Cookies and Rosaries
Based on a true story.
To me, having a calling seemed like the coolest thing ever. Mostly, I had no idea what being called entailed, but the second I turned 20, I got mine. While other girls my age were cruising Central Avenue with the top down dying to experience one-night stands, I was hopping on a plane across country to minister to the needy. During my impressionable teen years, I devoured books about Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and Ammon Hennacy. I stood in awe of people who sacrificed their lives for others—those chosen by God to do extraordinary things—like Father Damian, who went to Molokai to care for lepers. My mother, while thankful her teenage daughter wasn’t hooked on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, tried to sidetrack my save-the-world fervor by tempting me with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and shopping trips.
“Why do you have to go so far away?” my mother asked in a trembling voice. I had blindly signed up to volunteer at a Catholic mission 2,600 miles away. In an era before email, iPhones, and GPS tracking devices, parental worry came with the territory. She couldn’t even Yelp the place. “What do you know about this mission anyway?”
“I am being called by God. Don’t worry. I’ll write to you. It’s not like I’m going to Africa or anything,” I replied, secretly considering how that would have been way cooler, like in the movie The Nun’s Story when Audrey Hepburn becomes a nun and goes to the Congo.
My name on a piece of cardboard slowly rotated around a lanky man covered in black. As I approached, a burst of fear shot through my body when it became apparent that I was not reading a book any longer in my comfortable bedroom with my mom’s chocolate chip cookies. I had just landed in Boston to live with a priest I didn’t know from Adam.
Dressed in black robe and starched white collar, Father Riley introduced himself to me in a wooden voice and took my suitcase. With his angular face and somber presence, he gave the impression of a medieval wall hanging in a dusty old church.
“You’ve made a promise to God, young lady. You mustn’t go back on your word, even when things get tough. It’s a rough place, Boston.”
Ignoring his obscurity, I tingled with excitement, ready to delve into my new calling—to do the Lord’s work.
Smack dab in a poor section of town, the Mission of Saint Sebastian, a deteriorating estate on a hill, towered over Dorchester like an obelisk, fazing into the Boston mist and gloom. The neighborhood of ramshackle tenement buildings and clapboard shacks was home to a myriad of cultures and ethnicities—one of the reasons I was drawn to this opportunity.
“Keep the doors locked at all times,” he instructed, with a pointed finger as he led me into my new residence. In each stuffy, dark room hung portraits of John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II. I wondered which leader he affiliated himself with. He gave me a tour of the house while shedding his holy garb little by little, leaving pieces of clothing in various spots, as if marking his territory. The place smelled of musty wet wood. A hint of hard candy lingered in the air, reminiscent of my grandpa’s basement. My room was the size of a closet with a twin bed and no window to the outside world. Like a monk’s cell, I thought. I’ll be able to cloister myself and grow in my faith while working for the poor. Just like Dorothy Day.
While my friends in Phoenix woke up to their yoga and jogging routines, my days began with day-old bagels and centuries-old prayers. Every Tuesday, I and the other volunteers, John and Linda, walked through the sketchy streets of Dorchester to the nursing home to say the rosary with the residents. Along the way we encountered boys bouncing basketballs in the street, homeless people holed up under trees, and men, edgy and leery-eyed, circling lampposts.
“Drug dealers,” said John as he stuffed both hands in his pockets as if to hide. “Keep walking and don’t look them in the eye.” I obliged. Still, I could not take my eyes off the homeless man under the tree. He looked half dead and I wished I had a bag of my mom’s cookies to give him. As soon as we arrived at Oakwood Manor, the old people mechanically gathered around us as gnats to light, massaging their rosaries.
“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” I said, floating more on the rhythmic repetition of withered voices than the prayers. The strum of Hail Marys transported me back to my childhood. My mother and I would pray the rosary on our knees in her bedroom surrounded by all shapes and sizes of the Virgin Mary. She guided the beads like an expert knitter and her skin had this ethereal glow that no amount of exfoliation could achieve. I remember being more in awe of her stamina and faith than any graces the rosary might have bestowed. We’d pray for all kinds of things from world peace to my brother’s mumps.
