By Marilyn A. Kinsella, 2015
It was October, 1958. I was eleven years old. There I sat in the Great Hall waiting in anticipation as the curtains parted and there...there sat – the Pope. The most beloved, rock-star pope of all time – Pope John the 23rd. He was there, actually and really there… at St. Phillips… with us! My heart swelled and tears came to my eyes as I reached out with my arms. I wasn’t the only one. The room was filled with screams; men were beating their chests; women were on their knees crossing themselves, while my teenage brother Chris lay prostrate on the floor in the throes of ecstasy.
To understand the significance of my family going to St Phillip’s church in East St. Louis and having an audience with the Pope, I need to tell you the back story.
During the 1950’s my mother made supper for us every night. There were seven of us around the table including my older brother Chris and my Grandpa Joe. My Grandpa always dressed for supper in his worn shiny suit, vest, and gold watch fob. He always wore his rather rich looking Knights of Columbus 4th degree ring –encrusted with diamonds and rubies on his right hand. He had a bald head as shiny as his suit and a corn fringe that skirted around his rather large fleshy face with multiple layers of chin. He was a large man and took up the whole right side of the table, while Chris and I shared the end seats.
Chris, who was 7 years older than I and a bona fide teenager, was always a tease. Most of the time I just sloughed it off, but when it came to fried chicken, he got me every time.
Melissa, Chris and Marilyn circa 1958
I loved fried chicken…I still do. But, by the time the platter of chicken made it way to our end of the table, there were only 2 pieces left – a half breast and a chicken wing. Now, you’d think I’d take the breast, right? No! My brother had me thinking that if I ate chicken wings, I could grow angel wings and I could fly. Imagine that! Angel wings and flying! So, I ate the meager meat of the wing, while Chris feasted on the breast. Then, I stood up, hunched my shoulders, and asked him to feel my back. He felt around my shoulder blades and said, "Yep, I can feel it. They’re growing for sure." You’d think that sooner or later I’d catch on, but no, I just merrily kept nibbling chicken wings for years… and years.
Well, we had chicken on that historic night and, when supper was almost done and my wings were measured, Grandpa announced, "I got a call from Monsignor Fournie. He’s having some special doins’ in St. Phillip’s church hall tonight -some big deal, all very hush-hush. Do you want to go?"
Mom, Chris and I just looked at each other with that "OH-NO" look.
But, then he added, "There’ll be pie." And, well, we were in.
So, Grandpa left in his car. We quickly cleared the table and my mother said, "For heaven’s sakes Marilyn, put on a dress!" Back in the day, one did show up at the church or school with anything but a dress. "This better be good," I mumbled to myself. My favorite TV show was on that night – "Father Knows Best." And, I just loved it when Kitten got the best of her big brother, Bud. Highlight of my week. So we hauled into our car and off we went to St. Phillip's church hall.
Back in the late ‘50s East St. Louis was the "All-American City and St Phillip was the All-American Church. I mean it was thee church. It was not only prominent, it was progressive. It was a top-performance school run by the Notre Dame nuns. They had music, and a gym, and sports – ball diamonds, basketball hoops, and even volleyball and tennis courts. The stress on athletics was grounded on the efforts of Monsignor John Fournie. He was a tall, imposing man with a unique sense of humor – you sometimes didn’t know if he was kidding or really meant it! But, he was the guiding force that made St. Phillip’s the crowning jewel among churches. This was, in a great part, also due to the fact that the parish men and women gave their blood, sweat and tears to that parish – including my Grandpa Joe. When Monsignor called, my Grandpa came runnin’.
We arrived early at St Phillips and quickly found three wooden, folding chairs up front. Mom told us to save the chairs while she perused a virtual landscape of pie.
As we sat down, I noticed that Chris had been snickering since supper.
"What’s so funny?" I asked.
"You!" he laughed.
"Yeah, what so funny about me?"
Gasping for breath he said, "Everybody knows you can’t grow angel wings by eating chicken wings!"
What! Another myth from my youth busted – no tooth fairy, no Easter bunny now.... and now no angel wings! No flying over Fairview! I just sat there my arms folded and looked away as Chris hurried off with some his teenage buddies.
It was then that I looked at what was in front of me – a make-shift stage, heavy drapes, even stage lights. Hmm, I thought, maybe Grandpa was right. Maybe this is a big deal.
Mom came back bearing 3 pieces of mile-high, lemon meringue pie on paper plates. Chris came back, and we enjoyed that pie as the lights began to dim and the stage lights glowed. First, Monsignor took the stage. He was wearing his long black cape and his 3-cornered biretta cap with a magenta tuft. He took the microphone in his hand and in his commanding, booming voice said, "I am so pleased that you took the time to be here tonight. We have a very special guest that you all know and love. But, first I’d like to introduce our emcee who will help facilitate this evening – a man who needs no introduction – our own Fortune 500 Magician, Bob Dietrich."
There was a nice round of applause as he took the stage in a swanky shark-skin tuxedo, red bowtie, and hair Brylcreemed to perfection. I half expected doves to come flying out of his pockets. But no, he just started the evening by telling some jokes. Everyone was laughing, when I saw the heavy curtains behind him move – like there was someone behind the curtain. I sat up – did anyone else see that? Was this some part of his disappearing act? Would I be picked to come up on stage, sliced in two, and miraculously reappear from behind the curtain? Before my imagination went completely wild, he magnanimously announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, you all know me as a magician, but I guarantee this is no magic…this is real."
The curtains parted and there sat the most beloved Pope of the ages – Pope John the 23rd! Total silence…And then the room went wild.
With tears in my eyes, I marveled at how he looked just like the holy card Sr. Assumpta gave to our class…same long, white vestment, same white pope cap, same cross, same ring – wait a minute, I recognized that ring. It was the very ring that my Grandpa Joe wore. I squinted my eyes, when I realized that it wasn’t the pope – the pope…was my Grandpa Joe! He was giving his popely wave to the crowd. I looked over at my mom who had the proverbial cat who swallowed the canary look. She knew it wasn’t the pope! I knew it wasn’t the pope! But, my brother Chris didn’t know it wasn’t the pope.
Laughing, I went over to him, gave him a little kick under his arm, bent over and said, "What ‘cha doing down there?"
"I’m giving homage to the pope. And what’s so funny?"
"You, you’re funny."
"Why am I funny?" Wait for it…wait for it.
"Because that’s not the
Pope…that’s our Grandpa Joe. Everybody knows that!"
Chris humbly slithered back into the chair, as Monsignor came back on stage and took the mic. This time he used his booming voice to quiet the crowd who were about to storm the stage.
"Now, now, Ladies and Gentlemen, please quiet down. I know you all recognize our Pope John, but, I think, if you give a second look, you will see that is our own, Joe Klein!"
Grandpa stood up, took off his pope cap and bowed to the crowd.
Again, total silence, and then there were some grumbles, and then teeters, and finally downright knee-slappim’ laughs, when they realized Monsignor had just played the most amazing practical joke ever.
What a night it was. As we rode home that night, Chris was very quiet in the back seat. At this point I could have gloated, I could have laughed, I could made fun of him, but I didn’t.
My mama always said, "There will be times when cruel or hurtful words will show up on the tip of your tongue. Just take them, fold them up, and tuck them into the shadows of that little box inside your heart." I decided to follow her sage advice and said not a word. But there was a big Cheshire cat smile on my lips.
And, do you know that night…that night, I earned my angel wings… and I was flying high.
If you don’t believe this story, scroll down, and see what I found in the attic.