Columns 2006

Adopt a nun?

As I kept saying to my friend Grace during the wedding, “This sure isn’t St. Michael’s”.  St. Michael’s is the parish church where we were raised.  Caesar’s Wedding Chapel by the Pool is where her daughter was getting married.  The distance from here to the outer limits of the known universe could not be greater.

Living as a transplanted Easterner in Alaska, I’m used to events such as weddings, births, birthdays and divorces that happen far from family.  So the fact that only thirty people were at the wedding was not the problem.  The problem was that there was no church music, no incense, no band at the reception and, god help us all, no one sang or danced the Tarantella. 

Before coming to the wedding, my friend’s sister had baked pizelles and biscotti and wrapped them into pretty little packages to sit at each place setting. Next to the cookies was a little net bag filled with candy-coated almonds.  Both brought some semblance of tradition to even this very Vegas wedding. But everything still seemed slightly off kilter.

I felt the same way when I read in the weekly religion page of this paper about an “Adopt a Nun” program.  The headline caught my eye because I was raised adopting lots of pagan babies through the good offices of the nuns who taught me in grade school.  If I remember rightly, back then the Catholic Church believed in a place called Limbo where unbaptized pagan babies went because they couldn’t go to heaven but God wasn’t mean enough to send them to hell for something that wasn’t their fault. 

Now I find out that the Pope has decided there is no Limbo and those babies can all go straight to heaven. I figured this was why we were now adopting nuns.  According to the article, you would get a picture of the nun you adopted and she would write to you and pray for you.

All this has me smiling and giggling until I saw the name of the order that was sponsoring this program. It was the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco in New Jersey.  These were the nuns who had made my childhood so very special. And now they were scrambling to find a way to support their elderly members.

I was horrified and angry at the same time that these women who had given so much to us seemed to be getting so little in return.  Then I went to their webpage and found out that they’d raised enough money through this program to build a $5 million retirement facility. Yep, they had not only taught us reading, writing and arithmetic, they’d obviously also taught us to be responsible adults who took care of our own.  And no matter how old we got, these nuns would be our own.

I know it is more than a little odd that I’m the one pumping for tradition here. After all, I got married in Barrow with nary a nonna in sight.  But as I get older, I realize that tradition becomes more important if only because it keeps me grounded at a time when the world sometimes seems to be spinning a bit too rapidly.  My Inupiat friends understand this implicitly and work hard to keep their traditions alive. 

My childhood friends and I find it harder to do because the old Atlantic City neighborhood doesn’t really exist any longer. The school is closed. The bakery is torn down.  The grocery stores are now realtors and the church caters more to gamblers hoping God will change their luck than to Italians praying that God helps them raise their kids to not be a disgrace to the family. Instead of adopting pagan babies we now adopt the nuns who once taught us about them.  And when it’s time for a family wedding, we find ourselves in a desert, surrounded by swimming pools, sitting on stone benches wondering where Father Vincent is. 

Then I think to myself, “But we’re still all together.  Those little girls from St. Michael’s still show up for each other where ever and when ever needed.” And those nuns are hotter adoptees than those pagan babies ever were, allowing them to retire to a home their students built for them out of love and respect. 

So maybe things do change. But maybe some of the really important things don’t.