My Dad, Our Church

Jun 22

My dad loved to sing and, thankfully, was good at it.¬† Church provided the stage upon which he could boast his vocal talents.¬† Every Sunday he crooned to hymns – the smooth lilt in his voice caressing every note. ¬†I remember one particularly cold Sunday morning, he belted out each song with such force as to drown out the other dutiful voices that floated above the packed pews.¬† I squirmed with embarrassment as curious eyes turned toward us and fought the overwhelming urge to cover my ears (he was so loud.)¬† I was sure the couple seated beside us had wished they’d brought ear muffs.¬† My father was completely oblivious to the reactions around him – so caught up in the glory of his song.

He had just recovered from major surgery that left him without a bladder and had been preceded by bouts of radiation and chemotherapy.¬† He had good reason for his jubilation – the cancer was gone and he was healthy.¬† I was twenty-one and still too self-conscious to appreciate my father’s need – no, right – to celebrate his second chance at life in the place he felt most secure.¬† I just wanted him to quiet down and let me blend in.

Church was my father’s second home and he made certain it was his children’s, too.¬† ¬†Against the dappled light of stained glass windows, the anxieties of¬†providing for a family of five would slip away and, despite what current strife filled our household, we bonded together in our faith.¬† Forced together by a wooden pew.¬†

Mom had always been the disciplinarian at church.¬† My four siblings and I knew that one icy glare from her meant we’d better get on our knees and pray or face wrath when we got home (where my father would often be assigned the task.)¬† We always sat close to the altar where my dad could proudly display his large family and parishioners could nudge their neighbour to whisper admiringly, “Such a lovely family.¬† How do they do it?”¬† They didn’t hear the fight that would inevitably erupt in the five minute car ride home (one hour of quiet togetherness being our limit.)

We never missed a Sunday.¬† If my father had any doubts about his Catholic faith, he hid it well.¬† He had been a devoted altar boy throughout his childhood and spent his high school career at Vancouver College where he was taught by the Christian Brothers of Ireland (he’d earned an academic scholarship to attend.)¬† After graduation he spent seven years as a seminarian in Arnprior. ¬†Priesthood had seemed a natural fit until at the age of 27, he ducked out a few months shy of ordination.¬† Perhaps, he’d realized, it wasn’t his true calling after all. Years later, amid the din of a house full of children (and later, teenagers), I don’t doubt he’d had moments when he imagined priesthood would have been easier.

Getting to know my father was not easy.¬† He was a private man who censored much of what he told us about his life – carefully selecting those fables that painted a grand self portrait (some of them more fiction than fact.)¬† I actually believed he had memorized the dictionary by the age of five – until I was twelve years old.¬† He was, in fact, a complex man whose great wit and intelligence were matched by moodiness and bouts of silence.¬† As a child I resented these aspects of personality.¬† But now that I have three young children of my own, I can understand why he so coveted his privacy and struggled with his moods.¬† Parenthood, after all, doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices – it forces us.¬† We struggle to keep certain pieces of our being (however small) separate… our own.¬† Church enabled my dad to balance his commanding public persona with the privacy he craved.¬† A place where he could admit his weaknesses, seek forgiveness, vow to be a better person, and not tell a soul.

Although I grumbled along with my brothers and sisters about having to pile into the station wagon every week and sit through an hour of readings and prayers, I cherish my memories in the pew.  When we were children, my youngest brother would stumble across the altar steps as the priest sermonized.  He would do his best to ignore the red-haired monster tugging at his robe, but how could he complain?  My pious mother was too deep in prayer to pay either him or her toddler any notice. 

As a teenager, I fought boredom by actually listening to the words that descended from the pulpit.¬† I was reminded of my duty to act selflessly and love my enemies – no matter how much I hated her.¬† By Sunday of the following week I’d need another gentle reminder that gossiping was not, in fact, the best way to deal with conflict and that that it really didn’t matter if I wore polo shirts with the collar up or down. ¬†The church habit continued less frequently during my university years, but it tugged at me, not letting me stray too far.

¬†My dad never again sang so gloriously after that one cold Sunday morning.¬† The cancer returned and a few months later, he died.¬† The day of his funeral, twelve years ago, was the last time we attended church with him.¬† He lay in his casket while we sat, fatherless now, along the front pew, our eyes soaked and voices trembling.¬† I’m not sure any of us sang that day.¬† In fact, I don’t remember much about that day at all.¬† Instead, I remember the day he sang his heart out in the home he cherished with the family he loved.

I still attend church every Sunday, despite my misgivings about my Catholic faith.¬† Although our internal struggles differ, like my father, I use that one hour every seven days to unravel the complexities that creep into my life and seek the answers to those questions that perplex my soul.¬† I shush my children and turn a blind eye when they crawl under the seats.¬† And sometimes, when I feel the spirit of my Dad, I’ll belt out a hymn so loud that the parishioners stare.


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  1. kevin bileski /

    Thank you for this articel Danielle. I sat at church this sunday among many families celebrating and some elderly women whiping their tears away as the sermon made mention of Father’s day being for the living and the ones who have passed. It was powerful. I stared down at Finn and smiled, and seeing other grown men hug their fathers made me tackle my emotions to hold them back while acknowledging them inside. Thank you anyways for the article, I enjoyed it very much.

  2. Kelly /

    Danielle, this is a beautiful article, one that made me teary eyed for a man I didn’t even know. It also makes me realize that I need to get back to church…

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