My knees shook when I rang the doorbell of the rectory. I’d never met Father Thaddeus before, but I had heard stories from my aunts. Rough, they said. Mean sometimes. Definitely scary.
“You don’t want to talk to him, Suzy,” my aunt said. “Find someone else.”
Except in my little town, there was no one else to talk to if you needed a priest.
Falling in love with a Catholic forced me to make the decision I had long put off: I wanted to convert. I’d been raised Methodist with my father’s parents as my spiritual mentors. Through them, I developed a strong sense of faith, but it was in the wrong religion. I never felt comfortable as a Methodist. My mother’s family was Catholic, so I think I was genetically a Catholic. When the man I wanted to marry took me to Mass with him, I realized what I had long suspected—the Catholic church was my spiritual home.
A light flickered in the window of the rectory. I heard a smoker’s cough before the door opened. Father Thaddeus stood before me, a tall man who may once have been physically imposing, with white hair and tobacco-stained teeth. “Come in. It is cold out there.”
He led me to his office. He had the notes his secretary had taken when I had called a few weeks earlier to see if I could make an appointment. “I apologize for the delay,” he said in a thick Polish accent. “My visit to Rome was longer than I expected. Karol asked me to stay.” I thought nothing of it, but he must have, as he quickly amended himself. “His Holiness invited me to extend my visit. I forget, sometimes. He was my friend in the seminary and is my friend today. That he would become pope . . .” Father Thaddeus shook his head in disbelief. “What brings you to me?”
“I think I want to be Catholic,” I answered.
“I see.” He put down his pencil. “Is someone forcing you to do this? If you want to become Catholic, it must be of your own choice. You need to know, not think.”
After I explained my reason, he took out his large black appointment book, a book I’d soon become familiar with. “We can begin your lessons next week, and we’ll meet every Monday evening until you are ready.”
I shook his hand and stepped back into the October chill. I wanted to ask questions, but he brushed over them. In fact, he did nearly all the talking. He saw an opening, and he jumped on it. Suddenly I was nervous. Was it really what I wanted?
The following Monday, Father opened the door to the rectory immediately. He took me into a room with several long tables surrounded by chairs. We sat across from each other, and he opened a green-covered book identical to the one he had given me. Aloud, he read the opening paragraphs, then skipped to the questions at the end of the chapter. To my surprise, he didn’t ask me to answer the questions. Nor did he answer them. Instead, we began to talk. He told me the interpretation of the church’s teaching, and he told me his own interpretation.
From that point on, Monday evenings fell into a pattern. I came to class prepared to answer the questions on the next chapter, but we rarely got there. Father Thaddeus was more interested in the abstract, rather than my ability to memorize answers.
“Why did you become a priest?” I asked him once. He smiled slightly and a yellowed crooked finger touched his chin. “As a little boy,” he said, “I told my mother that I wanted to memorize the entire book of prayers. I could only do that as a priest.”
“So have you memorized the book?”
“No! Of course not,” he said with a hoarse laugh. “There are more prayers than I ever imagined. But I keep trying. Perhaps one day I will.”
He told me of his life in Poland and going to the seminary and World War II. He came to the United States because he feared his religion would be taken away. He spoke no English. A family took him in, and he learned to speak English by watching the news. He loved his former parish, and they loved him, he said. But when the bishop sends an order, you need to obey. “So, I am here,” he said, “where they want me to be the priest who came before me.”
At Thanksgiving, my boyfriend came to visit. A meeting with Father Thaddeus had been scheduled in advance; we had marked it down in the black appointment book. As soon as we sat down, I held out my left hand with its shimmering diamond ring. “You’re the first to know outside my family,” I told Father.
Out came the black appointment book. He paged through it and asked me to bring him our catechism study guide. A quick examination of the booklet led to a quick count of days. “I can have you ready for your baptism and confirmation by the end of January. I have these two Saturdays in January available. Which one would you like to schedule for your wedding?”
The Super Bowl would be on January 20, so I picked January 26 as our wedding date. Father Thaddeus turned to my betrothed, “Is that all right with you?” Speechless, he simply nodded. “I want you to marry her as close to her baptism as possible so she can be pure on her wedding day.”
“How does he do that?” my fiancé asked as we walked back to my parents’ house.
“I don’t know. It’s like he knows what you want, but he seems to sense any indecision, so he jumps on it. Do you want to change the date?”
“No. Just stunned. But you know, if it were up to me, I’d probably just stay engaged forever and not worry about it. His way might not be a bad thing.”
At the party to celebrate my engagement, my aunt complained about how difficult it was to understand Father Thaddeus. “He insists on doing things his own way, and who knows what that is. You can’t figure out what he’s saying. How do you learn anything in your classes?”
I shrugged. To me, the Catholic church had a Polish accent. I’d come to understand Father Thaddeus perfectly. I suppose that I missed a lot on the general education of the church during my days with Father Thaddeus. Over the years I’ve noted that the people who go through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in my current church have a thorough knowledge of things like Feast Days. Part of me feels like I missed out on a fundamental piece of Catholicism. Yet, in my intimate class, I knew I could talk about anything, and I learned far more than the book with the green cover intended to teach.
On January 18, my aunt and I went to the church together. It was a Friday evening, and my aunt was on her way to my cousins’ basketball game. In the empty, half-dark church, Father Thaddeus baptized me, confirmed me and gave me my first communion. He then hugged me and whispered in my ear that now I was given a fresh start in life.
On January 26, my father walked me down the aisle of that same little church. Father Thaddeus did the readings and proclaimed the gospel and came to the homily. I knew that he tended to give harsh, lecturing homilies, even at weddings. Kneeling next to the man I was marrying, I focused intently on Father’s hardened face. A tear slid down his cheek.
“Most of you watched the bride grow from a small child into a beautiful young woman. You’ve had the chance to know her and love her. I’ve known her for two months, and I watched her grow from a small child to a woman in the faith. She is my spiritual daughter, and I share in her happiness the same way you do.”
When it came time to bless the rings, he took a small wooden plate from the altar and told the best man to put the rings on the plate. “I brought this plate back from Rome. The Holy Father blessed it.” It was his wedding gift.
I moved away after the wedding but attended church whenever I came home for a visit. The first few years, Father Thaddeus greeted me like a long-lost daughter. As time wore on, he didn’t recognize my face but knew my name. Eventually, he didn’t even remember my name. Shortly afterward, my mother sent me a clipping from the newspaper that Father Thaddeus had retired and moved into a nursing home.
The last time I attended Mass in that little church was on Christmas Eve. The church and the Mass took on the personality of the new priest. The regular congregation was used to the new routine. I felt like something was missing.
I miss the man who taught me how to be a Catholic.
Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer.