#138: Old St. Pat’s

March 15th, 2013

As the blood pooled in my knees on the riser and the ventilation licked dry the spot of sacred water on my forehead, I smiled and recited the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be. I don’t believe in God.

I was in Old St. Pat’s on St. Patrick’s Day, several pews behind a praying old man in a green sweater. While others were spending the day with Jamo shots and Guinness in plastic cups, I was in the most Irish place in Chicago on the most Irish day of the year with this solitary old Catholic, quite obviously the most Irish person there could be.

He turned at the sound when I accidentally knocked my bag. I caught a glimpse of his wise smile, his shamrock and Celtic cross pins and the fact he was very, very Asian.

Art by Dmitry Samarov

The self-proclaimed heart of Chicago’s Irish community, Old St. Pat’s has been around since 1846, the current building since 1856, the church’s website states.

The Great Chicago Fire missed the church by two blocks. Low attendance and expressway projects failed to take it out a dozen times since.

Knotwork and Gaelic adorn the walls. A shamrock-wielding St. Patrick takes the spot behind the altar where Jesus usually goes. Tassel banners of orange, green and white hang from stands scattered through the outer aisles.

A program left from the Sunday mass had the penitential rite in Celtic. A Thiarna, Dean Trocaire. A Chriost, Dean Trocaire. A Thiarna, Dean Trocaire.

As the crowd trickled in and the mass began, I realized I didn’t know where St. Pat’s ranks. It’s more Irish than a Jameson special, sure. But how does it rate against Beverly or Back of the Yards? Is this North Side or South? And what the heck does “lace curtain Irish” mean anyway?

I wouldn’t know. I’m not from Chicago and the Irish in me ends with the DNA.

Yes, I’m Irish. And that country and certain people from it will always mean more to me than I feel comfortable sharing with an unknown online. But I’m German, too. Danish and British. Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and whatever other Eastern European country my mother’s Ashkenazim found themselves in.

Yeah, I’ve got some Irish. And my dad is mostly Irish. But despite our almost obsessive love of the country, I’ve at least always felt more like an American Nothing than a Son of Erin.

On one of my many trips to the green head cold of a country, an Irish girl asked me if my family came from Ireland. I said, “Yeah, like 150 years ago” and then we were friends. She told me about an American family who showed up at her parents’ house expecting a welcome because the last name was the same.

After the mass at St. Pat’s, I hit a loud, shamrocked pub where the barman wore a foam hat shaped like a pint.

I ordered a Guinness and a bratwurst — Guinness because it was St. Patrick’s Day, bratwurst because they’re delicious. The Guinness came in a plastic cup.

As I took my first sip, the dry grit of the Body of Christ still on my tongue, nothing happened. No revelation came. I hadn’t found the essence of the Chicago Irish that day. Whatever it means, it doesn’t mean it for me.

Written St. Patrick’s Day 2010

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