My mother had agreed to be one of the readers for the four o’clock Mass on Christmas Eve, and I volunteered to drive her and attend as well. As the service was geared for families and children, it had become one of most popular attended events of the year and the parking lot and adjacent streets would be filled long before mass was scheduled to start.
Our Lady Help of Christians Church, or Our Lady’s for short, was dedicated in 1881 and is located at the corner of Washington and Adams Streets. The congregation, founded in 1872, was originally known as St. Brendan's, due to the ever increasing population of Irish Catholics in the Boston area. The large chapel can seat over 1400 people, which came in handy when Mother Teresa visited in 1995. It was also in this church that I received my Baptism, First Communion, Confession, and Confirmation, four of the holy sacraments. In addition, I’ve visited Our Lady’s for Christmas Mass each year until I was in my early 20’s, as well on many other special occasions, like each of my sister’s weddings, family christenings, and several funerals. And while I wasn’t around for it, my eventual grandparents, who had only recently emigrated from Canada, were married in the lower chapel nearly 90 years ago. That’s a lot of history with a church, especially for someone who considers herself to be an atheist.
With the church now darkened, and only the final pray and recessional hymn remaining, the choir began singing Silent Night. From where I sat, nestled at the end of a pew with a family I didn’t know, but who were gracious to let me join them, I could see my mom sitting at the back of the alter, surrounded by the other readers, Eucharistic ministers, and choral members, and she was singing too. I joined in, and for a moment I thought I could hear her voice, her strong and proud French Canadian voice, over the thousand other folks singing, it was like she was singing to me. Silent Night - holy night - all is calm - all is bright – round yon virgin – mother and child…
And in that moment, my emotions rose to the surface, and I had to stop singing. Tears dripped from my eyes and fogged my glasses. I reached for my black handbag and grabbed a tissue, hoping the people around me didn’t notice. I don’t know why the moment got to me so, maybe it was the thought of how much my parents have been through this year, both facing significant health concerns, my dad unable or unwilling to attend mass in a wheelchair, my mom facing his death, her own, was this their last Christmas together? I don’t know, and I don’t think they know either.
Or maybe it was my own insecurity, separated from my girlfriend who was attending a separate mass just ten miles away, huddled together in a church pew with her two boys and her ex. I felt alone, disconnected and removed from the other parishioners who filled the seats and lined the walls, dressed in their Sunday best, who believed in the magical realism of Christmas, praying for the promise of tomorrow and the all that the New Year may bring.
I looked up to the large faded mural above the alter which depicted the crucifixion of Jesus and closed my eyes. I saw all places I used to go, when I was young.