This guest post from our new friend Mary DeVries originally appeared in the Story Circle Journal 2014 Yearly Anthology.
My mother pulled me out of public schools, not because of any real principle along religious or moral lines. I could read at third grade level entering kindergarten, due to a bout of polio, and the public school wanted to place me in that grade. Mom said no and called her childhood pal, Father Kazmareck, and asked to enroll me at St. Teresa’s, which was across the street from our house. So my life was set for several years. During the school week I did everything my classmates did: catechism, mass, daily Stations of the Cross during Lent, and all the prayers, including a daily rosary after lunch. Saturdays I attended the religious instruction at our Lutheran church.
Father Kaz highlighted most of my tenure at St. T’s. He laughed, giggled, and slapped my mother’s butt to get her attention when she was pulling weeds. Why did he do it? To make sure she, and only she, would pack his lunch for the school picnic. He was a Hawaiian-shirted, khaki-pants priest, who made life and religion joyful, if not very serious. However, all that was to change when his assistant pastor arrived in my sixth grade year.
Father Ritz was an escapee from behind the Iron Curtain where practicing any religious faith could mean death. Perhaps that, though we students did not think of it at the time, explained the man, who was a polar opposite to Kaz. Father Ritz – to this day I cannot shorten his title – wore cassocks so starched the edges looked like knives, and only during mass was the berretta gone from his head. He walked so quietly he was behind you before you knew it. If you were “sinning,” his hand would go to your shoulder and he would march you to the chapel, where you and he would sit in silent contemplation of your error. Not one word of displeasure or reprimand, just silence until the words “forgive me” issued forth from your lips and several Hail Mary’s were assigned. That silence was more forceful than all the laughing “do not do it agains” from Kaz.
Friday confessions were fraught with wonderment and fear. Who was the priest in the booth? As a Protestant, I sat closest to the booth in the Mary row (yes we had ten Marys in my class and we had our own pew). The Marys expected me to check out the shoes beneath the curtain. Loafers or sandals peeking beneath the scarlet drape and they breathed a sigh of relief. If the shoes shone like patent leather and were laced oxfords, they began to reduce the things they would confess.
Ritz was not feared, but he was not attainable. Silence surrounded him. Idle conversation was not his style. When he spoke, it mattered. The only time I feared him was the day I asked if Mary had other children after Jesus. His hand slowly rose, with a finger pointing to the door, as he quietly said, “Out, Protestant.” Yet to give him his due, he was also the one whose hand on my shoulder brought me back into class, as he whispered a quiet “Forgive me.” An adult who could admit his error; I was stunned.
But the image that still moves me is again one of near silence. Having forgotten my school bag in the chapel, I ran across the street after supper to retrieve it. Going down the chapel stairs, I stopped when I noticed someone praying. Father Ritz knelt in a pew, evening sunlight streaming on him from the stained glass window. His hands – so long, lean and strong – were moving his wooden rosary beads as tears flowed down his cheeks. I stood for a moment in a silence broken only by the clacking beads and then I tiptoed up the stairs. My schoolbag could wait; I was sure I had seen a saint.