“It's strange how the human mind swings back and forth, from one extreme to another. Does truth lie at some point of the pendulum's swing, at a point where it never rests, not in the dull perpendicular mean where it dangles in the end like a windless flag, but at an angle, nearer one extreme than another? If only a miracle could stop the pendulum at an angle of sixty degrees, one would believe the truth was there.” —English novelist (and Roman Catholic convert) Graham Greene (1904-1991), The End of the Affair (1951)
Sunday, May 27, 2018
Saturday, May 26, 2018
Two weekends ago, I attended a memorial mass for my father at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, in Jersey City, NJ. You can see from this photo I took here of its exterior that it’s a handsome old church.
My dad—who died this winter, at age 101—never had the opportunity to step inside this historic building. But what I think might have appealed to him, as someone who loved to unroll stories in his rich brogue all the way to the end, would have been the many tales that could have been told over the years about the priests inside this church in Jersey City's old Irish-American “Horseshoe” section (nicknamed after its shape following Republican gerrymandering), as well as the active and faithful parish they led.
The parish was founded in 1867, and the church’s interior contains a number of decorative touches that would have made the predominantly Irish immigrants who filled its pews well into the 20th century feel at home. With a swelling congregation came the additional infrastructure so familiar to Catholics nationwide for generations: a rectory, convent and school.
As late as 1959, one year before the first Catholic would be elected President, St. Michael’s still had 1,000 communicants and members. But amid a perfect storm of traditional parishioners flocking to the suburbs or dying, the population falloff after the Baby Boom, and the larger trend toward secularization in American culture, the parish underwent a period of adjustment so characteristic of other Catholic urban parishes in the last several decades, as the number of congregants fell and the convent and school were closed.
If demography is destiny, then the revival of Jersey City as a whole bodes well for St. Michael’s. Combined with several other downtown Jersey City churches into Resurrection Parish in the late 1990s, St. Michael’s was designated an independent unit once again by the Archdiocese of Newark four years ago.
Through the peak of its influence as a “powerhouse” parish and beyond, St. Michael’s was steered by a succession of strong-willed, often remarkable pastors who heavily influenced the spiritual, social, and even political life of the city, including:
*Monsignor John Sheppard, who encouraged a young Frank Hague and advised (and even endorsed) the future political boss of Jersey City for the rest of his life;
*Monsignor Leroy McWilliams, who taught three future leaders of the Church in New Jersey: Archbishop Thomas Boland of Newark, Bishop James McNulty of Paterson, and Seton Hall President Msgr. John McNulty; and
*Fr. Hugh Fitzgerald, the kindly longtime parish who advocated for the homeless, Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants.
The St. Michael’s of the 21st century has not been without challenges (notably, severe water damage in 2014). But physical improvements since the turn of the millennium has given visitors more of a sense of what it was like in its heyday.
Leading the transition into this new age is Fr. Tom Quinn, whom—full disclosure!—I have known since our days growing up at St. Cecilia’s in Englewood, NJ. His work experiences before his 2005 ordination—journalism, acting, nursing—amply prepared him, in ways I doubt he could have anticipated at the time, for a calling requiring constant communication and pastoral care.
Across the street from St. Michael’s, in Hamilton Park and beyond, is a more diverse, transient and secular world than the one it has known before. Yet inside, the venerable church continues to awe and inspire. As it moves from retrenchment to rejuvenation, it is fortunate to have in Fr. Tom a pastor blessed with energy, good humor, a sense of resolve, and a glowing faith.
“Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.”— Poet-novelist Claude McKay (1889-1948), “Spring in New Hampshire” (1920)
Claude McKay, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance that brought a cultural flowering to the neighborhood in the 1920s, died 70 years ago this past Tuesday. I thought of writing about him when I came across the 150th anniversary special issue of The Nation—one of those mega-issues that I can’t resist picking up on the newsstand but which take me forever to get around to reading.
The McKay poem I stumbled across in that issue was “Home Song,” the only one of his that ever appeared in the venerable progressive publication. I liked it well enough, but, in researching his work online, I found that I enjoyed this particular one even more.
As I indicated in a prior post about McKay, this Jamaican immigrant was deeply critical of racial and class inequities in America in the first half of this century. That criticism is introduced, gradually but unmistakably, by the last couple of lines in today’s quote. Due to the need to perform menial labor, “Washing windows and scrubbing floors,” the narrator can’t enjoy a spell of weather that seems especially dazzling (even the winds, which are normally harsh and fierce in other poems, are described here in almost human terms—“happy…laughing.”
In her cultural history of Manhattan in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty, Columbia University professor Ann Douglas remarks that, while much of McKay’s prose uses African-American dialect, his poems after his first collection are “impeccably Anglo-European in their regular meter and standard English diction.” “Spring in New Hampshire” is a good example. It’s easy to imagine it coming from the pen of a Romantic poet—Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, maybe even John Clare.
Over the course of his nearly three remaining decades, McKay probably spent more hours than he wished in urban environments, “wasting the golden hours.” Anger over the plight of African-Americans led him to embrace Communism, until the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 resulted in his break with the Party.
Through the 1940s, McKay’s literary output, reputation and health withered. By the time he died in Chicago, he was largely forgotten. More recently, as interest in the Harlem Renaissance has revived, so has fascination with this poet of passionate protest and intense lyrical feeling.
Friday, May 25, 2018
A number of years ago, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote that former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recommendation that most of Times Square should become a pedestrian mall—with chairs to accommodate them—would create such an upsurge of sunbathers that this “crossroads of the world” should be christened “Bloomberg Beach.”
That sarcastic nickname hasn’t gone into the wide circulation it deserves yet, but the crowds have in fact come out for a long time now—a fact that I discovered yet again today. With ships docked for the weekend, seamen were taking shore leave, joining hordes of tourists and city residents who wanted to enjoy the warm weather before it turns muggy tomorrow.
I was eager to get home to New Jersey once my midtown office close, but I just had to take this picture of this moment, suspended between a rainy spring and what promises to be a sticky summer, when so many tried to catch their breath while they still could.
“Class of 2018. Don’t be afraid to fail. Be terrified. Some of you haven't got what it takes. Today, you are in cap and gown—tomorrow you will go cap-in-hand. Failure is only charming in retrospect; temping as a cardboard-box folder on the UPS production line is only romantic once it is your TED-talk anecdote. Visualise yourself in five years, dressed as Santa's elf, serving champagne to your college valedictorian at its law firm's Christmas. Take it from someone who once worked at a shopping mall in Brockley dressed as an air hostess.”— Jenny Lee, “Let Me Do the Honours,” The Financial Times, May 19-20, 2018