Growing Up with God in Frankford

by Pater Dawson

When my parents moved their growing family from Germantown to Northwood in 1956, when I was 3, we were one of the first Catholic families in the neighborhood. I didn’t quite know what a “Catholic” was until sometime in second grade. I went to Henry R. Edmunds Public School for kindergarten, when I was still 4-going-on-5. Because the age requirements for first grade were different for the Catholic schools in the late 1950s, I stayed in Edmunds Public School for the first grade, too, and could only go to St. Martin of Tours Catholic School on Roosevelt Boulevard beginning in second grade, when I was 6-going-on-7, because of a change in age requirements.

Because of a very bad case of strep throat in second grade, where the disease had even eroded two holes in the wall of my throat which I could actually see, looking in the mirror, I was rushed to Nazareth Hospital, in second grade. I remember the admitting nurse asking me what religion I was. I answered, “I used to be a ‘puvlic,’” referring to public school, “but now I’m a ‘Catholic,’” referring to Catholic school. I sometimes wonder if the hospital records for that year show my religion as “Public.”

Second grade was, and I think for most Catholic dioceses it still is, the traditional time for learning about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in the Catholic Church, and for making one’s first confession to a priest. They taught us the formula-style “laundry-list” confession, to make sure that we did not foul-up our first confession experience …

We knelt down in the darkened confessional, and when the priest opened the door we would say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” And then we confessed our sins — the “laundry list”: “I have lied 3 times. I have been angry 2 times. I am sorry for these and all of my sins.” And then the priest could ask for details or give spiritual advice, if he wanted. And then we would say the prayer called “the Act of Contrition” …

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you. And I detest all of my sins, because of Your just punishments; but most of all, because they offend You, O god, Who are all good, and worthy of all of my love. I do firmly resolve with the help of Your grace, to sin no more, and to avoid near occasions of sin.”

Those initial, kid-level confessions were back in the days of Latin-speaking priests. The priest would respond with Latin language absolution …

“Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat,” and so on, until he got to the actual words of absolution, “Deinde, ego te absolve a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” No, we did not understand his Latin until he got to the words of absolution. When we heard them, we knew that the priest felt that we were contrite and accepted our confession. Our lack of comprehension of the Latin was why the Second Vatican Council “de-Latinized” the sacraments.

In any event, after declaring our sins “absolved,” the priest would impose our “punishment” — usually a short prayer, or series of prayers.

Very shortly after making my first confession, I decided to steal something, essentially to find out what theft felt like. So, at age 7, I went into Schwartzy’s Drug Store at Harrison and Large Streets and stole one (1) penny bubble gum.

Because I was very scrupulous as a kid, guilt set in afterwards, and burned and burned and burned. I felt guilty for months about stealing that single penny bubble gum. I avoided going to confession, for fear of confessing theft of a penny bubble gum. I avoided going to Communion because I felt that in stealing a penny bubble gum, I was guilty of a mortal sin, and so ineligible. Finally, I confessed it, and made restitution by sneaking a penny bubble gum back into Schwartzy’s drug store.

I am certain that Schwartzy, who was a Jewish saint, as far as I am concerned, is in Heaven now laughing at the incident. But when I was a kid, it caused me a great deal of angst.

Kids turn “bizarre” into an art form, and I was no exception. My parents back in those days said that I always had something horrible coming out of every opening on my body, and that included my nose. I was always picking, picking, picking my nose, pulling disgusting masses of unearthly stuff from my nostrils, and surreptitiously sticking them to the back or underside of some nearby object. On one occasion, one of the nuns who taught me in St. Martin of Tours School saw me disposing of some horrible wad I had just pulled out of my nose, and yelled, “PETER, WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP PICKING YOUR NOSE!”

As far as I was concerned, this was a command from God’s lawful authority on Earth, and it absolutely had to be obeyed.

As I struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to remember to bring a handkerchief to school for my nose, I would be forced to pick my nose whenever I forgot a handkerchief, and as far as I was concerned every time I did that I was committing the sin of disobedience.

When I had accumulated six instances of “disobeying” by picking my nose, I went to confession one day. I was still doing “laundry list” confessions then. I went into the dark confessional, and when the priest opened the window to my side to hear my sins, I said something like, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession. I disobeyed my teacher six times …”

For some reason, this confession made a big impression on the priest. He turned on the light so that he could see my face through the screen, and asked me who my teacher was, and suggested that I had just made a very good confession.

