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Church as a time to be quiet

I haven’t been to church in years, and for the most part I don’t miss it. I do however think sometimes about the opportunity to be quiet. We are now in the season of Lent and Catholics are reflecting and preparing for the celebration of Easter. In ‘Longing for Home’ church is the only time working people got to sit and just be quiet. So I thought I would share a short excerpt here.

Fr. Gallegan preached that children should be in school until sixteen and not at work. I looked around the pews, at least half the children between ten and twelve and about seventy-five percent of those twelve to sixteen worked in the factories. They oiled the machines, cleaned and did other chores that didn’t take muscle. Smaller children worked too, doing piecework at home, or were out on the streets selling papers or matches and even picking the dumps for anything that could be re-used. There was a murmur of dissent around me as the sermon went on.

A man behind us muttered, “Lot of good it does for young ones to have schooling if they don’t got coal or oats.”

Seamus glanced sidelong at me in silent communication. We had both worked as children, not because our parents didn’t care for us, but because it was necessary. In Limerick Seamus could have easily worked in a factory, but his Da had had convinced his friend the blacksmith to take Seamus on as an apprentice when he was really too young. It didn’t hurt that Seamus had been large for his age or that he worked for room and board until he was fifteen. Still, it was an incredible advantage that he had a skill. I felt a pang of guilt that he wasn’t able to be a blacksmith in Chicago.

Father continued expounding on the need for industry to pay a decent wage for workers so that parents didn’t have to send their children to work. The congregation relaxed, Father was obviously talking now in the realm of the Promised Land, just like the lamb and the lion parable, nice to think about, but not really relevant in the here and now. Sure, there was talk of organizing, even all the way in Vienna I had heard about the Chicago Haymaker Riots in 1886. The workers struck for eight-hour days and better wages and during their peaceful protest someone had thrown a bomb killing seven policemen and wounding hundreds of others. Anarchists were arrested and four were hung. Last year the May Day labor marches were international, including ones I saw in Trieste. In Chicago the march had been huge. The steelworkers in Pennsylvania struck for better working conditions and fair wages just last year and look what happened then; they were shot down by hired guns and nobody was punished for it. Besides, with a thousand people wanting your job for any wage who could strike?

The congregation settled back into complacency, tired and enjoying the one hour a week when they could sit and do nothing. Fianna knelt up next to me and fingered the lace on my head that Mama gave me from Idrija.  Fianna touched it with such reverence that I didn’t move her hand away. The woman in front of us put her baby to the breast, Molly stretched out on the pew and kicked her legs against Seamus’ arm; normalcy settled in. The men would argue about unions later and the women would try to wash a few clothes and buy some food for the week, and then we would all go back to our six-days-a–week, twelve-hour-a-day jobs that we were lucky to have.


Published in1900 ChicagoGeneral

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