Confessions of an Interloper

My So-Called Catholic Life

I’d like to begin by taking a journey into the foreign country of my past. I came up with that idea recently, when my father called to tell me that a friend of his had read a column I’d written in Commonweal. “Your son must be a very committed Catholic,” the friend said. My dad laughed. “Last I checked,” he told his friend, “Rand was a very lapsed Congregationalist.”

So I’m finally outed! A fake Catholic! In fact I’ve had a long career as a Protestant interloper in the world of Catholicism—going back to seventh grade and St. Joseph’s School, in New London, Connecticut. Little did my parents know, when they chose to send me there, that they were starting me on an encounter with Catholicism that would last a lifetime. Tonight I want to offer stories and insights gleaned from my years as an infiltrator, first at a Catholic school, then at a Catholic magazine. In the process, I’ll use these two concepts—Protestant and Catholic—to sketch differing ideas about the self in its relation to existence and to other selves, and offer up some thoughts on what I’m calling American Loneliness.

Let me first describe the Protestantism I lapsed from, as my father said. He himself grew up in Philadelphia, in a white, working-class, Protestant, and Republican neighborhood. His parents were Episcopalians, but in his career he became a surgeon, and his religion turned out to be those twin materialisms, science and upward mobility. Like faith itself, atheism can come on you suddenly, as a revelation, or gradually, while you’re not paying attention—or maybe even trying to avoid it. When I was a kid my father was looking to recuse himself from churchgoing—but as quietly as possible, in the hope that somehow my mother might not notice. This all blew up one memorable Sunday when I was ten. We were coming out of church, my mother and sister walking ahead on the sidewalk as my father and I lagged behind. I had torn off my clip-on tie, unbuttoned my strangulating dress shirt, and was reveling in that post-church feeling of liberation. Maybe I could sense my father felt likewise.

“Dad,” I asked him, “do you like going to church? What do you really think of it?”

He glanced ahead. “Don’t tell your mother this,” he confided. “But I think it’s a crock.”

“Maaaaaa!” I yelled, racing up the walk. “Dad says church is a CROCK!”

Religion to me was our church, Second Congregational. A graceful stone building on a big green lawn, it was lovely, but severely under-occupied, like the baseball stadium of a chronically losing team. Religion was the museum-like somnolence of Sunday service, my mother nudging me when I fidgeted, and discreetly handing me a mint to pacify me. It was the clink of the Communion shot glasses—no communal slurping from a shared chalice, but individual Protestant portions, neat and hygienic—rattling in the deacon’s tray. I’d while away the time by wondering if the words “doxology” and “dachshund” might be related, or by trying to count the little carved crenellations on the oak paneling above the choir pews. Everyone around me was lost in some strange private zone, surfacing to mumble a halfhearted prayer, then subsiding again as the minister, Rev. MacLeod, droned on about our obligation to help those less fortunate.

Religion above all was a private thing, individual and inward. My mother’s faith was focused on obscure spiritual yearnings, and on the pastor’s sermon, which she expected to be moved by—and later in her life she turned into quite a church shopper, always on the lookout for a more inspired minister. (“Oh, I’m through with him!” she’d say, breezily, when we came home from college and asked about her latest church.) The church as community not only didn’t interest her, it vaguely repelled her. Years later we joked that what she truly longed for was the Church of Leave Me the Hell Alone.

The notion of church-and-pastor shopping reveals the modern, very American impulse to treat religion as a consumer good—something to compare, select, change... or discard. Our Protestantism was a belief, yes, but one you could try on, like a jacket. If you didn’t like it, you could wear a different brand...or none at all. Religion was optional and individual; you pondered and made your choice. There was a certain self-destructing aspect of Protestantism; built into the very core of the faith was a mechanism for rejecting it.

That mechanism came into play in the deal I cut with my mother over confirmation: I’d take the weekly class with Rev. MacLeod, but the final decision to be confirmed was up to me. This resulted in the crass absurdity of a thirteen-year-old American kid announcing to this learned and authentically reverent man, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School—a man who had studied theology at Tübingen, home of Hegel and Hölderlin—that No thanks, I don’t buy it, I don’t think it’s true.

