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Tuesday, 19 February 2008

My Brother The Pope

By Nancy Leitz

My parents bought a house in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, in 1925. Dad worked at the Real Estate Trust Co. in Philadelphia and was doing very well. He enjoyed being a banker and he also enjoyed being a dad. Every evening he would get off the train from the city at Yeadon station and my brother, Bob, and I would run to meet him.

We were happy to see Dad but what we really wanted was the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin that he had under his arm. Bob and I both loved the funnies and couldn't wait to see them. I am almost 80 years old as I write this and I still read and chuckle at the funnies every morning.

My parents life centered around their children - Jack, Bob, Nancy and Jed (Geraldine, but years later legally changed to Jed), and their Church. St. Louis Church was opened in 1924, and the first Masses were said in the rectory with a handful of parishioners in attendance. The beautiful church was finished in 1928, and I was the first baby ever baptised there.

My Mother wanted to call me Nancy but the priest explained to her that she had to choose a Saint's name for me, so she chose Ann and called me Ann Louise because of St. Ann and St. Louis, for whom the church was named. Of course, this plagued me all of my life. All legal documents are Ann and everyone in the world calls me Nancy. I asked my Mother once why she didn't put down Nancy on the civil papers for the state birth certificate and she was aghast. "Oh, she said, "I couldn't do that. Suppose the Pope found out?"

So, all through the depression years our social and religious life revolved around St. Louis Church and school. Bob, Jed and I all attended St. Louis School, but Jack had started public school before the Catholic school opened so he stayed a "public".

Yes, that is how kids were recognized at the time. You were either a Catholic or you were a public.

About 1937, someone in our parish decided that it would be a good idea to dress the altar boys as the Pope. So, if your family could afford it , the altar boy in your family was measured for a Pope suit. Oh, it was splendid. Long white cassock with a broad red sash, red buttons all the way down the front, and, best of all, a red cape and a little red beretta. Our Bob was so delighted with himself and proudly posed while we took lots of pictures with our Brownie Hawkeye camera.

But, something came over Bob when he put the Pope suit on. He became Pius XI himself!! He expected everyone to show him the same respect and deference one would bestow on the real Pope in Rome. He even got himself a ring that we were supposed to kiss. He was 11 years old and captivated by his role in life.

Being an altar boy allowed him to be on the altar at a requiem mass, so he learned all the procedures and the Latin and soon he was an authority on Church rituals, especially funerals.

Well, it was bound to happen. One of the kids found a dead bird and, of course, we had to give it a decent Catholic burial, so Bob was sent for immediately. As he was changing into his Pope suit for the ceremony he dispatched another kid to the candy store for a pack of Necco Wafers. He would take the wafers out of the wrapper, discard all the colored ones and save the white wafers to be used as Communion during the service. We could go to Communion even though we hadn't been to confession, because Bob did not hear confessions.

So, the ceremony would start and Bob was eloquent in his praise of the bird. We would say a few prayers and I must say, the "publics" were puzzled, but darned good sports, about not knowing the prayers. BUT, they were better at the hymn singing. They knew all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Church in The Wildwood and their very favorite, Shall We Gather At The River. The Catholic kids did not know any of those hymns. I only know them today because of the many funerals I attended for friend's dogs, cats and turtles.

Bob was our official "Pope" for the next few years. The Second World War saw Bob enlist in the United States Navy and see action in the Pacific aboard the Destroyer Escort J. Richard Ward. He was injured in battle but was sent to St. Alban's Naval Hospital where he recovered completely and returned home to his family.

Once in a while we would reminisce about his Papal days and we would share a smile about how serious we were.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Nancy you brought back memories for me. My brothers had masses on the landing windowsill. They were quiet affairs no singing, I don't remember the wafers but we did have a little brass bell that made plenty of noise.

I wasn't raised as a Catholic, but mr. kenju was and he will love reading this. What wonderful memories you have, Nancy. Why didn't you ever change your name (legally) to Nancy? and why did Jed change hers?

How serious children can be. This is a lovely story of childhood and the way they handle death. My children buried pets in the back yard and my husband made a cross to mark the grave. We held a funeral and grieving at the grave went on for weeks until my husband and I decided 'enough was enough' and bought a new pet for the sad child.

Hello, Grannymar, Judy and Darlene,

Thank you all for your nice comments.

Judy, Jed changed her name because she had a wonderful career at a prestigious magazine in New York and thought Geraldine sounded "Old fashioned" to her . Then because people seeing her business card for the first time thought she was a man , she added her middle name,Sarah, to her card and that stopped the gender confusion.

As for myself, I just never thought of changing to Nancy legally at the times it would have been appropriate.i.e. New marriage name or new driver's license time. It was always on my mind but,for some reason, I never did it.

Maybe, subconciously, I was afraid of the Pope,too!

What a wonderful story. It reminded me of my partner's stories about growing up Catholic and "playing communion." Her older brother was the priest, she was the altar girl (in those days!) and the younger kids were the congregation. They too used Necco wafers.

Thanks for writing it.

Would you mind if I used part of it on my blog about personal history? It's at www.yourstorycounts1.wordpress.com

Whar a great, warm story Nancy. I can't imagine calling you anything other than Nancy. How cool was it to have your own Pope on the premises...even if it did go to his head on occasion. I love the part about the Necco Wafers.

Nancy, your story brought back so many memories of stories my mother told of her childhood in Montreal. Both my uncles were altar boys and my grandmother was a avid member of the women's auxiliary. I don't know whether the boys ever had their pope costumes, but they were also considered authorities on all things mysterious or wise.

Your well-told story reminded me of a time my friends and I buried a dead bird. A few days later we decided to see if it had been resurrected yet. We dug it up and found it being devoured by worms. I guess our funeral didn't work very well. No pope.

Peg: Yes, you may use parts of my story on your site. Thanks for asking...

Joy: You are always so supportive and I appreciate it. Thanks.

Lia: How right you are. When I went to Catholic school, the boys were king. The Nuns ran the school, teaching us how to read, write, do Math and, most important, how to behave yourself.

They did all that and still the boys and priests were KING!!!!

Marty: I have never heard of anyone going back and exhuming the bird they had buried a few days before.

I think you learned a valuable lesson that day; Let sleeping birds lie.........

Hi Nancy,
I was raised "public" - a Methodist. Sometimes I'm very grateful for that, hearing the tales of the nuns strictness from my friends. Sometimes I'm sorry to have missed out on all the ritual and culture of being Catholic. Thanks for sharing. Isn't it amazing how a role can be taken on so easily? Especially given the trappings.

Hi Sharry,

So, you are a "Public",eh?

Well, you would have been more than welcome in our bereavement group. As Darlene pointed out, this is the way we handled the "scariness" of Death!We were kids first and our religious affiliations didn't matter very much.

Lucky we had the Pope to guide us through. As a Methodist, you probably knew all the words to "Amazing Grace" and would definitely have been an asset to our funerals.

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