Sunday, January 13, 2019

Epiphany in Paterson, NJ (2019)

This is a love letter to New Jersey.

It begins last Sunday morning, on "Little Christmas," while I was standing inside St. Bonaventure's on Ramsey Street, just off Route 80, in Paterson.

This beautiful but modest church is home to a Franciscan parish that celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2018.

I was there, mostly, to listen to the music.

The Chopin Singing Society Male Choir of Passaic, NJ, was scheduled to sing at the 11:30 Mass. Organized on March 10, 1910 (the 100th anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin's birth), it is one of the oldest male independent choral groups still active in the United States.

The choir had been scheduled to sing at the same Mass last year, but a snow storm canceled those plans.

No snow fell last Sunday. On this feast of the Epiphany, the weather was blustery and the mood at St. Bon's was festive.

A catering truck from Anthony & Sons Italian Bakery in Denville was parked across from the parish hall, a sure sign of an after-Mass "coffee &" reception. Soon the nine members of the choir arrived wearing black tuxedos and white shirts, with bright red bow ties and cummerbunds.

Fr. Daniel, who later delivered a thoughtful sermon, introduced the group, correctly, as the "Show-pan" choir. A lone dissenting voice from the congregation called out "Show-PEAN."

The pastor greeted the choir in Polish, pronouncing: "Nee-ekh benje pokh-va-lohn-ee Yezus Kristoos," meaning "Praised be Jesus Christ!" The men's response, pronounced "Na vee-ekee vee-ekoov, A-men," meant "Now and forever, Amen."

Then the dull, white noise of Route 80 traffic echoed through the church during Mass, until the music overwhelmed it.

When the choir sang "Lulajze Jezuniu," a traditional Christmas Eve lullaby to the baby Jesus, I thought of my mother, who grew up in a Polish-speaking household in nearby Garfield. Chopin sometimes used Polish religious music in his compositions and had included the melody of this song in his "Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20."

Last Sunday this was the soundtrack of everything around me:

  • the properly dressed men in the Polish choir...
  • the copies of "The Italian Voice" newspaper on a table near the entrance, next to church bulletins noting the Spanish-language Mass scheduled later that afternoon...
  • the Filipino and African American families in the adjacent pews....
  • the old woman who lathered her hands with Purell before the Sign of Peace...
  • the young altar girl, struggling to stifle her yawns, wearing a headband with be-glittered kitten ears.

I stood, taking this in, and realized, "I love living here."

New Jersey is extraordinarily ordinary. It's quirky and diverse. It's full of casual history from many sources.

No one around here is just like everyone else, and this reassures me that I'm home.

My faith isn't so much in religion. My faith is in the power of diversity, and in the beauty of ordinary things.

According to the Roman Catholic tradition, the Christmas season ends today on the feast of Jesus' baptism. "Ordinary time" starts tomorrow.

I can't wait.

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