The appropriate response would have been, “Who cares what you think? The church doesn’t care, I don’t particularly care, and I’m certain God doesn’t care!” But Rev. MacLeod couldn’t say that. Not just because he was polite, but because his brand of Christianity had that decisional action built into it. So for me it was goodbye to the green lawn and graceful stone building, goodbye to the pastoral voice echoing its drowsy invocation to do good, as our nuclear family passed through untouched, a lark, another Sunday outing.

 

In the middle of this, my parents sent me to St. Joseph School. No religious reason, they just didn’t think the public schools were doing the job: I was coasting, I needed some rigor. It was a huge shock to my system—an over-indulged smart boy from an upwardly mobile Protestant family colliding with the world of 1970s small-city Catholicism. As I quickly discovered, St. Joe’s was the opposite of the green lawn in almost every respect. The school was a dark and ancient brick building where nothing had been improved for decades. The grounds were a half-acre prison yard of fenced-in blacktop, not a single blade of grass anywhere. There was a hole in the chain-link fence where, if the teacher wasn’t watching, you could escape at lunch, then hustle up the block to the pizza place, cram down an Italian sub and make it back by the bell.

The schoolyard pastime was a rough tackling game that began with one boy standing in the center of the blacktop, facing a line of thirty or so others. At a shout of “Go,” the line raced across to the other side, and the one in the middle tackled someone; the next time, those two tackled two more, and so on, until a few last crossers faced a mob of gang-tacklers. The game was brutal, with all sorts of vendettas enacted in the pileups. Girls, those merciless arbiters of manliness, stood watching on the sideline. You had to be tough, or at least act tough. But I couldn’t. I was secretly sensitive, and my memories of St. Joe’s are full of smothered, shamed bursts of crying. My grades were too good. I had a baby face. I wouldn’t fight. The girl I had a crush on was also a good student, and when I walked her home, tough boys followed us, murmuring crude suggestions.

The school was staffed by lay teachers and nuns. Nuns were completely new to me; the only one I knew was Sally Field, the “Flying Nun.” Well, the nuns at St. Joe’s were not only not flying, some were barely moving—like Sr. Catherine Mary, who sat statue-still in the world’s tiniest library, a converted maintenance closet; she was so old, and moved so little, she was rumored to be dead and embalmed. Religion class was taught by Sr. Thomasina, a baffling experience. Every day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hail Mary recited in rapid succession, as if they were cheers for the same squad, reflecting the motto carved in stone on the front of the school, FOR GOD AND COUNTRY.

St. Joe’s brooked no iconoclasm—we were sternly warned not to listen to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which I treasured. Academically, the school was not exactly achievement-minded. When I wrote a term paper on New York’s Attica State prison uprising, my social-studies teacher, Mr. Farina, accused me of plagiarizing. More hot secret tears. Sr. Susan, my homeroom teacher, kept me after class one day and tried to probe my unhappiness. Was everything OK at home? Did I need any help? I sat there, exploding with misery, staring at the clock on the wall and wishing I could be anywhere else.

The clocks at St. Joe’s were antiquated models, square clocks with Roman numerals, that ticked off the minutes discretely. I was fascinated by those clocks. How could time, which was continuous, be broken down into stackable, tick-tockable building blocks? This kind of thing makes an impression on a future writer, and every time I’ve written about St. Joe’s, I’ve included those clocks—as in these paragraphs from a short story called “Heroes of 1974.” Here the adult narrator is recalling being called to the principal’s office because of some troublemaking offense:

One afternoon I was summoned down to Father Connelly. He kept his office in a tiny room crammed with books and diplomas, electric candles, and Jesus dreamily agonizing on His cross. Father Connelly talked to you through the steeple of his fingertips, pressed together in front of his mouth. I was entering a stage of life, he told me, where I would need to be mature. Star athletes were mature. Jesus had been mature, which was why he accepted his Father’s will even though he didn’t like it. And our school’s patron, Saint Crispin, he was mature, giving up all his possessions to make shoes for the poor. He wanted to help others, which is what mature people did.

I stared at the wall clock—the school’s clocks were ancient relics that tocked off the minutes mechanically—and avoided his gaze. Father Connelly went on talking. Maturity, he pointed out, didn’t mean you had to be a shrinking violet. “Take St. Crispin,” he said. “The Romans tortured him. They pulled out his fingernails.” He leaned forward. “They boiled a cauldron of fat and tar and dunked him in. Can you imagine that?”

The story didn’t make sense to me. “If God was so all-mature and everything,” I said, “then why didn’t He help Crispin?”

