Thursday, August 19, 2021

My St. Christopher


When I was in high school, it became fashionable among my acquaintances to wear a St. Christopher medal. Not just any religious medal—no Sacred Hearts or BVMs—that was for the Roman Catholics which I and my closest friends were not. No, we were a mixed bag of protestants, from Episcopalian to Baptist, but we all had come to feel the need of a little supernatural protection. Some had little gold crosses, and one of my Methodist friends wore, on a thin gold chain around her neck, a tiny cube of wood from her church’s altar. 

Now, in the summer of 1958, suddenly we all wanted something more exotic. For years we’d been told by our mothers that the “Latin” girls with their pierced ears, ankle bracelets, and gold religious medals were tacky—if not downright trashy. So why were we skulking into the bookstore  attached to Tampa’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church in search of papist fetishes? God knows.

There were four of us, none of whom had ever set foot in a Catholic church. But, like junkies looking for a connection, we had somehow ascertained that through this dingy doorway on the side of the huge church there were St. Christophers for sale. Once inside, we realized that there were lots of other things as well—luridly colored pictures of Jesus opening his chest like a garment to reveal his technicolor heart, vials of cloudy holy water, photos of the Pope (suitably framed,) and a wealth of rosaries in every material from wood to plastic to mother-of-pearl.

“What do they do with these?” whispered Jobeth. “I’ve never seen anyone wearing one.”

“They use them to pray to Mary.” Liz whispered back. Hers was the voice of authority; as an Episcopalian, she was almost a Roman Catholic and presumably knew about these things.

The dowdy lady behind the cash register sent a sharp look toward our indecisive bunch as we leaned over the showcase where the rosaries and medals were displayed.

“Can I help you girls with something?”

“No, ma’am,” came the automatic reply, “we’re just looking.”

Then Anne pointed. “Actually, I was wondering how much this St. Christopher costs.”

We all held our breath; could the woman tell we weren’t Catholics? Would she ring a bell and would some burly nun appear from nowhere and toss us out? Or would she ask us questions in Latin or tell us to recite a Hail Mary?

She did none of these things, just sighed and came over to pull out a tray with a selection of little gold medals and chains. We each picked out very small, very discreet images of the saint; mine was smaller than my little fingernail and was, as the lady pointed out, meant to be worn as a charm on a watch. She eyed my bare wrists and I shrugged.

At last, we had all paid for our medals and, filled with relief, were heading for the door and the secular sidewalk beyond when she called out, “Take them next door to the rectory and one of the priests’ll bless them for you.”

We stood there motionless, four Lot’s wives tuned to salt. Had we acquired these little treasures under false pretenses; did she really think we were Catholics? Finally Jobeth, driven by some obscure Presbyterian sense of honor, quavered, “Ma’am, we don’t go to this church.”

“That doesn’t matter.” She waved a dismissive hand. “Just run around next door and Father Andrew or Father Torres will bless your medals.”

Once outside, we found ourselves plagued with theological and other questions. Should we go next door? As Episcopalians, Methodists, etc. did we think the priest’s blessing would do any good? Or, more specifically, do us any good. And would we have to pay? Did you tip a priest or make a thank offering or what? How involved did you have to get?

My personal vote was for non-involvement. My last brush with a strange religion had been the month before when I went with a group of friends to a Baptist revival as the featured entertainment of a slumber party. Not one of the raucous tent revivals, alas, it was very middle-class and mind-numbingly dull. After the stately wooden pews of St. John’s Episcopal, I thought the red plush individual seats more suited to a theater than a church. More comfortable, sure, but physical comfort had never been a part of Episcopal services. No lounging around for us: we stood and sat and knelt.

Another surprise was that instead of an altar and a cross, there was a plain wooden shelf with a large green houseplant of some sort, just enough off-center to catch my attention and bother me all evening.

When at last the point was reached that we were all invited to come forward and give ourselves to Jesus, I was deeply surprised to see my friends jump up, one after another, and head for the front. It didn’t help that most of them had to squeeze past me to get to the aisle and salvation, and so I had to keep squinching my long legs to the side. Of course, it would have been easier for me to stand and let them by, but I was afraid it would look like I’d heard the call and changed my mind.

So, having escaped the Baptists, I was wary of the Romans. But we stood in a knot on the sidewalk, casting sideways glances at the dark brown pain of the rectory’s front door. After several indecisive minutes, Anne tossed her head. “Well, I think if we’ve got the medals, we might as well get them blessed. It couldn’t hurt. Y’all do what you want; I’m going in there.”

Of course, we couldn’t let her go in there alone, so up the steps and in the door we all trooped. Inside was a dark, linoleum-floored hallway with a door opening to the right into a large, shabbily furnished sitting room. Standing there, chatting and smoking cigarettes, were two priests in long dark garments. We were speechless; what do you say to a priest if you’re not a Catholic? Eventually the younger of the two asked, with some amusement, “What can I do for you girls?”

“The lady at the store said you’d bless our St. Christophers,” one of us gasped.

Sixty-three years have passed but I still see him--mysterious, darkly handsome, smiling as he quickly mumbles something and, with his hand still holding the cigarette, makes the sign of the cross over my St. Christopher.

I wore that little medal on a thin chain around my neck for two years till I lost it in the Gulf of Mexico during Beach Week after graduation. It protected me while I had it and forever after, if I was at the beach—any beach—I would look down to see if it might be tumbling there in the foam at my feet, like a tiny golden shell.

All of the pictures are from the internet. This essay (or whatever it is) was written thirty-some years ago (I've updated it a bit.) In going through a bunch of old papers yesterday, I came across quite a few bits of writing that I decided to move from legal pads and typescript to my computer.  Fair warning: I will probably be sharing more. . .


Anvilcloud said...

This is great. More please.

Barbara Rogers said...

With all the travelling I have done in my life, at one time a small medal of St. Christopher was hanging from my rear view mirror. Don't know whatever happened to it. It must have carried some good mojo because here I am still! Yes, your essays are to be shared~

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ArnnKnight said...

Vicki -what a treat! I had no idea that the wearing of a St. Christopher medal was so geographically wide-spread. The same "fad" went through my high school about the same time. This was in hard core Southern Baptist Oklahoma! There were a few other denominations but those of us who attended one of them were used to being in the minority. I don't even remember where our little group of protestants found them; there was only ONE Catholic church in Oklahoma City at that time as far as I can remember.

We wore the medals on long chains secreted from sight by the possible observers who would take offense. I cannot remember when I stopped wearing mine - probably in a box somewhere as I tend to keep things I think I may need some day [ha!]. Should have looked it for the last several years...

Thanks for the memory -- great way to start the day. judy

katy gilmore said...

Loved this - so teenage girls!

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I absolutely loved this! It was just wonderful. When I was in college, one of my housemates was a devout believer in St. Christopher.