Confirmation


Most Holy Redeemer Church, Evergreen Park, Illinois

My son Adam was confirmed today. And I recalled many things past and present about being Roman Catholic.

The holy sacrament of Confirmation is usually the fourth sacrament that a Roman Catholic receives. A Christian baby is baptized soon after birth and then around the age of eight makes his or her Confession and receives his or her First Holy Communion. Then around age twelve or thirteen, usually, he or she makes a conscious decision to denounce Satan and become a Christian, unlike Baptism where an innocent baby has no choice but to be baptized a Catholic.

I am a Roman Catholic (or just plain Catholic). There were times in the past when I told people that I was an ex-Catholic or a lapsed Catholic. I was once hospitalized at St. Anthony’s Hospital and when I was asked my religion I said, “Catholic” just out of guilt. A Catholic priest then came to visit me everyday. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I was still Catholic and he told me that it was normal to doubt. Now, whenever someone asks me my religion, I say I’m Catholic. If I think about Catholicism very objectively, I realize that, once you go through all of my religious training, I will always be a Catholic and never an ex- or lapsed Catholic. That would be the equivalent of saying, “I used to be Mexican.”

Today, I tried to compare Adam’s confirmation to mine. But I couldn’t remember my confirmation because I was baptized in México when I was about two months old. When it came time for my class to get confirmed at Holy Cross, my mother told me that I was already confirmed. That was news to me! Whenever we had confirmation classes, Sister Cecilia would just look at me with disdain and shake her head. She couldn’t understand how Mexicans could confirm babies. That was so contradictory to the whole concept of confirming that one voluntarily and willingly wanted to be a Catholic. Well, I was an outsider during the whole confirmation process. I had to go to the Confirmation, but I couldn’t sit with the class because I wasn’t getting confirmed. I didn’t feel very Catholic that day. Or today when I tried to compare my confirmation with my son’s.

I was happy for my son, but this was an awkward day for me. Since the divorce, we no longer celebrate anything as a family. But such is life.

So did I miss out on anything by being comfirmed so young?

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Church


Immaculate Heart of Mary, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I don’t often go to church, but when I don’t, I don’t feel guilty at all. When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, I went to church at least six times per week. So, now, I don’t feel any real need to attend church.If I average out my church attendance over the span of my life, I’ve gone to mass more times than many people who claim to be Catholic. Of course, I still go several times a year. This year, I’ve gone every time my son Alex went to mass before his football game. Last spring, I went to my second cousin’s confirmation. Last week, I went to my cousin Shirley’s funeral. But other than that, I haven’t gone to church. I’m not against going to church, but I never think of going on my own without any compelling reason for going.

I suppose the real question for me to answer is, “Do I believe in God?” Well, the answer is, “Once upon a time, I used to.” I was baptized a Catholic and I was confirmed by the time I was three months old. At one time when I was about twelve, I believed in God so much that I really wanted to become a priest. But then I saw the light. I realized that many Catholics were hypocrites, clergy included, and my faith in God was shaken.

When I was in the Marines, I used to go talk to the Catholic chaplain on a regular basis. I’ll be honest: I went to get out of my work detail, rather than discussing any true critical religious crisis. So I figured I had better make it good. I told the chaplain that I no longer believed in God. Which I didn’t at the time. And I still don’t. But I still feel Catholic. Since I was baptized and raised a Catholic, I plan to remain a Catholic and I will never convert to another religion. I’ve known Catholics who converted and became fanatical about their new religion.

I even baptized my sons as Catholics and sent them to a Catholic school. I’ve had friends ask me why I would do that if I’m not really Catholic. I like the sense of tradition.Two of my friends from Spain once grilled me about my Catholicism. “Are you Catholic?” “Yes.” “Do you go to church every Sunday?” “No.” “Then you’re not Catholic!” “I was baptized a Catholic!” “Are your sons Catholic?” “They were baptized Catholic.” “But you’re not Catholic! Why did you baptize them?” “If nothing else, we have something in common.” They were dumbfounded by my logic.

