Starting Point
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Issue Date:  October 28, 2005

Starting Point


My paternal grandma was larger than life in every sense of the word. Of Lithuanian heritage, she was a robust, barrel-shaped woman who wore purple everything long before the poem was written, and donned red wigs topped off by hats that looked like fluffy fabric layer cakes. She had little use for formal churchgoing but kept a home rich in folk belief and good cooking -- there was always something simmering on her stove, morning noon and night.

Food for my grandma was how you showed love, and cooking was a kind of prayer. She understood that belief went beyond the four walls of the church and simmered in bubbling butter, glistened in pickled fish and came to life in the literal breaking of grainy, homemade loaves.

Years later, nostalgic for my childhood, I was in Doylestown, Pa., to attend the annual Polish festival at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a mecca of Eastern European culture and religiosity. Several dozen tour buses with New York plates clogged the rural parking lot, and inside the shrine grounds hundreds of Haitian women and men dressed in their Sunday finest roamed the grounds. While some ate from paper plates full of pierogies and kielbasa, others piously lighted candles in front of the image of the Black Madonna.

I was captivated by these new Catholic immigrants, embracing a dark-skinned Madonna who spoke deeply to their beings and yet was the Madonna of my fair-skinned ancestors. Some of them -- the big, barrel-shaped women in loud dresses and louder hats -- made me smile, reminding me of my grandma. I believe she would have approved, understanding the Black Madonna’s magnetism, and the benediction of pierogies slathered in onions.

Children of this dark Mother, we are all simply seekers of the Eternal, looking for a spiritual home.

Karen O’Brien writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2005

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