Last Word: A Visible Sign

A Fight for First Communion

Aunt Jane came home only for holidays. Most of the year, my mother’s sister lived in a nursing home outside Cleveland. But on Christmas and Thanksgiving, she would come to our house, settle into her favorite recliner, and ask for music. We’d switch on the radio and leave her to rock back and forth to the melodies, her eyes obscured by glasses thick as bulletproof windows. My mother said Jane’s mental age was about four, but it was hard to know.

My grandmother, Agnes Blake, had invested a lot in Jane’s education, finding a Rhode Island school that in the 1930s and ’40s taught children with mental disabilities to speak and read, rare at a time when many were sent to an institution, often drugged, and rarely heard from again. Jane learned to set the table, make her bed, and hold down simple jobs. She loved to spell. A holiday parlor game involved seeing how many words she knew. At Thanksgiving, she could always spell “pumpkin,” grunting each letter until she nailed it. When she finished, she paused and looked at us, just for a moment, as if saying, “See. I’m not that different from you.”

I imagine that my grandmother must have seen that same look in her daughter’s eyes when she decided, some time in the 1960s, that Jane should receive First Communion. By now Jane was thirty-one years old. But the Diocese of Cleveland said no: she was not “of the age of reason.” They probably had no idea what they were up against. Though my grandmother knew how to fade into the background, she was relentless when she wanted something. In 1950, for example, she had helped convince the diocese to add a school at her parish—St. Dominic’s in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Somehow, her faith had survived the greatest pain a parent can endure. Jane was the third of her twelve children. Six died as infants, including four from Rh disease before there was a way to treat it. My grandmother did not talk about these losses much. When a cousin asked how she could be so nice after she “lost so many babies,” my grandmother answered that she wasn’t always so nice. She told another relative that she cried a lot in the 1930s. In family movies, she transforms in the space of a few years from a happy young bride waving from the door of her new home to a graying matron with a forced smile. For a long time, she thought it was her fault that her children died. It would have been understandable had she buried her faith along with those children. But she held on and cultivated belief in her remaining offspring. She volunteered to teach the sacraments to children with cystic fibrosis. This gave her the idea that Jane could receive First Communion.

So my grandmother started working her connections. One was Bishop Floyd Begin, a family friend and fellow fighter. (In 1954, he had pushed unsuccessfully to get a charter for an interracial council of the Knights of Columbus after a Cleveland council rejected three black applicants.) My Uncle Joe, keeper of our family history, thinks his mother spoke multiple times with Bishop Begin. She knew he would want proof that Jane understood the sacrament, so she turned a scrap book into a study guide. It starts with the story of the fall. “God promised to send Jesus to make up for the sin of Adam and Eve,” reads my grandmother’s neat printing above cartoon drawings of the biblical couple hiding their nakedness behind plants in the Garden of Eden. Next to a holy card depicting Christ, she wrote, “I want Jesus to come into my heart.” The book’s long-yellowed pages include prayers and stories about Mary and Joseph. There’s also an essay, apparently written by Jane, in large block print. “I have a soul,” it reads. “It is a gift from God.” My Uncle Joe believes Begin met with Jane to test her understanding; she must have passed, because she was allowed to receive the sacrament.

Jane died in 2013. We have no photos of her in a white dress, hands folded in prayer for her big day, as we do for all the other girls in the family. But we have what remains from Agnes Blake’s years of quiet dedication and faithful determination: the study guide that she created for her daughter. It’s a visible sign of my grandmother’s invisible grace. 

Published in the October 7, 2016 issue: 

Miriam Hill is a freelance writer based in Brisbane, Australia whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and other publications. Previously she was a business reporter and New York correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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