“Why does Mary seem a little sad?” I asked her one day while ogling her many statuettes. “Shouldn’t she be happy? She was chosen by God.”
“She was a mother and probably worried about her son, just like I worry about you.”
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” the elders responded bowing their gray heads. John and Linda would bolt right after the last Hail Mary. I stayed for bingo. Except for the nursing home, the Mission’s “missionary” work was nonexistent. Hanging out with the old folks seemed more conducive to my so-called calling than returning to Father Riley’s spiritless routines.
One day, Eve touched my arm and said, “I’m so thankful for your visits. You are a breath of light coming here to pray with us. I’m 95. My husband’s gone, my sisters are gone, my friends are gone. All I have left is this rosary.” Then she put it in my hand. “Something to remember me by,” she said curving her bony cold fingers around mine. It seemed like a holy relic, so old and worn. Fifty-nine hand-carved wooden roses strung together with Eve’s history. I wondered how many fingers had pressed and caressed the beads and what troubles it saw over the years, and if it had worked any miracles. My refusal to accept her gift got nowhere.
On the chilly walk back, as the last vestiges of fall crunched under my shoes, I called my mother collect from a pay phone on the street corner. She was baking cookies, and I was craving a taste of home. The glow of the sun warmed the sides of the phone booth transforming into my own private cocoon.
After four weeks, Father Riley ordered me to get a job to support the Mission’s work. I obeyed. My previous skills as a typist landed me a receptionist job at Prudential. I confess, taking the subway downtown every morning was fun. I loved being the company gopher. I collated, stapled, and filed like nobody’s business. I answered the phone with enthusiasm, but mostly I sat at my little desk amid the frenzied clicking and buzzing and focused my energy on trying to decipher Father Riley and listening hard for God to help me understand what I was doing here. I knew for a fact it wasn’t to tout term life.
“I’m glad you are working. Come straight home. No happy hours,” said Father Riley, sitting at the table with a stack of papers, his coffee bean eyeballs peering at me over perched spectacles. I couldn’t decide if he looked more like Ebenezer Scrooge or Vito Corleone. “Oh, and remember to sign your paychecks over to me.”
“You mean everything I earn?” I asked, thinking it a bit peculiar. “Can I keep a little for spending?”
“I will give you cash for the train and lunch. Everything else will go to the Mission,” he said, forging a smile. “Understood?”
“Of course, I’m happy to help. But I’d much rather assist in the community than answer phones all day long.”
Father Riley slid his hands in the pockets of his black robe. I wondered how deep the pockets went in priests’ garments.
“Speaking of which,” I continued, “I’ve been thinking about other charity works. There are these kids in the street. What if we use some of the money to…?”
“You’ve made a promise to God. Remember?” he interrupted, rubbing his carved cheekbone that jutted out of his face like a broken wing. “The Mission needs money. Think of the poor people you will be helping.”
Nervously, he gathered his papers and left the room. Obviously, he did not want to finish our discussion. He wore his secrecy like a poor man wears his winter coat, pulled tightly around him. I wondered where all the money was going. And what was so important in that stack of papers. My own clandestine mission was to find out.
I had always considered myself a good Catholic. Not as devout as my mother. I didn’t go to Mass every day. I didn’t even go every Sunday. I still had a love for its tradition and a desire to deepen my faith. But I was beginning to feel like a billy goat in a flock of sheep. Curious and antagonistic and wanting to head butt my way to the truth. I bit my tongue though and followed the flock faithfully, even though it became increasingly difficult to roam Father Riley’s pastures.
Five months into my tenure as a missionary, it seemed to me that the Mission was not involved in any charity projects. With the exception of bingo and rosary at the nursing home, my idealistic expectation to minister to the destitute and change lives was not happening. The other volunteers lived by Father’s strict canon, which prohibited socializing and demanded constant prayer. The unwavering obeisance of John and Linda astounded me, and I wondered if they were addled or maybe homeless themselves and Saint Sebastian was their one hot and a cot. John was always buoyant, as if high on something. His first-floor room had a window that I imagined he climbed out of on occasion. Linda, on the other hand seemed mute.
