By Barb Arland-Fye
My husband Steve, whose sense of direction far exceeds mine, was about to make a left turn in a neighborhood unfamiliar to him. “No, keep going straight,” I said with confidence. I knew where to go. My brothers and I walked this route to and from our parish and school, Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I convinced Steve and our older son Colin to attend Mass with me at Nativity while we were in the Twin Cities for a family reunion. We usually attend Mass at my parents’ parish in another city, but a sense of longing drew me back to Nativity this past weekend.
Parked vehicles lined the perimeter of the church and school buildings, but I spotted an empty space in front of the former Nativity Convent and asked Steve to park there. As a fourth-grader, I made my first and only visit inside the convent for the viewing of the body of my beloved first-grade teacher, Sister Michael Anne, who died of leukemia. Standing in front of the convent (now Nativity Early Learning Center), brought back memories of Sister Michael Anne, who gave equal parts of praise and criticism that made a lasting impression.
We walked across the street and hurried into the church minutes before Mass began. I smiled as I thought about the times my dad wondered, in exasperation, why it was so challenging to get the six members of his family rounded up and ready for Mass.
As Steve, Colin and I walked down the long aisle inside the church, I absorbed the surroundings; the distinctive rose marble altar and oak reredos; the stained glass windows situated high on the walls; and columns that partially blocked the entrance to some of the pews. In this church I made my first Communion, received the sacrament of confirmation and attended school Masses and weekend Masses with my family.
Everything appeared remarkably unchanged since my childhood, except for the creaking sound as we sat down in the pew and the plastic sheets that covered a section of one wall below the stained glass windows, where water apparently had seeped in. None of the faces of the other people in the pews looked familiar, but the many young families present left me feeling hopeful about this parish and the universal Church.
Father Michael McClellan, who presided at the Mass, referred to Nativity as the “Christmas church,” a description that was new to me despite the obvious connection. Father McClellan used the description — in the heat of the summer — to connect his homily about the Gospel reading (Luke 12:35-40) with the Christmas Gospel, focusing on the watchful shepherds. “We are Christ’s little flock, his disciples,” Father McClellan said. He encouraged us to be awake, to be vigilant, to receive Jesus and his message and to have the grace to be not afraid. Let it transform your life, he said. Cast out sin and say yes to the Lord.
After Mass, as we walked back toward our car, I pointed out the sections of school buildings, based on the configuration from my days in grades one through eight. Feelings of love and of loss mingled inside of me. The physical structures — the church and school buildings — remain, but my experiences in these places exist only in my memory. A new generation of families is creating new experiences and memories as Nativity of Our Lord celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Intellectually, I know that the Church is the body of Christ and not a physical building. The building simply houses the body of Christ, where we are called together to receive Jesus and his message and to have the grace to be not afraid. To allow that message to transform our lives outside the church and school buildings, to cast out sin and say “yes,” to the Lord.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)