The Holy Squad of Women Who Nurtured My Faith

Sister Martha Nidia Lanzas, a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, blesses people with a relic of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in New York City July 13, 2019. The veneration of relics was part of the shrine's daylong celebration marking the birthday of its patroness. An Italian immigrant born July 15, 1850, Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized and is the patron saint of immigrants. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See CABRINI-SHRINE-DOLAN July 15, 2019.

“Vee ah closing ze doors now,” instructed Hilde, a terrifying, 5 foot tall German octogenarian. She had no patience for my dad who was waiting for me to leave the church. “Vee ah closing ze doors now,” she repeated, as she bolted the massive doors of the Basilica—the church in which I received all my sacraments. As on every night at 8:45PM sharp, she shooed out lingering parishioners, checked for any street people hiding in the confessional, and closed the doors.

Hilde was a part of a gang of old folks who were at the Basilica whenever its doors were open. She, Shirley, and a few other folks made a holy hour every night prior to closing the church, faithfully reading their binder of devotions. With monotone voice, they rattled through the rosary and other devotions, always finishing with a Bing Crosby crooner, “Good Night Sweet Jesus.” 

Another member of the squad was a Brooklynite named Theresa. She and another lady, Sylvia, lived in the Senior Apartments next to the church and would spend the entire day in church. Sylvia gave me a golden dollar every Christmas and random Catholic tchotchkes at other times. Theresa was always wheezing out a rosary in some state between wakefulness and sleep, but she would always reach out her arms when she saw me. She covered me in her red lipstick, told me that I was going to be a priest someday, and called me her “St. Martin de Porres” (There aren’t a lot of options for saint nicknames for little black boys).

Every Monday, a red haired Portuguese woman and her husband were in charge of closing the church. Her name was Fernanda, but we called her Fern and she was fierce. She knew the 15 prayers of St. Brigid by heart and would say them every day from worn photocopied pages old enough to have been copied by Brigid herself. 

In my early teens, I went through a phase of not wanting to wear a coat. Fern quietly assumed it was because I could not afford one. One evening, she gestured to me from her usual spot in the back of the Adoration Chapel and pushed a new coat into my hands. She did not have a lot, but with the little she had, she made sure that I was warm. I wore a coat from that day forward.

One beautiful soul, Marjorie, was the regent of the Catholic Daughters. She led it through the integration of the church in the 1960s and when I became Catholic in 2000 she was still in charge. She was Black and attended the Black parish on the South side until the bishop closed it in an effort to hasten desegregation. Neither those ousted from their churches, nor the white folks forced to accommodate them were very happy with the arrangement. Some white members were downright nasty to the new Black parishioners. Nevertheless, grace-filled women like Marjorie stuck it out.

Marjorie was always organizing events—her favorite was setting up a stand to give out free water during our hot summer festival in town. A former lounge singer, she would always call out to me “there’s my baby” in a raspy voice. She was a chain smoker and when she arrived at church for daily mass—always late—she would rush out of her Cadillac amid billows of smoke, smiling and beaming with light. She was never in too much of a hurry to greet everybody. In fact, she was the only greeter that our church had for many years and she was the only one we needed.

Some were mystics. Joan, who suffered terribly from cancer, was always raspily praying. Nevertheless, whenever our priest opened the prayers of the faithful up for everyone, she would—without fail—begin a long prayer with “Father I give you praise…” No one was ever quite sure when to say “Lord hear our Prayer,” but everyone knew that God had heard Joan. 

There were many saints, but the holiest was Jane. She was quiet and shy with big eyes amplified by big glasses. She was one of the organizers of adoration at the parish and whenever a person could not make their time, or a time slot could not be filled, Jane was there. Her pride and joy was her adult daughter who was developmentally challenged and who lived with her and her husband. 

The last time I saw Jane, she recounted how when I was converting and had just learned how to say the rosary, I would always come to adoration when she was there and ask her if she wanted to pray with me. As we laughed, she filled in the rest of the story—it so happened that she was always right about to leave when I would ask her. She had things to do. She had a family to feed. She had a daughter with needs. She had already spent hours in the church that day. Nevertheless, she smiled, many years later, as I stood before her as an embarrassed adult, she beamed the same sincere smile: “I was blessed to have done it” she whispered. 

Hilde, Sylvia, Theresa, Fern, Marjorie and Joan all passed away over the years along with others whose stories are too many to tell. Every time I came home to church during college or afterwards, it seemed a little emptier and a little less like home. Last year, Jane died of an aneurism. Her absence was the hardest. I came back to church for the first time after she passed away, our priests having also retired, and it was not the same—it was cold. 

During the Lamb of God, I looked around for the kind, wrinkled smiles that had welcomed me into the church before I was even Catholic. I tried to meet the wise eyes that were always watching from the same pew, every day. They were gone. It was eerie and unsettling. Church just didn’t feel like church without these pillars.

Some days later, I dropped into the church. Looking around, I stopped and sat in Fern’s spot, hidden in the back of the adoration chapel. I imagined being with Jesus and all of his friends who were women.  I have always been comforted by Jesus’ squad of holy women. Disciples, friends, coworkers, laborers, sages, Jesus surrounded himself with faithful women—strong Marthas, mystic Marys and Annas who spent their entire waking life awaiting him patiently in the temple. 

I began to imagine each of them, and as I looked around, the faces of his friends were quite familiar. Mary of Bethany kissed the pages of her worn out Passion, and Martha was smiling from a cloud of smoke. Anna mumbled God’s praise through heavily lipsticked lips. Last, I imagined Mary—her big eyes amplified by her big glasses smiling sheepishly, as she sat beside me. It only seemed right to continue my childhood tradition: I asked her to pray the rosary with me. 

This prayer reminded me of one of the most comforting ideas Catholics have in the Eucharist. Wherever the Eucharist is, however it is celebrated, received and adored, there too, are all of the saints. Our loved ones, and not so loved ones, the ones we’d expect, and the ones that we never would have imagined, join us in the love which they showered us with on Earth. Our bond with them, with all the saints, is so real and strong that even Hilde in her five foot heavenly glory cannot close ze doors between us.

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