“Jillian, let’s go. Time for church.” For years those were my Sundays. Wake up later than expected, hop out of bed, throw together an outfit clad in a sweater and dress pants, shove a granola bar in my mouth and go. Always show up late, run in and sit next to Baba, and let the hour begin. An hour of mass weekly was not only a part of my routine, but my family’s. St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church was built in 1892, and my great great grandpa helped build it. Our family line had stayed there through the turn of the century. My great grandmother was raised in the church, as well as my Baba, my mom and aunt, then all the way down to my sisters and me.
The church was old, very old. It was beautiful, with icons lining the walls telling different biblical stories. Detail was found in every nook and cranny of the church. From the pew ends with wood carvings to each and every pillar lined and curved. My favorite was the ornate glass windows. There were about twenty windows. Each window had the same pattern with different colors and names. A window dedicated to every man who helped build the church. That was why we sat in the row three up from the back every week, no exceptions. That was the row that stood next to the glass window with the name JOHN YURINA FAMILY. The family name on my Baba’s side. Despite all of the detail and beauty in each of the carvings or the icons or the windows, there was damage. Time had done its part. If you looked past the wall trimming in teal and brown paint the wall itself was chipping. If you looked past the windows and followed up to the ceiling, large masses like tumors formed due to water that the roof could no longer keep away. The church was beautiful, yes, but was also so hurt and damaged, in constant need of repair. But for the remaining twenty to thirty people it held during my generation’s time it was still just as beloved. Just as loved as when it was full and jam packed, with aisles filled with fold out seats because it could not hold everyone. Though numbers had dwindled as the years passed it was just as loved for, and I loved it too.
I had loved the church, but only the building. As we shuffled in each Sunday all I thought about was what I was doing next. Assignments due in school, friends I would see in the upcoming hours, when I could check my phone again, everything but what I should have been thinking about. Every time I was caught stuck in my own daydreams I got a squeeze of the hand.
“Jillian Mary, stop.” We would go through the hour’s routine. Pray, sing, sit, stand, Communion, kneel, sit, stand, and out we would go. We would leave and I wouldn’t think about church again until the next Saturday when I was reminded to go to bed early once again. Despite my inability to sit still or focus in church, I was proud to tell anyone who asked what I practiced. Kids who would run off to CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) for the Roman Catholic Church every week would give me a confused look when I would say, “Yes, I am Catholic,” and, “Yes, I was confirmed as a baby.” Byzantine Catholicism is a religion that derived from Orthodox Christianity. A group of priests from the Orthodox broke off and swore their allegiance to the pope, a tradition the Orthodox had abandoned. So while we still had almost exactly the same beliefs as Roman Catholics, I took pride in our deep traditional roots to Eastern Europe and always enjoyed it when a kid in school would look at me with complete confidence and say, “You’re not Catholic.”
There was not just one building to my church. Right next to our church was the carriage house. The “reception hall” for holidays and luncheons. That’s when we would be excited to go to church, or better yet, get out of church. Because following church would be the best food ever. Etta and Martha were the two Hungarian ladies in a parish of Slovaks. Rather than hide among the crowd, they shone and brought their food to the top. It was the most desired. They were truly the best chefs around. While we all sat in church, the two Hungarian sisters went to town and finished cooking the great feast they had begun preparing weeks in advance. We would get to the hall, sit in our assigned seats (usually with a temporary frown because one of our names was always spelled wrong) and we would wait. With forks in our hands and nothing in our stomachs, we would sit patiently and then not so patiently.
“Can we please help them? It’ll bring the soup out faster.”
With a reply from Baba, “Don’t be foolish. Sit down and put your napkin on your lap and quit shaking your leg!” But alas the first course had arrived. Three carts rolled out from the kitchen, each with soup on their trays. This was not a “save the best for last” type of meal, because the best was certainly served first. With broth so warm and perfectly salty with noodles cut by the Hungarian sisters’ hands, the soup was the best part. You always filled up with two or three bowls, as many as you could get your hands on. But it would finish and the next course would come. Chicken, pork, mashed potatoes, and cabbage all lined the tables and were eaten just as quickly as the soup. Then dessert would arrive. The lightest yet sweetest Krezchiki: a fried dough with powdered sugar sprinkled on top, it would melt in your mouth or break in your hands because it was so thin yet so delicately scrumptious. But food was only a small part of the festivities. By the time my sisters and I were born, we were one of maybe two or three families with kids in the parish. That was compared to the dozens of kids my grandma and mom had when they were our age. So with no one to really entertain us, we turned to entertain ourselves. We would explore for as long as we could in between courses or in between announcements, try to get our feet onto as many new places as we could. Each time would be a new discovery. Once we found an upstairs with an old map falling off the wall. There was a desk but the rest was empty. We took it as our own and sat on the dusty floor with cards in our hands. Another day we found an old bar. Yes, the church had had its own bar for social events. We would climb up behind it now and giggle as we ordered our cosmos and Old Fashioneds. These were measly findings compared to what we found one day. After climbing the bar and playing our cards we wanted to see more. So we kept looking. From this room to that closet, we left nothing unturned and nothing untouched.
And then, gasp, “No way, guys check this out.”
We had found a bowling alley. Not only did our church have a barren room with a map falling off the wall and a parlor with a bar inside, but a bowling alley. Just one single lane, but just as official as one at Lucky Strike or Homefield Bowl. It was a lane just as nice, or better yet, it had been. I looked at the alley and got mad and ran upstairs.“Baba how could you let a bowling alley get so…ruined?! We come here every Sunday and you never thought to tell us there was a bowling alley!?” I could not believe that this small church with all of its little treasures had this truly awesome treasure, and they had let it run itself into the ground. Like time’s toll on the church itself, the alley was completely unusable, boards coming up, and probably not turned on in decades.
