Mom is Going to Stay Lutheran, So Does It Mean She’ll End Up In Hell?

The religious life was a lot more rigid back in Detroit in the 1940s

In our town a few Sundays ago the Congregationalist minister was over at the Catholic church delivering a guest sermon, while one of the Catholic priests was doing likewise at the Lutheran church. That same day, I think, a rabbi was hobnobbing with the Baptists. Things sure are changing.

The religious life was a lot more rigid back in Detroit in the 1940s, when I was growing up. I know it was in my family, where churchly rules were engraved in concrete. My mother was Lutheran — not only Lutheran, but the daughter of a Lutheran minister. My father was Catholic, and we three children were brought up Catholic. From all I could gather as a little kid, the Lutherans did not exactly hold the Catholics in awe, and what's more, the Missouri Synod Lutherans didn't even have all that much respect for other Lutherans. To a child it was very confusing. Later I found that I was not the only one who was confused.

My mother saw no harm in an occasional visit to the Catholic church, St. Philip Neri, on the corner of our block, but my father thought he put his soul in peril whenever he stepped inside a Protestant church. I remember him saying once, after he had warily agreed to accompany my mother to an evening Lutheran festivity, "I'll go, but I won't sing." Even as a child I realized that was no big deal. Catholics didn't sing, everyone knew that. They just softly mumbled along. It was as if we were all practicing to be ventriloquists.

My mother had signed a paper before she married my father, promising that all of their children would be raised Catholic. But I did not become an official, churchgoing Catholic until I entered kindergarten. Before that I was allowed to go to church with my mother, which is where I learned that non-Catholics were lusty, enthusiastic singers. In those days Lutherans sang the doxology at the end of the service. I listened carefully, decided I could handle the melody and pitched right in. As you may know, it concludes with the line ". . . praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost." I sang my head off for two or three Sundays until the morning my mother bent down close and heard ". . . praise Father, Son and home we go." She had a good time afterward out on the sidewalk telling her friends about it, while I stood with my fists jammed in my pockets. That was pretty much the end of my singing career with the Lutherans.

Switching over to St. Philip's a year or two later did not improve things. In catechism classes I was given to understand that I was a member of the one true faith, and that all those who knew of the one true faith and elected not to join were playing fast and loose with their chances of getting into heaven. When I tried to question my father about this, I didn't get very far. "Mom knows about Catholics," I would say. "She's going to stay Lutheran, so does that mean she'll end up in hell?" My father would look uncomfortable and rattle his sports page and mumble something about how there was a great deal we didn't understand yet.

There was not, as far as I could see, much contact between the Catholic and Protestant clergies, and certainly no conviviality. I could not imagine our head priest at St. Philip's, Father Uhlenberg, a hell-and-damnation sort, kicking up his heels with anyone. There were a few priests, though, that I do remember with fondness. One was Father Charles Curran, a short, stocky Irishman. He liked to watch our football games and stood for hours on the sidelines, with his small, coy smile and pale laughing eyes. He used to stroll down the alley behind our house, reading his breviary. Dressed all in black except for his Roman collar, he would walk pigeon-toed, one arm behind his back, reading to himself, moving his lips. When he got to our yard, our two dogs would get excited and bark furiously. This was because Father Curran would stay awhile, smiling and wiggling his fingers at them through the wire fence. When my father got home, my mother would greet him with the news that the priest had come by again "to annoy the dogs."

One day Father Curran came to the front door with a bottle of holy water. He was doing the whole neighborhood, he said, and was here to bless the house. Mother sat on the living-room couch while he splashed water on all the downstairs walls and then headed upstairs to the bedrooms. She was embarrassed because she had left a corset on the bed.

Eventually Father Curran came back down, and he and my mother stood on the front porch discussing weather, church history and conversions. He tried to get her to start coming to mass. He said he had been praying for her; she replied that she already knew, she had seen him face our house out in the alley, kneeling and making the sign of the cross. She also said, to my astonishment, that she would pray for him. He thanked her, saying that he needed all the help he could get. Then they smiled at each other.

As she stood with her hands on her hips, watching him go up the street, she remarked that he sure had a funny walk for a man who was a priest. They are both long gone now, and I sometimes wonder what they would make of the harmonious religious blending that goes forward today. Neither of them would have believed it possible.

Wherever they are now, if there is anything like church, they surely must be attending the same one.

By Gerald Dumas


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