By Joan Holzknecht
Mark Twain has been attributed as the author of the humorous quote, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
I know firsthand what he meant.
My husband Kent and I visited San Francisco in June of 2007 on a California dream vacation. On Sunday of the week of our visit, we walked to a Catholic church called St. Patrick, about six blocks from our hotel. It was a beautiful old ornate structure tucked among the newer modern commercial buildings in the city. The sign out front indicated that we arrived in time for a weekly Mass celebrated in Latin. We were quite a bit early, so we went inside because it really was very chilly, probably in the low 50s.
The church was built by the blue collar Irish workers pouring into the city at the time of the Gold Rush. It had beautiful stained glass windows depicting scenes from Ireland and names of Irish counties plus gorgeous statuary of many saints. Evidently the neighborhood changed from Irish to Chinese Catholics over the
years, because the majority of the congregation and even the priest were Chinese American.
Kent and I found a pew as Mass was beginning. That’s when I noticed a dozen or so “street people” scattered in the church. We were sitting right behind one man whose age I could not guess. His hair was long and matted. He had a scraggly beard and drab, shabby layers of clothes. His shoes were worn out, and his fingernails were thick and long. Needless to say, he looked like he hadn’t bathed in a very long time.
I tried to focus on reading our Latin responses on the Mass cards. When I knelt, the man did not; he stayed seated, and I was near enough to hear his voice. His voice was soft but I could hear that he was pronouncing every word perfectly in Latin. Could he have studied Latin in earlier days? Perhaps he had attended seminary? At the very least, I could only assume that he was an intelligent individual since he did not seem to stumble on any of the words.
When it came time for the Sign of Peace, he scooted down the pew away from me when I tried to hold out my hand to him. He would not look at me. During Communion, I saw how many of the homeless individuals (all men) limped up to take Communion with ill-fitting shoes and some without socks. I supposed a great many came to all of the Masses they could in order to get out of the elements and rest in safety for a little while.
What a peculiar experience this was! I was in a strange city, celebrating the Mass in Latin in a church with Irish roots. I was praying with Chinese-American worshippers and inner city street people. After Mass ended, I saw the man that sat in front of us exit out of a side door. I was determined to give him some cash so I followed him with some money in my hand. As I came out of the door, he was standing with his back to the outside wall of the church, all alone. I started toward him. He saw me, turned his whole body toward the wall with his face almost against the bricks, like a child being punished for being bad. What must have happened in his life to react so fearfully?
I didn’t want to force myself or my charity on him, so I returned to the church. I can’t say I was upset, only sad, for this stranger’s evidently hard and wounded life. But I look back now and realize that this man was being comforted on his own terms by reciting the familiar words and being among like-minded worshippers in a warm, peace-filled place. How lucky I was to experience that cold Sunday in June with strangers.
Joan Holzknecht is a member of St. Edward Church.
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