“Where are you from,” I asked her one day, hoping to make a soulful connection. After all, we shared the same bar of soap.
“Las Vegas,” she whispered, as her cheeks turned paprika red. She scurried to her room and shut the door. Father Riley clomped up the stairs, nodded slightly in my direction, as if to say she’s troubled, then entered her bedroom. Baffled, I stood by her door, ready to divert if needed. A crescendo of murmuring reverberated from the walls. I grasped the doorknob, ready to storm onto the scene, like Olivia Benson in Law and Order SVU. Then I realized they were praying. Relieved, I padded to my room, wiping away beads of sweat from my brow.
Our miserly meals of soup or chili were akin to fasting so one day I thought I’d treat my fellow missionaries to fresh baked cookies and have some to give to homeless people on the way to the nursing home. I scored a stick of butter from the fridge. Then, I opened a top cabinet searching for ingredients and discovered a menagerie of liquor bottles in all shapes and sizes. No wonder it smells like candy in this house, I mused, and wondered if the good priest had a little drinking problem. It certainly wasn’t communion wine. Hidden behind the Jack Daniels I spotted a canister that said flour. I stood on a chair and reached for it, careful not to disturb the booze. I grabbed the canister, stepped down, and twisted off the lid hoping to find at least two cups. Instead of flour, it was dough—wads and wads of $100 bills. What the hell? As my fingers flipped through the cash, I heard the wood floor creak.
A shiver spread to the hairs on the back of my neck. Just as I twisted the lid back on, Father Riley barreled through the swinging door and snatched the flour and butter from my hands. I almost felt as if I should raise my arms in surrender.
“You know the rules,” he spat and slammed shut the liquor cabinet.
“I didn’t know we weren’t allowed to bake,” I said, cotton mouthed. A wave of blood rushed to my face. He glared at me as if to say how dare you talk to me in that tone.
I wanted to say that’s not flour. Instead I blurted, “You’re missing out!”
He stoically absconded with my cookie fixins. I marched upstairs to my closet of a cloister, leaving my respect and awe of his sacrosanct position in the cabinet with the whiskey. I couldn’t help but wonder if Father Riley was a mobster in priest’s clothing and what the jail time was for aiding and abetting.
One cold snowy night, I answered a knock on the door. On the doorstep stood a middle-aged woman wearing a ripped flannel shirt. Her pear-shaped face was framed by a red scarf. Two big eyes beamed at me like dark stars while thick black lashes cradled giant flakes of snow. Close to her chest, she held a baby wrapped in a thin blanket. The child’s lips were blue as ice and its mouth paralyzed in a silent scream.
“Please,” she said, shivering and batting snowflakes from her eyes. We are cold and hungry.” My heart lashed against my chest like an ocean wave. Just as I was about to let her in, a voice screamed from the kitchen.
“Close the door,” Father Riley said as he stomped primitively down the hall. “I told you never to answer the door.”
“But she’s co—”
“Close it!” he screamed. Now my mouth was frozen open like the baby’s. As he approached the door in a fury, a gust of arctic wind rushed in and sucked the door shut.
“Why did you turn her away?” I asked. “We have enough cans of soup and chili to feed the entire city of Boston.” It seemed to take forever to say those words as I was still numb.
“We can’t cater to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that roam the streets of Dorchester.” Brusquely, he fiddled with the dead bolt, locking out the world and confirming my mounting apprehension about the Mission’s mission. Just then it dawned on me that the people in the nursing home were white as the snow falling outside. I couldn’t remember if the woman at the door was white or brown or purple. In my pool of naïve idealism, it never occurred to me that a priest—a minister of Christ’s grace—would be so heartless. Tainted by an intense disgust, I began to doubt whether any of that hidden stash in the flour canister was even going to the needy.