The priest would have been astonished to discover that this little kid making his confession to him was talking about six instances of picking his nose.

I joined the altar boys organization in St. Martin’s in fourth grade, in 1961. Fr. Hugh McSherry was the priest in charge of the altar boys. He used to march us up and down the aisles of the Church like soldiers — “RIGHT FACE!” “LEFT FACE!” “ABOUT FACE!” “MARCH!” — and he would test us on our Church Latin once a year. Anyone receiving a grade of 90 to 100 could serve Mass. If you got a grade of 100 in Latin, Fr. McSherry would give you a dollar. To get 100, however, you even had to get every single accent on every word correct, where accents had to be signified, during the test, by a bowing of the head.

So, for instance, in saying, “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” we had to bow our heads five times, once at each point in that sentence where you see caps …

“Ad DEum qui laeTIficat JUvenTUtem MEam.”

I was certain that I had said the Latin responses perfectly, at the time of my first test. But Fr. McSherry decided to give me a hard time …

“Say ‘laetificat’ again.”

“Lae-TI-ficat” [pronounced “lay-TEE-fee-cot”].

“Again.”

“Lae-TI-ficat.”

“Again.”

“Lae-TI-ficat.”

And so on, again and again and again.

Finally Fr. McSherry asked, “Are you CERTAIN that it’s pronounced ‘lay-TEE-fee-cot’?”

“Yes,” was my answer.

“DEAD certain?,” he asked.

“Absolutely, positively certain, Father.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“No doubts?”

“No doubts.”

“Okay,” he said, “Here’s your dollar!”

I always volunteered to do the weekday 6:30 a.m. Masses and the 5:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, for an odd reason: I loved walking alone to Mass, in the pre-rush-hour silence of dawn, with only the birds in the trees as my friends. I think that even as a kid I felt like I was comfortably alone with God, then.

I consider myself a devout Catholic, but I have to confess that as we were taught our Catechism in St. Martin of Tours School, not once — not for one moment in time — have I ever believed that the Adam and Eve story is non-fiction. Even in second grade I thought to myself, “That story can’t possibly be true. It’s more like Cat in the Hat than reality.” Over the years, I have been kicked out of several Catholic and non-Catholic Christian websites as a “heretic” for saying this, openly, and for setting forth various proofs of my position.

Others, both Protestant and Catholic, impacted my religious upbringing.

My paternal grandmother Nana, who lived at home with us, would tell us the story of how she walked up Rutland Street to Oxford and Castor, and then over the footbridge to St. Martin’s Church, to go to Mass there, and how once as she was walking to Mass at St. Martin’s, she heard a sound behind her, near the intersection of Rutland and Kenwyn Streets. Nana said that she turned round, and saw a big white guy with a heavy stick in his hands, raised to strike her, to knock her down and rape or rob her. Nana said that she called out to God in her mind, “HELP ME, GOD!,” and that suddenly something mysterious happened — the big white guy looked up at something behind Nana, much taller than either of them, and he looked terrified, dropped his stick, and ran away. Nana said that she looked behind her to see what frightened him, saw no one, and always wondered if God had answered her prayer by allowing a giant angel to appear behind her.

I got to know Ms. Mabel Blynn, who lived across Rutland Street from us. She used to love listening to Harald Camping’s Family Radio programming, which as a kid I thought was horribly tedious — grounds for a non-sinful suicide. (Years later, I actually came to enjoy listening to Mr. Camping’s call-in program while doing chores at home, because of the challenges his analysis of the Bible posed for my Catholic Christianity.) Occasionally, just to see what her Presbyterian services were like, I went to church with Mabel.

My father’s sister, Marie Dawson, became a Dominican nun before I was born, and in my childhood years she became the Chief Executive Officer of the Dominican nuns in the Western Hemisphere. We teased her, in those days, to the effect that she was “in charge of half of the world.”

In 1970, at my high school graduation, Aunt Marie plopped a copy of the 1970 edition of the New American Bible for Catholics, one of the best translations of the Bible into English ever made.

I very much liked the way that translation read, and its excellent footnotes. So, I read the Bible every day, for years, mostly on our front porch at Wakeling and Rutland Streets.

