Relics: Looking Back on a Catholic Childhood -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

Mary J. Breen’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: When We Wore Foundation Garments.

When I was about ten, my mother gave me a special holy card for my prayer book. I remember it vividly. It was a smudgy cream colour with fading print, and it was tattered and torn around the edges. On the front was glued a long pale leaf which, according to the fine print, was from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I had no doubt that this was true. I believed that the leaf had fallen from a tree that grew from an olive that fell from a tree, back and back almost 2000 years to a tree in the grove where Jesus had had his agony on the night before his crucifixion. It never occurred to me that it probably came from a farm in California or Mexico. I was sure it was the real thing and I thought it gave me a special closeness to Christ Himself.

Holy cards like this were part of the old-style Catholicism that was bred in my bones. My father, like any good Irish Catholic parent, had the dream of giving a child to God, and as an only child, that was me. In his mind I would, naturally, join a convent and become a nun. And so I grew up immersed in the closed world of the One True Church in the 1950s, a world populated with angels–good and bad–novenas, indulgences, and hundreds of saints with various specialties. Because my father was especially devout, we fasted and abstained from favourite things on Fridays and during Lent. We said Morning Offering prayers on awakening and Acts of Contrition before bed. We said prayers before and after every meal, the Angelus at twelve noon and six, and a set of prayers every evening including the Rosary. We also went to daily Mass and Communion, Confession on Saturdays, and Sunday Mass and Sunday afternoon devotions. And throughout these prayers were the ever-present themes of unworthiness, sin, and guilt, ideas that enveloped me in their power, and entrapped me with little to no ability to see beyond them. I was taught that to doubt or question was to sin.


All of that was years ago, I’m no longer up-to-date on any Catholic practices. Even so, I thought things had changed enough to make me surprised, just a few years ago, to learn that the holy bones of a 19th century French saint were coming to our local Cathedral for the faithful to venerate. Much was made of this in the press, and some friends of mine insisted we go and see this genuine medieval spectacle. I was far from sure. I didn’t think I could enjoy visiting the place I escaped from just before they turned the key.

The original owner of these travelling bones was St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a nun who was canonized soon after she died at the age of twenty-four in 1897. Her Catholicism was bred in her bones too, as her parents had both wanted to join religious orders before they married, and she and her four sisters all became nuns. Most Catholics know her as “The Little Flower of Jesus,” a name she gave herself to explain her willingness to grow like a tiny unassuming wildflower wherever God planted her. She has become very popular in some quarters, so much so that over the past 20 years or so, her bones have journeyed to nearly 40 countries including Russia, South Africa, Canada, the US, the Philippines, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and Iraq. One of these relics even went on a voyage of the Discovery space shuttle. And now her bones were making a stop in the small Canadian city where I live.

When I was young, my parents were admirers of The Little Flower, keen to point out her humility, her childlike innocence, her disinterest in beauty, and her obedience to God’s will—attributes they’d have loved to have seen in me. And of course, they wanted me to see that much of her holiness came from her decision to live the life of a nun. I, however, was not at all interested in this sappy person. I paid her little attention until it came time to pick a confirmation name, and Thérèse came to mind, but not because I wanted to be unnoticed, humble, and beauty-free, but because I wanted to counteract the vivid ordinariness of being named “Mary,” a name my father said was “the holiest name of all.” I wanted to be cool, and I wanted a cool name, so what better than to add not your everyday Irish Teresa, but a French one with a special French pronunciation and two accents?

And so, now, for the first time in over thirty years, I was going to church, not for Mass, but to see my confirmation saint’s sacred bones. I don’t understand why certain bones are more holy than others, but there was no doubt that a lot of people where I live thought differently. Clearly they saw being near St. Thérèse’s holy bones as a benison in and of itself.

When my friends and I arrived, the Cathedral was already packed, and people were still gathering on the front steps. Men, women, and children, more women than men, many more old than young, some in Sunday hats and good coats, and some in jeans, parkas, and toques. A sea of Irish faces.

Within minutes, I was starting to think like a scared Catholic kid again, wondering if God and Satan with his cunning ways were about to enact a mighty battle for my soul right there in the Cathedral. Once again I could hear those messages that told me what a sinner I was, what an enormous disappointment, what a seeker of pleasure—unlike The Little Flower—and what an utter fool not to have recognized that membership in the Catholic Church had been handed me on a platter. I was barely inside the doors and I wanted out.