“I don’t agree with your actions!” My words rendered me lightheaded. I grabbed the banister for support and noticed the heads of Linda and John peeping from the top of the stairs. They ducked in unison. “Christ would not have slammed the door on her. No matter how many Hail Marys you say, it’s not right.”
“Don’t be foolish. You made a promise to God to work in this mission.” He glared at me with beady, lifeless eyes.
“Your schemes may work on John and Linda, but not me. How can you even administer communion? Jesus said to give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you,” I said, stunned. I had never in my life quoted scripture. I barely read the Bible. I preferred murder mysteries and romance novels. It was beyond my comprehension that those words fluttered from my mouth—baby birds flying from their nest.
“What am I working for if not for her?” I said, pointing to the door. “I’m leaving this place.”
My newfound assertiveness fired him up like an old wood stove. His pallid potato face transfigured into a fiery devilish expression as he rubbed his rosary belt angrily. “I refuse to let you leave.” He locked the door and showed me the key that he slipped into a secret pocket of his black robe.
Self-confidence turned into panic as I tried to open the door with my shaky hand. Locked from the inside! It felt like wild horses had trampled across my chest.
“You’re not in your right mind. Go to your room. We will discuss this tomorrow.”
My mind raced with escape plans. Maybe John would let me creep out of his window. But where would I go? It was 20 degrees and pitch black. I wanted so much to call my mother, but another house rule, besides don’t answer the door and no baking, was no phone calls. Up the creaky stairs I went to my little monk cell where John F. Kennedy and the Pope witnessed my tears and loneliness. Although, embarrassed at my gullibility and failure, I felt happy that I could discern between prayers and words and between God and religion. As I crawled beneath the sheet, I clutched Eve’s wooden rosary and prayed that the woman and baby would find shelter. The image of the shivering mother and child on the steps of the Mission of Saint Sebastian would be painted in my mind forever. Miserere nobis, I whispered, tossing and turning on my unyielding cot.
Decades later, I sometimes think about this experience. My candle of idealism has since burned out. I’m left with the little wax sculpture in a box of memories. Often, I try to light what is left of the wick, but it never quite stays lit. Despite Father Riley bursting my idealistic bubble, I still love the Catholic faith. Not just for the saints and sacraments, but for the traditions that date back 2,000 years and most of all for the unutterable grace the Mass delivers—like one of those weighted blankets trending on Amazon.
I had considered that maybe Father Riley was in thick with the Irish mob. Alas, it was nothing that dramatic. I caught him red-handed. Those secret papers were nothing but his chicken scratches alongside names like Dragon Lady and Honey Glaze. He was just a feeble alcoholic and a two-bit gambler who bet on the ponies a little too much. There’s a bad apple in every bunch. Who am I to judge? Perhaps his purpose in life was to help troubled Linda. My escape from Saint Sebastian wasn’t dramatic either. I went to work one day and never came back. When I got home, my mom didn’t say I told you so. Instead she congratulated me for speaking my mind. “Maybe you were called for just that reason,” she said.
The dusty desert longs for summer rains, and I sometimes yearn for the passion I had as a young woman. And it wasn’t that charlatan priest who extinguished the flame, but the realization acquired as I got older that the world can’t be saved. At least not by me. I’ll leave that to the Dorothy Days and Mother Teresas of the world. I’ve learned that what counts most are the little things we do for each other every day. If I can change someone’s heart with a smile, or a good deed or a chocolate chip cookie, if I can bring joy to someone then I am living my faith. It is not always about doing the extraordinary. It is really about the little moments of love—the small daily miracles strung together like hand-carved rosary beads.
Sheila Luna is a writer from Arizona whose essays have appeared in various journals including Kaleidoscope, PILGRIM: A Journal of Catholic Experience, Longridge Review, Spry Literary Journal, and DINE: An Anthology, published by Hippocampus Books. She loves baking, road trips, and Bach. Visit her at www.sheilaluna.net.
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Photo Credit: “Rosary” by Stephen Ritchie, Flickr.com. (Modified by Veronica McDonald).
Sheila is always a beautiful story teller and I am always learning more about my friend of 25 plus years!