“Ah, but He did.” Father Connelly smiled. “In fact, He gave him a great gift.  He made him a soldier for goodness.” And that was his question for me, Father Connelly said. Clearly I wanted to be a soldier. But what for?

It wasn’t the kind of question you answered. I sat there. On the clock the big hand trembled, as if it might move backward, then clicked ahead.

The passage conveys some essential impression Catholic school made on me. Early adolescence is when a person begins to tangle with the imponderables: mortality and time, our consciousness, our purpose. For me, the very harshness and decrepitude of St. Joe’s conduced to thinking along these lines. The school exerted a powerful, even oppressive sense of time—of how minutes pile up into hours, then to days, months, years, and lifetimes; and beyond that to the collective lifetime of history and finally to whatever mystery lay beyond that. One’s individual existence—my individual existence—was being placed in a different perspective from what I was used to, with different attitudes toward authority, achievement, and individuality. There was an eye fixed on the eternal, and a premium placed on obedience and sacrifice. Being Catholic, at any rate, was not about expressing yourself, and certainly not about your personal views on God. And so St. Joe’s delivered the message that Reverend MacLeod couldn’t. Who cared what you thought about God? Better focus on what God might be thinking about you!

In some ways the school seemed the least religious place on earth. It wasn’t exactly suffused with sacramental energy. I recall the day Sr. Thomasina had classmates list saints to adopt as confirmation names...and Steve Stefano and Albert Annibalini listed “St. Popeye” and “St. Bozo.” Instant ticket to Fr. Dempsey’s office. And worse, I’m sure, when they got home. At St. Joe’s a great deal of correction was ladled out, yet recidivism was high. The focus was not on our personal development, with concerned parents called in to confer; rather, daily life at school wove a tapestry of crime and punishment, sin and penance: two complementary strands; two necessary halves of a basic deal.    

Who cared what you thought about God? Better focus on what God might be thinking about you!

Kids see the world in terms of individual personalities, not abstractions. But obviously, class and ethnicity lay behind some of my problems fitting in. I lived in the doctors-lawyers-accountants part of town, while other kids at St. Joe’s lived in the welders-policemen-coaches part of town. Most had grandparents born in other countries, who spoke other languages—parents who accepted no backtalk and who took the mantra of “God and country” seriously. Unlike my parents, they saw church as the very center of their neighborhood, the center of their lives. I didn’t understand this yet, but Catholicism and the church had been instrumental in their effort to claw a toehold in the slippery rock of American life, an accomplishment still recent enough for many of them that they could hardly accept that it could ever be optional—let alone be dismissed as a crock. Faith, religion, the church were not a proposition to be pondered; not an idea, but an identity.

In the end, a bureaucratic fluke shook me loose from that world. The archdiocese had built a sparkling new high school, but it was overenrolled, and non-Catholics landed at the end of the wait list. That’s why a warm spring day in 1973 found me visiting the private school in our area—a small modern building ensconced amid birch trees and gardens on a serene college campus—for an entrance exam. My mother brought me, and as we came in, we saw a pretty young woman sitting on the lawn outside the school, reading a book; she smiled as we went by. The receptionist informed me, when I asked, that this woman was in fact a student at the school—seniors were allowed to take their study hall outside. I recall being astonished and wondering, Why doesn’t she just...run away?

That thought shows how far I had drifted at St. Joe’s, and why private school would be a homecoming. It wasn’t going to be about the hard rituals of the playground, or the downplaying of accomplishment; and certainly not about Jesus on the cross or being a soldier for goodness. There wasn’t going to be any God, and not much country, either. School from now on would be about me—not the authority over me, but the authority in me. “Rand did extremely well on our admissions test,” read my acceptance letter; and I recall my glow of pleasure. St Joe’s had made me feel as if my talents, whatever they might be, were irrelevant, even vaguely suspect. No one was going to be impressed by me—because, well, impressing people wasn’t the point. Of what? Of being human. Of being a member of a family, of a school, of a country. Of being Catholic.

Catholic and Protestant: it’s easy enough to translate these impressions into concepts, with hierarchy and community on one hand, meritocracy and individuality on the other. What I know is that St. Joe’s remains important to me in large part for the obstacles it put in my way. It restrained and even rebuked me, and in the process, showed me something about myself—about the making of me, as a particular kind of American. I was unhappy at the school, that’s for sure. But unhappiness at that age, and for an embryonic writer especially, is a gift to your own future—a rich text to be interpreted years later. In that sense, I was unhappy enough at St. Joe’s to make those two of the best years of my life.

