by Margaret Ormrod
It was the 1950s and we were like other families, except for the secret we kept hidden from even our closest relatives. My father did not attend Mass.
He had a profound and abiding hatred of the Catholic Church, one we could not understand. Years of listening to him voice his harsh resentment towards it taught each of us not to ask questions. Every Sunday, I took note of my mother lying to our neighbors: “No, not with us at this one. Bill’s going to High Mass at noon.” High Mass. The holiest of Masses. It comprised of chanting, incense, choirs, sermons, and of course, the sacrament of Mass. It lasted for more than ninety minutes. My mother’s lie was a mortal sin and shame hung on my skinny shoulders like sackcloth.
We lived in a country where censorship by the Irish Catholic Church was absolute, and submission to its authority unconditional. Contraception was condemned by the Church. The Irish government, its servile legislative arm, bowed to its wishes by banning access to any form of prophylactic. As a result, families were impoverished, with too many children, and too few resources.
On Sunday mornings, we gathered at the church for Mass. We were shabbily dressed with threadbare coats that were whipped by the wind and soaked by the endless rain. During the ceremony, vapor slowly rose from our sodden clothes.
At a certain point ushers shuffled up the aisle, passing out collection plates along the pews. Despite our poverty, the Church made passive-aggressive demands for donations. They requested money from a nation barely able to feed its own children. To pass a collection plate without placing money on it stigmatized the entire family.
Each Sunday, our priest stood in the pulpit wearing vestments of deep, forest green and gilded embroidery. His face radiated nourishment and good health. He spoke of Ireland in devout and earnest terms.
“Our families, our nation, sets a fine example to the world because of our special devotion to the Holy Family, and because of our stellar attendance at Mass.”
Even as a child, I weeded out the hypocrisy in that statement. By not attending Mass on Sundays, we placed a mortal sin on our souls, one which condemned us to the eternal fires of Hell. There existed no other choice.
I felt suffocated by the rules and regulations of the Church. I shuddered at the thought of God. We were told that He was kind and loving, but I found no consolation in those words. I experienced neither; just threats of punishment and Hell.
My earliest memories of my father are littered with his outbursts, and with his endless rants against the Catholic Church. As much as I was terrified of God, my fear of Him was nothing compared to the dread I felt at an oncoming explosion from my father. As a consequence, my weight veered off the “normal” scale with alarming speed and regularity; there were times when a piece of clothing that fit the previous week now draped my bony frame. Between my parents, I sensed an uneasy truce about religion from day to day – one upon which my mother depended, and one which my father broke with alarming regularity.
I was seven years old when I fully understood that not only was my father a non-believer (and that was dreadful enough); his anger towards the Church was a bottomless pit of poison and rage. It was the week before my First Communion and my new dress was almost ready. Blizzard white, it sparkled with shining snowdrops and with silver threads sewn into the chiffon. At school, I practiced attending my First Confession, and receiving my First Communion. I chattered ceaselessly over dinner. As we stood up from the table, my father locked eyes with me.
“Is that all you can talk about?” My stomach cramped and I stood, frozen in place. I looked towards my mother for direction; she had already left the room with a stack of dishes.
My father’s face reddened; a purple vein rose in his forehead. Paralyzed, I waited for the ‘Next Thing’. There always was a ‘Next Thing’. My heart spiraled downwards towards the floor. Suddenly, he slammed his fist down onto the table. The remaining dishes bounced and the glasses toppled over. “SCHOOLBAGS! NOW! EVERYONE!”
The six of us almost knocked each other over trying to get to our bags. As we piled them at his feet, we looked up at him in horror. He hauled out our ‘Christian Doctrine’ books, ones from which we learned everything about our Catholic religion.
He began ripping them apart, rolling the pages into balls and flinging them into the fire.
“This! Is! What! I! Think! Of! Your! Fucking! Catholic! Church!”
He continued until they were all blazing in the fireplace. We were sobbing. My mother had returned and was enveloping us in her arms as she tried to prevent my father from going any further. She was powerless in the face of his anger and hostility, her six children crying hysterically around her.
My father was going to Hell. That I knew for certain. We were all going to Hell. God would never forgive us now.
When he finished, I sensed his fury dissipate. The electricity in the air fizzled out as my heartbeat slowed. From experience, I knew if we were very quiet, and if we all left the room and went upstairs, it was over. For that night, at least.
Each day, I wished my father dead. Late at night, I fantasized about a knock on the door; a police officer sent to report my father’s death. I shook when I thought of his anger, and I felt betrayed by my mother. I asked myself over and over: Why do we need to live like this? Why?
As I stumbled through my childhood and adolescence, his behavior negatively affected me, and it defined my entire world view as an adult. I became over-cautious, unable to trust people around me. A crippling anxiety was my daily companion; I startled at sudden, loud noises. A relentless insomnia left me exhausted and depressed.
As the 1990s and the following decade unfolded, the world learned of the unspeakable abuse of children at the hands of the Catholic clergy in Ireland during my father’s childhood, 1 and beyond. I spent much time thinking about my father. His mother, my grandmother, had related to me that as a seven-year-old in 1928, he served Mass and attended a school staffed by Christian Brothers. My understanding of his anger and of his bitterness grew from the realization that he, in all likelihood, had been one of the clergy’s victims. I finally understood the great torment he had suffered throughout his life. His anguish and his misery were borne not only by him, but by my entire family.
I have forgiven my father.
I will never forgive them.
Margaret Ormrod, at 66, is a latecomer to writing. "Dublin", a short memoir of her childhood in Ireland, was published in Pithead Chapel magazine in October 2015. It was subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and their Boxer puppy.