Now, the reason why I chose that location for reading the Bible — the front porch — was not so devout or praiseworthy. A gorgeous blonde girl used to walk past our house every day at a particular time, and I didn’t want to miss her!

Even when the blonde stopped passing by, however, I maintained the Bible reading habit, and over the years I read the Bible cover to cover, twice.

I was underwhelmed by the Bible, at first. It seemed to me to be the opposite of “divinely inspired.” It did seem full of outright contradictions — lots of them. It appeared to me that anyone could cite the Bible as authority for any point by simply going through it with a concordance and picking verses supporting his side of any given theological controversy, like picking out your dinner in a cafeteria. I thought to myself, “Nearly two thousand years of theologians can’t have missed what I am seeing. There must be something else to the Bible which I am missing.”

And I found it — in things called Bible types and Bible word pictures.

Bible types and Bible word pictures, it turns out, are “the neatest thing since sliced bread.” Their presence in the Bible is astonishing and clearly miraculous. Yet, few Christians, Catholic or Protestant, know that these wonderful structures were imprinted into the Bible text by God the Holy Spirit.

Father Judge High School

On the subject of the Bible, one “camp” in the Father Judge Oblates said that both Testaments of the Bible featured “types” and “word pictures” so that the Old Testament foreshadowed Christ in a most amazing way again and again, while the other “camp” said that that was a lot of nonsensical hocus pocus.

One priest, Fr. Rauch, taught us in his religion class that the Bible featured these things called “types” and “word pictures,” but he had so much material to cover that semester that he could not take the time to detail them much.

Another priest, Fr. John Brennan, taught us in his religion class, “Don’t ever believe that stuff that the Old Testament is really about Christ.”

Despite Fr. Brennan’s denial, I wondered, after two grand tours of the entire Bible, if the Old Testament is somehow miraculously about Christ, in these things Fr. Rauch mentioned — Bible types and Bible word pictures.

So, I continued my study of the Bible, there on the front porch, for years, searching for Fr. Rauch’s Bible types and word pictures — and I found them. The Bible is full of them.

And, low and behold, it turns out that much of the Old Testament really is about Christ, in a miraculous way.

Doors and gates always symbolize Christ in the Old and New Testaments, for instance, so when the Hebrews in Egypt whipped the blood of the sacrificed Passover lamb onto their doorways with a hyssop bush in Exodus 12:22-23 to save themselves from God’s killer angel, that is a picture foreshadowing Christ being scourged, so that His suffering saves us from eternal damnation.

When the patriarch Joseph brings his children Manassas and Ephraim to Joseph’s father Jacob’s knee for Jacob’s blessing, in Genesis 48:12-20, Jacob strangely crosses his arms and places his hands on their skulls to bless them — a picture foreshadowing how blessing would come from the cross on Golgotha, which means “Skull Place.”

There are many of these structures in the Old Testament, miraculously foreshadowing Christ and His ministry hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth.

So, to my delight, I realized that contrary to what Fr. Brennan asserted, but in accord with what Fr. Rauch taught us, the Old Testament is “about Christ.”

I also grew to appreciate Church buildings. All altars in all Catholic churches, for example, are required to have the relics of saints embedded into the stone. This requirement is a memorial of the Church in the days of the Roman Empire, when the Church was outlawed, and Church authorities hunted by Roman authorities. In those days, Mass was said in the underground catacombs, where the stone sarcophagus’s of Christians murdered by the Romans — stones bearing the relics of martyred saints — served as the altars for Mass.

Last Halloween, the Frankford Historical Society hosted a tour of absolutely breathtaking St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, among other places. Rev. Jonathan Clodfelter clued us into some of the amazing architecture in that wonderfully beautiful place of worship, including carvings in the church supposed to portray some of the principals in the congregation in days gone by.

Church history, itself, both ancient and not so ancient, is also utterly fascinating.

I discovered, for instance, that one of the popes is sometimes referred to as Fabian the Manure Shoveler. He had traveled to Rome in the year 236 A.D. to purchase a load of manure for his master’s farm. As he was shoveling the manure into his wagon, a short distance away Christians of the Early Church were gathered to elect the next Bishop of Rome, who even then was regarded as the head of the Church, according to early Christian writers Irenaeus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Optatus, Damasus and Jerome. The Christians were praying for divine assistance in picking the next Bishop of Rome. Lo and behold, right in front of the crowd, a white dove flew from a nearby perch and landed on Fabian’s head! The crowd took it as a sign, and thronged over to Fabian and made him Bishop of Rome! And, Fabian turned out to be one of the better early popes.