 

I’ll deal more briefly with the years I’ve spent as a Protestant interloper at Commonweal. The magazine is a complement, even perhaps a counterweight, to the kind of Catholicism I encountered at parochial school. While Commonweal keeps one foot in the world of local parish life, the other foot is planted in realities that are the opposite of parochial. For half a century the magazine’s efforts and its identity have been deeply intertwined with the liberalizing mission of the Second Vatican Council.

It’s a wide-ranging journal of culture and politics, as well as religion, and for twenty years I’ve been fortunate to do a wide range of things for Commonweal—writing about books and movies, and producing essays and columns on topics ranging from the perils of assisted suicide to the history of the music box. Part of what I have been blessed to do in the pages of Commonweal is delve into the work of contemporary fiction writers, including those who take on questions of faith, and I want to recommend two of them—one Protestant, one Catholic, suitably enough—whose writings address some of the themes I’ve been outlining. I’ve written about both for the magazine.

The first is the late novelist and critic John Updike. Updike is best known for four novels chronicling the life and times of a basketball-playing alter ego, Harry Angstrom, a.k.a. “Rabbit.” Religious themes in Updike’s writing, and in Harry Angstrom’s life, cluster around three impulses: praise for the created world; awe at the mystery of human consciousness; and dread and disbelief at the prospect of personal extinction. Updike does an artful job of steering Harry through theological dilemmas; there’s a memorable scene of him golfing with his pastor, and while the pastor lectures Harry on his many moral failings, it’s Harry that Updike turns into an avatar of authentic religious feeling—having him hit one perfect golf shot, then voice his thrilled belief that such perfection on earth necessarily implies the existence of a creator above. 

The golfing argument-from-design reveals a spiritual logic that’s everywhere in Updike: namely, that the existence of God can be inferred from our own inexhaustible need to express wonder at the world around us—and, for a writer, his ability to describe it. “Imitation is praise,” Updike writes in his memoir, Self-Consciousness; “description expresses love.” The four Rabbit novels are crammed with the trivia of American daily life: a “plush attention to detail,” as the New Yorker critic James Wood perceptively noted, that constitutes a kind of “nostalgia for the present.” Updike understood that in a sense, all life is being left behind, at every minute, as we pass through our allotted stay on earth. “The self,” he wrote in his memoir, “is a window on the world we can’t bear to think of shutting.” That’s why the Rabbit novels are packed so full: they’re the efforts of someone desperate to get as much in as he can before that window on the world shuts. 

What kind of religious faith does this add up to? For Updike, faith and art were one; as his biographer Adam Begley noted, “looking, seeing and noting on paper were acts of worship.” At a conference on Christianity and literature, the novelist commented that “realism...forms an homage to the God of creation,” adding that “even in those many works of mine in which religion plays no overt role, mundane events are considered religiously, I like to think, as worthy of reverence and detailed evocation.”

The last story he wrote, published as he was dying of lung cancer in 2008, ends by evoking one of those mundane events in reverent detail. In “The Full Glass,” Updike’s protagonist, a man of eighty, stands at the mirror, holding a glass of water and his handful of nightly pills. He broods about death...but then finds that drinking the water brings a sensation of “bliss,” linking his mind to the child he was decades ago, and to two places in his small town where he’d had his thirst slaked—a country spring where he drank, using a tin dipper, and a water fountain at a local gas station. Here’s how Updike evokes the memory: 

The water was cold, tasting brightly of tin, but not as cold as that which bubbled up in a corner of that small-town garage, the cement floor black with grease and the ceiling obscured by the sliding-door tracks and suspended wood frames holding rubber tires fresh from Akron. The rubber overhead had a smell that cleared your head the way a bite of licorice did, and the virgin treads had the sharp cut of metal type or newly ironed clothes. That icy water held an ingredient that made me, a boy of nine or ten, eager for the next moment of life, one brimming moment after another. 

To me Updike’s vision was a radiant one, but ultimately a lonely one too. “You take your own cart to market,” he wrote in a letter to his young grandson; and this was also his view as an artist. Yet making a religion of individual consciousness is an inherently isolating and self-limiting enterprise. Updike was an avid reader of Proust, and in his view, Proust’s message was that “the transformation of experience by memory into something ineffably precious is the one transcendent meaning each life wrests from death.” 

