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In Praise of Catholic Grandmothers

Ten years ago this month, I called my grandmother, a devout Catholic living in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia, to declare my intention to return to the Catholic Church of my youth, which I had left along with my evangelically-inclined parents after my First Communion. She was arrestingly unsurprised. “Oh, I knew you would, eventually,” she said matter-of-factly. She was certainly happy to hear the news, the fruition of God only knows how many rosaries offered on my behalf. Perhaps her unexpected restraint was marked by the fact that even with my conversion (or, more accurately, reversion), there was still plenty of work to be done.

My Catholic grandmother was born in Kansas in 1922 to descendants of Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century (her grandfather served as an enlisted man in the Union Army, and later as an Indian Agent in Oklahoma). Her family suffered through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the latter tragedy taking one of her infant brothers. When World War II began, she worked for a time in a powder plant, and later as a waitress in Norfolk, serving members of the Navy and Coast Guard. That’s where she met my grandfather, a New Yorker, also a descendant of Irish immigrants, who was loading bombs onto ships.

Throughout those experiences—and raising five children through the turmoil and distemper of the 1960s and 1970s—my grandmother’s Catholic faith remained steadfast (my grandfather’s is a bit more of a complicated affair). She attended Mass as much as possible, said her prayers, and sought to communicate the Catholic faith to her progeny. When one of her daughter’s died unexpectedly in the early 1980s and left two young children, she and my grandfather stepped in and raised them as well.

As a child visiting my grandparents, I found my grandmother’s many spiritual devotions curious, and later, as I became more self-consciously Protestant, a bit absurd. It seemed she would devote an hour or more to going through her well-worn prayer book and all the little prayer cards therein. She (and my grandfather) would sit out on the deck overlooking the West Virginia mountains and pray their rosaries while I played with Legos on the carpet. Hadn’t Jesus exhorted us not to “babble on” in our prayers, thinking we will be heard by God because of our many words (Matthew 6:7)? Where was the “personal relationship with Jesus” my evangelical church had told me was the beating heart of Christian spirituality? How little I knew…

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