Not once, but twice, more recent Church history caused my Irish great grandmother to pick religiously significant names for my grandfather Dawson, as our family slowly worked its way from Europe to Frankford in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 1840s, when the Potato Blight began to wipe out potato crops across England and Ireland, Parliament decided to “solve” the problem by making landlords “responsible” for famine relief for all tenants farming potatoes on land owned by them worth less than 4 pounds sterling per quarter acre. That was nearly all of them. Members of Parliament representing the Catholics of Ireland strenuously opposed the measure, as they foresaw the consequences: Every Protestant landlord, in a panic to avoid such enormous liability, began to evict nearly every Catholic tenant potato farmer and his family, even if they were not yet in arrears on their rent, where two-thirds were not in arrears. My great grandmother Annie Fuller Mallon, 16 and pregnant at the time, and her husband were among those evicted by their Protestant landlords, and Protestant Sheriffs backed by Protestant soldiers. Within a month about 4 million Irish Catholics walked the roads of Ireland, herded by Protestant soldiers, while Protestant neighbors watched. Annie and her husband starved. Probably in a roadside ditch, Annie gave birth to my great aunt Barb — blind as a consequence of Annie’s starvation. Annie’s husband either dropped dead of starvation, or was shot storming the docks with sticks and rocks with other Catholic men who formed themselves into “skeleton armies,” in a panicked attempt to feed their families with food still being loaded by Protestant landlords onto ships for export from Ireland, under the watchful eye of the crown’s Protestant troops.

A charity paid the fare on a packet ship for my great grandmother Annie Fuller Mallon and her blind baby, to Canada. From there she thumbed her way south to Philadelphia, where she placed great aunt Barb in the School for the Blind at 20th and Race Streets.

Though, because of her experiences, widow Annie Fuller Mallon was caught up in hatred for Protestant Christians, she married an English Protestant, my great grandfather William Samuel Charles Dawson, who had emigrated to Philadelphia shortly after Annie’s arrival there. As great grandmother Annie began to bear great grandfather William children, Protestant Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic group known for terrorizing and hanging Catholic immigrants from Ireland, watched her going to daily Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church, and threatened her. Annie and her husband escaped to Maryland, where they had their first child together. They returned to Philadelphia after Lincoln won the presidential elections of 1864. In 1867, still boiling-over with rage at having been driven out of her home by Protestants a second time, Annie called her last child, my grandfather, born in 1867, “John Roberts Henry Dawson.” Why that? Because after Thomas More and John Fisher, John Roberts was the third most famous Catholic martyred by Henry VIII in the Protestant Reformation — in Roberts’ case, for persistently saying Mass in Protestant England.

Unfortunately, Annie’s second husband, great grandfather William Samuel Charles Dawson, died in quarantine in 1869, probably in one of the outbreaks of tropical diseases brought up from the South by African American slaves liberated in the Civil War. Widowed a second time and faced again with extreme poverty, but now with five kids to feed, great grandmother Annie worked as a seamstress and home helper out of a storefront and walk-up still standing at 12th and Locust Streets. At one point she broke her back, and was forced to spend the rest of her life supporting her family bent-over and in a state of disabling pain!

As the children grew, Annie heard about Girard College from a friendly committeeman, a Protestant fellow surnamed “Avery.” Mr. Avery warned Annie that a child named after a Catholic priest martyred by Henry VIII might have troubled getting past the Protestant trustees of Girard College. So, Annie changed my grandfather’s name from the defiantly-Catholic John Roberts Henry Dawson to the much-more-Protestant-sounding name Henry Avery Dawson, making use of the surname of this Heaven-sent Protestant friend. Committeeman Avery signed young Henry Avery Dawson’s Girard College application, and that is how my grandfather got into Girard College.

As I apprehended such things, in our home there in Northwood, I reflected upon how the little boy who thought that his first religion was “puvlic” had had his family’s life, as well as his own, so drastically impacted by religion.

About the Author

Peter Dawson
Peter Dawson grew up in Northwood and has a wealth of stories to tell.