The one transcendent meaning? It’s as if Updike linked the very existence of God to the miracle of individual perception—and to memory. Though he was raised a Lutheran, and remained an intermittent churchgoer in adulthood, his emphasis was never on the life to come, or even the life right now, but on the life already lived; as he wrote in a poem just weeks before he died, Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start / and not the end of life.

I treasure the poems Updike wrote during those weeks, as he was dying; I find them majestically courageous. But from a Christian point of view they exude a tinge of the heretical, as if God himself were dying, and the world ceasing to exist, because Updike was leaving it. Years before, he had confessed that “my mind sends up silent screams at the thought of future eons—at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me.” Updike viewed the end of individual consciousness as pure and total catastrophe, and his heroic effort of describing that catastrophe as it approached, in the lead-up to his death, created some of the most crushingly poignant writing you’ll find anywhere, even as it conveyed the heavy burden such a view places on the self, and left us with the unsettling prospect of a man mourning his own loss—“all the days of my life,” he wrote in his very last poem, three weeks before he died: “my life, my life, forever.”

Portrait of the author as a young WASP at a parish school

For the Catholic alternative, I want to recommend two terrific novels by Alice McDermott, whose fiction depicts Irish-Catholic life in and around New York City in the twentieth century. At Weddings and Wakes (1992) is set in 1960 and studies a family through the eyes of three children brought on weekly visits from Long Island to their grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn, where they sit through long afternoons of their mother and three aunts pouring out decades of pent-up hopes and disappointments. The novel is a detailed tableau of lace-curtain Irish unhappiness.

McDermott is quietly experimental in the way she structures her novels. At Weddings and Wakes is the only novel I know told from a third-person plural point of view—a narrative built on such phrases as “The children saw...” or “To the younger girl it seemed that....” As for the kids’ individual identities, we barely learn their names, and get only a glimpse of their later adult lives. This gap between the extravagant detail of McDermott’s prose and the sparse individuation of the point-of-view character is a hallmark of her approach as a novelist. Her realism is as lavishly descriptive as Updike’s—but the underpinnings of selfhood are the opposite. In At Weddings and Wakes it doesn’t matter who exactly is seeing all this, what matters is the this. For us, reading the novel is like being carried to a window on the shoulders of anonymous porters. We peer through to a world where wedding-party bands play Galway Bay as men tell stories of Gentleman Jimmy Walker or a voice calls out “Sweet Jesus, don’t mention Parnell!”; a world where children are taught the lives of the saints by nuns with names like Sr. Illuminata.

McDermott continued this bittersweet ethnography of Irish-Catholic life with her 2007 novel Charming Billy, which covers three days in 1983, following the funeral of Billy Lynch, World War II vet and lifelong resident of Queens. Through reminiscences we get to know who Billy was: an alcoholic; an incurable romantic who charms older ladies; who calms a baby by murmuring lines from Yeats; writes notes on napkins to hand the priest; calls his best friend at 2 a.m. to rail drunkenly against the passing of all things. It’s a rousing and tender rendition of that stock Irish figure, the poetic rogue in love with his sorrows.

The plot goes back to World War II and a lost love that helps explain Billy’s unhappiness; but what I want to draw attention to, again, is how McDermott tells the tale. Once again her narrator stays in the background, her identity blurry. At times McDermott sits her characters around a table and quotes them; elsewhere she writes a group monologue that reads like an unedited transcript. Charming Billy has a huge supporting cast, and you may find yourself flipping back to check which Daniel Lynch you’re listening to (there are two of them); or wondering exactly how you got onto the story of Billy’s cousin’s mother’s Great-Aunty Eileen. It all becomes overwhelming, and in a way that’s carefully calculated to reflect back on us, the readers. As if the welter of names and stories—and our resistance to it—reveals our own attenuated capacity for family life. McDermott reminds us how crowded that life was in Billy’s world, with its sprawling extended family and the surrounding structures of neighborhood, church, Irishness. This is the world of the “cradle Catholic,” and in a Commonweal essay McDermott described it as a system of “unshakable associations” that make up a “thick Catholicism.”