The Church’s insupportable position on women alone does it for me, knowing what I do about the lives of girls and women. I know there are brave Catholic feminists who are willing to defy The Holy See and ordain women priests, but for me, the sins of the Church are too many and too great. Add to that the glaring contrast between Jesus’ words about the eye of a needle and the enormous wealth of the Vatican, and I’m done. Even though I know that there is no question that some good works are done in the name of the Church, thinking about the institution puts me into a kind of inarticulate fury mixed with despair and powerlessness, and the best thing is to avoid it. But, there I was in a Catholic church once again.

I kept my head down for fear of being recognized as our line began to move up the side aisle. My wariness made me more attentive, and soon I saw that I was surrounded by very familiar things, things that I knew so well that they were giving me a sense of belonging to something I didn’t want to belong to. There they all were: the holy water font with bits of green mould at the edges; the Stations of the Cross; the kneelers for proper upright kneeling unlike, according to my mother, the half-slumping praying those lazy Protestants do; the lurid statues of suffering saints; the carved and intimidating pulpit; and the crucifixes which, after not seeing them for years, I saw for the gruesome things they are. And over us, enclosing us, the haunting mix of incense and beeswax candles.

Veneration proved to be quite a perfunctory affair. The line moved along quickly, and soon we were at the front. There, centre stage in the sanctuary, stood a modest wooden table, and on it, a very ornate wooden box about four feet long, and a foot-and-a-half deep and high. The box was brown and trimmed with a considerable amount of gold leaf. The four walls were lined with little pillars, and the Plexiglas dome covering it made it look much more like a replica of Le Petite Palais than a casket. I was confused. I’d been expecting a coffin-sized box where her bones would be lying like a skeleton in a horror movie, and then I grasped what I was seeing: this was a reliquary, not a coffin. Of course. This was a box containing some but probably not all of her bones.

The Faithful didn’t seem to be baffled. People were taking turns hurrying up to kneel on the small padded kneeler in front, so they could touch and often kiss the plastic dome while saying a quick prayer. Perhaps they were hoping for one of St. Thérèse’s miracles, or perhaps they just felt the comfort of believing they had someone to turn to when things got tough.

As I waited my turn, I watched the official-looking men on either side. Close to us stood the Bishop in full ecclesiastical dress—mitre, crosier, biretta—and beside him three priests in black soutanes and white surplices, and beside them, two fidgeting altar boys. On the other side was a phalanx of Papal Knights of Columbus in black capes with red linings, white feathered Zorro hats, white gloves, and sashes across their swollen chests, looking as proud as if they had had a personal hand in St. Thérèse’s piety. Behind the men—and I didn’t even notice them at first—stood two old nuns in full long black habits not unlike what St. Thérèse would have worn. Each was holding a dirty rag and a large bottle of blue Windex, and after each pilgrim touched or kissed the Plexiglas, they dashed up to spray and rub the front surface shiny and germless, if not sinless. No one glanced at them or thanked them or even seemed to notice them as they continued to provide unacknowledged backup to the important stuff. I doubt neither they nor St. Thérèse would see it that way.

And then it was our turn. I managed an approach and retreat that didn’t draw attention to myself, though I neither kissed, prayed, nor touched. Neither did I feel anything holy or spiritual—just an intense desire to flee. We didn’t get to see a single bone, holy or otherwise.

Memoir writers are forever quoting Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and for good reason. It is always with us, late and soon, and with no Plexiglas shield to protect us, the past gets in the way.

And so, though that was all years ago, I am still far from indifferent to Catholic churches. I can visit and admire and even feel respectful in Protestant churches, mosques, synagogues, Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples, but not in Catholic churches. At least not yet. Mostly I feel the acute exasperation we feel in the presence of those we know too well. The only time I enter one nowadays is to attend a funeral.

I turned to take my weary bones home, once again walking away from a Church I’ve been walking away from for a long time. Just as the bones of St. Thérèse have endured, so have the effects of the Church endured for me. I carry enough of my own relics of that time.

Mary J. Breen’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary magazines, national newspapers, essay collections, and travel magazines. She lives in Peterborough, Canada where, among other things, she teaches memoir writing with seniors.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again