If you were a part of a Catholic family in Duquesne, this week was a very busy week, and if you attended one of the Catholic schools, it was ever busier. This was the week that the Season of Lent began. Lent, of course, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter.
The Lenten Season actually began on Ash Wednesday, but as a kid, we had a lot of thinking to do prior to that day. The good sisters at Holy Name began drilling the need for sacrifice during Lent into our little heads in First Grade. From that point and continuing throughout every grade at Holy Name, each year we were instructed to decide what we were going to “give up” during Lent. Of course, we were not allowed to choose the things we REALLY wanted to, like brussel sprouts, spinach, carrots or chores. NO! We had to choose the tough stuff like, candy, cake, ice cream or COOKIES! Those nuns were heartless! Mom and Dad would always help me with my decision since they were fully aware of my likes and dislikes. They would also always dangle a carrot in front of me by telling me that it was only for 6 weeks and that when it was over, the Easter Bunny would have delivered a HUGE basketful of goodies for me to enjoy. Now mind you, I realize that my parents should have used this period of sacrifice as vehicle to build our understanding and dedication to our faith. However, the reality is that they had two active boys at home who were suddenly deprived of sweets for 6 weeks. It was like trying to kick a crack habit “cold turkey!”
In the meantime, back at Holy Name, the good sisters would take precautions against us “changing our mind” about what we were sacrificing for Lent. Once we had made our “acceptable” decision, they would pristinely write it on a piece of construction paper and post it on a section of the blackboard that was devoted to the current Liturgical Season. It served as a constant reminder that God was watching us and taking names!!
I don’t recall my parents or anyone else celebrating “Shrove Tuesday” on the day before Lent began. In some circles, it was called “Fat Tuesday” and was celebrated by eating rich meals and desserts one last time before Lent began. My parents never talked about it or mentioned Mardi Gras as a celebration that was occurring. It was never a part of the Hunky culture I suppose, but I do believe that there was a Catholic Hunky somewhere down in New Orleans that was using it as a reason to have a final shot and beer before Lent began.
Aside from the preplanning of our sacrifice, the biggest event of the week occurred on Ash Wednesday. During a very solemn rite, Fr. Shaughnessy. Fr. Turner, or Fr. Hanlon, would set the tone for the coming Lenten Season which would culminate with the placing of the ashen cross on our foreheads. I recall being very proud of displaying that symbol on my forehead. It was somehow a wonderful equalizer of everyone in our lives. Parents, relatives, priests, teenagers, and neighbors alike were all displaying their faith and were not embarrassed about doing so. Even though the intent was of a very solemn nature, as a child, we all wore smiles of delight to be old enough to understand the concept of Ash Wednesday and to wear its outward sign.
After Lent had begun, we were marched over to the church every Friday to participate in the Stations of the Cross. We all had our missals with their black or white covers, and we would follow along solemnly as each station would be announced:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus carries His cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets His Mother
- Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry His cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls the second time
- Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped of His garments
- Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus’ body is removed from the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense
One of the best parts of Lent was being able to enjoy “better than average” food on Fridays. The primary reason for this gastronomical change was the emergence of “Lenten Kitchens” at area churches. Of course, back when I was a kid, I think my parents called them “Fish Frys.” I can’t attest to the fact that every church in Duquesne had a Fish Fry, but at our house, we would either get these humongous fish sandwiches and fries from Hucksters Bar on Crawford Ave. OR we would go to St. Michael’s in Homestead/Munhall and enjoy their wonderful menu. They would have fish sandwiches, perogies that were just floating in pure butter, potato pancakes with sour cream or applesauce, haluski, macaroni and cheese, potato or macaroni salad, and bulbalki with sauerkraut, to name a few of the items. I don’t think there was a salad in sight, but MAYBE you might have found some coleslaw if you were lucky. No one complained about the lack of vegetarian dishes. Back then, my dad would always refer to them and salad as “rabbit food” anyway!
So, as you begin this Lenten season, remember that the good sisters are watching! No giving up running 10 miles a day, or staying up until 4 a.m., or rock climbing, or eating live goldfish. They’re taking notes you know!