There are other kinds of Catholicism, of course, and other kinds of Catholic artists. Flannery O’Connor said that the Catholic novel often fails because it “tries to make a culture out of the church—but the church is not a culture.” Yet the kind of Catholicism I’ve been describing is a culture, and a community, in the fullest sense. As such it offers protection from that abiding American power of loneliness, a theme in our culture tracing back to pioneer days, the frontier and the open spaces, the long journeys across the ocean. American loneliness is not merely a production of geography, of course, but also of ideology—the ideology of individualism that drenches and drives so much of American life, for good and for ill. It’s no accident that the theme has preoccupied sociologists in book after book over the past half-century or so. The Lonely Crowd, Bowling Alone, Loneliness as a Way of Life: a whole genre devoted to assessing the power of American life to isolate and atomize; and juxtaposing it to the contrary potential—never more evident than in urban immigrant life—of traditional communities where the power of shared and assigned identity is strong. In this context, after Updike, reading McDermott comes as a kind of relief —relief from burden of individual consciousness as the be-all and end-all. Relax a little bit, let your friends and family do some of the work! In McDermott, you don’t take your own cart to market; family, friends, neighbors, and priests do: all those witnesses who gather together to convey the substance, and adjudicate the meaning, of Billy’s life and death.

To be sure, McDermott’s novels possess their own kind of loneliness, and it lies in the fate of American Catholicism as it morphs beyond the kind of cradle Catholicism I’ve been describing. What happens when that vanishes? Charming Billy turns out to be told by the daughter of Billy’s cousin, but she’s a ghostly presence, never named, and we get only the skimpiest hints at her own life. A reader may wonder, why not simply dispense with her altogether? Why bring the narrator in as a character if you’re not going to fill her out?

But there’s a reason for the anonymity of such narrators. Third-generation Irish Americans, they stand looking back through the one-way window of assimilation at the world of urban Irish Catholicism. For better and for worse, this was the life of ethnic and religious community—loud, close-knit, and restrictive. McDermott’s point-of-view characters have left it behind. In Charming Billy the narrator’s few comments about herself make this clear: “I married Matt and we headed off to Seattle. Lives of our own, we said.”

Charming Billy suggests ambivalence about the trade-offs that come with a life of one’s own. Things are gained: mobility, personal and intellectual freedoms, education and professional status. But much gets lost. To shrug off the burdens of group identity is also to shrug off ferocious attachments; and McDermott’s novels express doubt about whether, as the old way sinks into the past, anything as vivid and nourishing will take its place. The grand struggle to wrest one’s self from the group delivers her ghostly narrators to a central American paradox: that getting a life of your own—escaping a world where everyone owns a piece of you—brings a diminished sense of who you are. It makes you freer, but more lonely. In faith terms, it puts you a step further on the path toward that Church of Leave Me the Hell Alone.

 

I’ll close with a final, humorous outing of myself. Despite my sojourns in Catholic land, I confess to having retained something of the WASP worldview. Both my wife and I grew up in tidy little WASP families—both of us with fathers who themselves were only children, and mothers with one sibling each; in other words, we had almost no relatives. And we ourselves have eked out exactly one child—whom we named after the ne plus ultra of WASPy British poets, Philip Larkin. Can it get more Protestant than that?

Imagine then my surprise last year when I undertook some genealogical research into the Cooper family, before taking my eighty-eight-year-old father back for a visit to that Philadelphia neighborhood he left long ago. We had always thought that the Coopers came over—from England—in Revolutionary Era times. But here’s what I discovered when I went onto Ancestry.com. My great-great grandfather, Warden Cooper—my grandfather’s grandfather—came over as a boy, in 1846. And not from England, but from Ireland. He married Jane—also from Ireland—and the two of them then proceeded to have not one, not three, not five or seven or nine...but sixteen children, all quickly put to work as carders, weavers, and spinners in the textile mills of Philadelphia.

Sixteen children! Is it possible that my ancestors were Irish Catholics? Probably not; but whatever their religion was, Protestantism or Catholicism, it was surely very “thick.” I’m guessing there was plenty of God in that huge Cooper family, packed into a drab row house in West Philly, and I know there was a lot of this country, too—as the census reveals in the names of children that include “George Washington Cooper” and “Abraham Lincoln Cooper.”

And so the interloper turns out to be at least an honorary Catholic. What can I say except that this is the glory of America, which sweeps you far afield, then closes a circle when you least expect it. n

Published in the September 8, 2017 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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