On Noble Street just north of Milwaukee, on one of those invisible dividers between crappy and gentrified, there’s a co-op that looks like a projects.
It doesn’t look like Chicago projects, like those massive high rises that made up Cabrini, Robert Taylor and ilk. It looks like the projects in my former factory town hometown. Small, identical buildings. Strong fences. A sense of something about to go very, very wrong.
But I was running late to pick up the U-Haul, so I decided to cut through what I thought were projects. I immediately saw my mistake.
Up the little, lovely strip of what I should stress turned out to be co-op housing and not projects, I could see the road was blocked. It was blocked by news vans and a crowd with bowed head. It was blocked by the old Polish church up on Noble, blocked by priests and altar boys and a speaker-laden van echoing what seemed like a Polish mass.
I asked a large man walking away from the crowd if he knew what was going on.
He stopped and looked back at the group listening to the priest, with bowed heads, some wearing traditional Polish costume.
“I guess it’s Polish…” he faltered for words.
“… Day… or something,” he said.
But I was running late to pick up the U-Haul, so I moved on.
Now I’m not up on the proper attire for Polish masses, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a hoodie, shades, a black jacket and a cup of coffee to save you from being up at the ungodly hour of 9:45 a.m.
Once I got to the crowd, I did the “Excuse me” and “Let me just sneak by” past news vans and embroidered peasant blouses until I was blocked by two women old, emotional and praying enough that I just, just couldn’t. I paused and tried to look pious in shades, hoodie and coffee until a TV news lady pushed past them and I trailed in her wake.
Past the crowd, the speaker-laden van and a family of Polish folk musicians waiting in the back of a minivan, I broke free. I turned to look back at the group just in time to see the priest break into English.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen,” he said, before a processional started coming right my way.
Now followed by a large crowd of Polish people, some in costume, I gripped my coffee cup a little harder and strode on a little faster. As I moved, I glanced over at the side of a building and had my questions answered by a massive banner hanging from the second floor.
“Kanonizacja Bt. Jana Pawla II,” the words read, superimposed over a massive photo of the late Pope John Paul II.
Assuming “Kanon” meant what I thought it did, JP2 was becoming a saint and this Division Street Polish church was holding a mass in honor of his canonization.
How sweet. How nice. How quickly I needed to get out of there.
I have nothing against the Catholic Church except for its hatred of gays, harboring of pedophiles, opposition to birth control, hoarding of Jewish antiquities, Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, collaboration with this that and yon regime, anything connected to the Irish laundries and the fact Father Kagan was probably one of the meanest people I’ve ever met.
On the plus side, there are hospitals, colleges, charities, nonprofits, feeding the poor, educating the wanting, clothing the needy, art, architecture, music, Gregor Mendel, fighting this that and yon regime, inspiring the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number from “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” and the fact Father Beauvais was probably one of the best people I’ve ever met.
I’m not excusing the church of its crimes — there are many people who feed the hungry without shielding even one child molester — but I run exactly zero nonprofit hospitals as well. What I’ll say about the church is this: If it stops being horrible, it’ll be great.
But this mass wasn’t about religion.
The church doesn’t care about traditional peasant blouses, or masses in Polski. It doesn’t care about the old women’s emotional praying for a hometown boy done good. (JP2, born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920.)
This wasn’t about their religion. This was about their culture.
This wasn’t about saints. This was about their saint.
On a beautiful Sunday morning, old expats and young natives who managed to keep their identity gathered to rejoice, pray and celebrate being Polish. They gathered to celebrate the Polish pope, now Saint John Paul II. They gathered to celebrate being part of something greater than them, being part of a tradition, a culture.
The news came to watch. And so did a man getting ready to rent a U-Haul in hoodie, shades, a black jacket and a cup of coffee to save you from being up at the ungodly hour of 9:45 a.m.