliar streets. Was it the bewildering tangle of one-way thoroughfares or so many black people living in the neighborhood? Perhaps it was just concern for Auntie, mysteriously ill and all alone on South Side in that Catholic Hospital.
In 1968 hospitals were much simpler, less cluttered, less technology driven, and quieter. I can’t even remember an elevator with any certainty. I remember walking with Daddy down the corridor with hushed steps, unsure of my surroundings. Apart from my birth at East End Hospital, I was ill-acquainted with hospitals. I’d only been in the waiting room at East End after my brother, Stuart, was born and one other time when my mother was hospitalized for an appendectomy. I’d never actually seen a hospital room.
The hallway was painted a very common institutional off-white. The floor was covered in the style of brown-beige tile that covered the floors of every kind of public building at that time: stores, libraries, offices, schools, churches, etc. There may have been prints of religious subjects on the walls, though I have no specific memory of any. I do remember a framed portrait of Pope Paul VI on a wall somewhere in the hospital. I assumed that Pope Paul VI was somebody very important due to the unusual clothes he wore and the fact that his portrait was hanging in a Catholic hospital. The ceiling was painted an only slightly lighter shade of off-white than the walls, and the light fixtures, covering incandescent bulbs, were the large, round, generic, institutional kind that I see in movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s with hospital or prison scenes.
The hall ahead of us dog-legged to the left six feet or so. Auntie’s room was just beyond on the left. There was a double doorway, I think, just before the dogleg. I saw the statue just as we stepped through the double doorway. Still and white, softly radiant, with a kind and beautiful face and downcast eyes. Almost life-sized. I saw her only for a few surprised seconds before we turned into Auntie’s room…”Hail Mary, full of grace; blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus…”
I’m glad for all that I’ve known and seen and heard and smelled and touched and tasted of God, here and elsewhere.
How ever can you remember that the “ceiling was painted an only slightly lighter shade of off-white than the walls?” I can remember the copper leaf-shaped candy dish that served as welcome in the second trailer I moved into at age 1 and a half, but . . . if I remember the textured ceilings, too, it’s surely because I saw them many times.
How did you feel about the Virgin Mary at the time?
Good question. Since I was only ten, I really can’t remember how I remember, but I do remember. I think mostly I was curious about Mary at the time, as an object of devotion, but there was a deeper stirring as well. All of it together has led to a much more expressive relationship with Jesus, possible in part because of the profoundly human relationship with Jesus that Mary shows me and points me to.