This morning I took my son Alex to his football mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church. I remembered most of the prayers, but there were some new ones. My mind drifted away from the mass several times. I recalled how mass used to be when I was a boy. Things were so different now. When I was an altar boy, only males were allowed near the altar during mass. Today, there were no altar boys. Only altar girls. And about half of the Eucharist ministers were women. And the dress code is no longer the stringent dress shirt with a tie and dress pants for males and nice dresses for females with their heads covered. I was shocked to see worshipers coming to mass wearing jeans, shorts, gym shoes, flip flops, and t-shirts. On the other hand, the church was fairly full and most people participated in the prayers and hymns. Overall, I got the feeling that they were true believers.

The Jungle


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I just finished rereading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is a book I knew about about since about the third grade because the Lithuanian nuns also mentioned it at Holy Cross School. The nuns always wanted to remind us that we didn’t always have life so easy. They would often describe the squalid living conditions of our neighborhood, The Back of the Yards, and the horrendous working conditions at the Union International Stock Yards. They stressed that education was the best way to improve our lives and that we should excel in grade school, in order to get into a good Catholic school, in order to prepare us for college. I always recall the incident about the boy who drowns in the street. Several nuns over the years described that scene. And we were so lucky to live in a neighborhood with concrete sidewalks, paved streets, and a sewage system. No one from our neighborhood ever drown in the street–that I know of.

When I worked at Derby Foods, we didn’t have a union even though Chicago has always been known as a union town. And I didn’t realize at the time, but we didn’t need a union because all the other factories around us were unionized. Our factory paid us above-average wages and we worked under better-than-normal working conditions. They followed bidding by seniority for different job openings in the factory.

Regardless, I hated working there because I was a lowly manual laborer. The money was good, but I was unhappy about not being able to go to college. I continued working there because … because–just because. When I started at Derby Foods, about three-hundred people worked there. But over the years, the company kept modernizing by buying machinery that would replace employees. By the time I had eight years on the job, I was still near the bottom of the seniority list of about 134 employees due to the lack of hiring because of the worker displacement caused by the new machinery. Since I was at the bottom of the list, I had to work an undesirable work schedule. In food production, the plant and machinery have to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Well, I had to work the midnight shift from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am the next morning. Regardless of what anyone says, the human body never fully adapts to a nocturnal life. The schedule was bearable until Saturday when I would get off at 7:00 am, but would have to return at noon to clean and sanitize the plant. Everyone else who worked the Saturday shift worked either days or afternoons, so they didn’t complain. Besides, they enjoyed working for time and a half because it was a Saturday.

I complained about my schedule to my foreman, the shift foreman, and the manager. No one thought it was a problem. I had no union with whom to file a grievance, so I called the federal labor law organization and they told me that my employer was not violating any federal laws by requiring me to return to work an eight-hour shift within four hours of working an eight-hour shift. Well, I was happy that I tried everything possible to improve my working conditions.

Then, it dawned on me! I’ll read The Jungle! I’ll find scenes in the novel that compare to my present working conditions! So, during my breaks and down time in factory, I read the paperback edition of The Jungle that I always carried in my back pocket. When I  was done, I was so grateful to be working for Derby Foods! I never realized how good I had it compared to the Stockyard workers in the early 1900s. Because of that book, federal laws were enacted, the Pure Food and Drug act in 1906 for one, in order to improve the lives of millions worldwide. The unions in Chicago and nationally became stronger. I had forgotten the lessons of my dear Lithuanian Catholic nuns at Holy Cross School. But upon rereading The Jungle, I was grateful, nay, thankful, to be working for Derby Foods. I never complained about my employer ever again.

Back of the Yards


Entry to the Union Stock Yards

After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.

Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.

The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.

I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.

Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.

Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.

You swam in the pig's bathtub!