“We used to use it at coffee socials like this Jillian, but who can play now? You, Jenna and Jolie? That’s it. There’s no one else to play on it so there’s no use in keeping it up.” I knew she was right.
This was why the church was run down too. Of course the oldest things anywhere can be kept nice, look at museums with pristine artifacts dating from centuries before us. But museums had a leg up, they had money. With a diminishing parish almost all over eighty now and priests who had lost the will to bring members in, the parish was decreasing by the day. With each parish member’s wake I attended as a little girl, there was no one to refill their seat. As one left, no one returned, and the numbers went down and down and down. I look at pictures of the church in black and white and see the carriage house jam packed. Tables so close together I don’t understand how anyone got into their seat. But now we are small. Tables filled at these luncheons only by family members forced into eating with us, a measly attempt to look united again. But I don’t know these people like Baba knew her parish. Her parish was her family, mine is just a group of eighty year olds, those who either tell me I’m an “Adorable little one” or yell at me to, “Stop touching that. Don’t play with that!” Awkward encounters with people that I don’t know as well as I should. As well as Baba knew her parish, friends she holds dear to her heart now, I don’t have that. Baba’s best friend today was her best friend when she was four, and now when her grandkids come and we see a desperation in their eyes for us to be friends. There is nothing, nothing to really talk about other than answering our parents’ questions of, “So how’s school going?” It’s forced. A lot of it’s forced. Yes, there are some members of this church that I do consider family, those like second sets of grandparents. So when we have lost them I feel like I’ve lost a grandma or a grandpa. Mrs. Lash whose wake that I attended I had cried at because I was scared for Mr. Lash, who died a few years later. Mr. Russo whose cross I still wear, it’s my favorite. I get close to some but not many. The Hungarian sisters or the Valkos, but still it’s not the same as Baba. My church family is quite different than hers, I won’t have mine when I’m the eighty year old in my parish.
“Baba who are those people?” I whispered one day at mass.
“Hush we’ll talk about it later.” So I kept turning my head and looking every so often, quite curious. Like I said, we don’t get new members, and if we do they’re usually another elderly couple in New York on vacation thinking that it’s a Roman Catholic Church. But when we do, they don’t look like these two. One in a pastor’s uniform with a white band on the collar sitting next to a friend or something, but they’re young, really young. So I wait until we process out of the doors, wait for mom to throw her shoes back on after another successful cantoring and look at Baba again, waiting for an answer.
She sighs, “They’re looking to buy the church.”
Then I think out loud, “Why would anyone want a church that isn’t theirs? Are they even Byzantine?” I shouldn’t keep pushing questions but I do. “No, we think they’re Baptist, but Father Hospidar refuses to tell anyone.” And then, like the bowling alley, I’m mad again. I don’t get how these strangers feel okay coming and taking this church from me, it’s mine. It’s my family’s, I’m a part of the JOHN YURINA FAMILY remember? And what are they going to do when they have a mass? Ignore the three bar crosses and the icons, accept the details in the wall and the benches but not understand how old they are, or how I looked at it for an hour every week? It’s not fair this is our church. Yes I’m not as close as Baba is but I’m there, I still like seeing all the old ladies shuffle out of church and touch my mom’s shoulder to tell her she has the voice of an angel. I like to run gifts around at coffee socials. I like seeing the cats because I see the same three every time. And it’s beautiful. My church is truly beautiful. I get it, it’s old and needs a lot of repairs that we can’t afford but what are these new people going to do? I’m sure any repairs they can afford will involve tearing down beautiful wall details and icons, and I bet when they clean up the empty room we played cards in they’ll throw out the map that hangs itself up with only three corners.
As upset as I am, Baba’s heartbroken. She tries everything. Petitions and e-mails to the Bishop but they do not do anything. It’s simple, we can’t afford repairs and these people can. We can put money into the more lucrative church at White Plains. So that’s it, there’s nothing we can do. So she does the next best thing, and calls the local news to come on our last Sunday. I sit in the church that day with two buttons. Two big red buttons. This was when I was in my button phase. I sewed them onto bags and wore them on my neck so I thought, what better way to leave my mark here than to hide a button somewhere that no one can find it. I hold both in my pocket the whole mass shifting the two in my thumb and forefinger. Usually I squirm and wiggle, make one bathroom trip too many anxiously waiting to leave and go back home, but not that Sunday. That Sunday I dreaded every turn of the page of the hymn book and every step up to receive communion. And as my mom sings the last song to close the mass, Baba’s eyes well up with tears. I look up and mom closes her book and puts on her shoes, that’s it. It’s over. Baba whips out a camera trying to capture everything she can, then insists on a picture of my sister’s and me at the JOHN YURINA FAMILY window. But it doesn’t work, the camera’s not working well with the light.
“Why can’t we take the window Baba? They don’t even know who John Yurina is!”
“Uncle John wanted to but I said no.”
“Really why wouldn’t you let him it’s his grandpa too-”
“That’s enough Jillian let’s go.” I hold my buttons as we walk away. Baba’s holding a tissue in one hand, holding my hand in the other, and I hold the buttons in my other hand as my eyes search frantically to stash the button. And then, I just stop. I turn back around and look into my church and then I quickly turn and walk out. What’s a button going to do, either I’m here or I’m not. We go out and Baba gets interviewed by the news reporter. I hug Baba tight after the interview and then we drive away, drive away from the little church on Ash Street. St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, 1892-2012.
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