After my mother died five years ago, I learned that she had been born to young Russian Jewish parents living on Orchard Street on the lower East Side of Manhattan. She had never spoken of this heritage to me. The key to her childhood turns out to be a first Communion story. I found in her desk a lovely Communion photo, her Communion prayer book, with the creamy white cover and gold-edged pages that so many of us remember, and a prayer card with a hand-written message, To Rita, in remembrance of your First Communion, signed by Sister M. Callista and dated May 22, 1920. That day was a very special day for a girl called Rita. She had been baptized on Friday, the day before her first Communion; baptismal records show both of her names.
My mother had been born Rebecca in 1911, but at an early age became a foster child in the home of a German Catholic widow in the Bronx. Somehow a poor immigrant woman, who turned 55 in 1920 and lived in a succession of walk-up apartments found the determination to adopt Rebecca and then raised her to become a Catholic woman named Rita. She also found the money to pay for a formal Communion portrait of her new daughter. In the photo, my mother wears a white dress with rows of ruffles, high-button white shoes, white stockings and a large bow in her curly brown hair. She holds the prayer book I now have.
My mother kept no important documents and cut photos out of albums. But she kept the prayer book, the holy card and her portrait. Whatever else happened in my mother’s early life, her first Communion day was clearly a significant event for her and her adoptive family.
Our Lady of Victory, the church where she received both sacraments, has a 95-year history of welcoming wave after wave of immigrant parishioners. In 1920 the neighborhood was primarily German and Jewish. Now the parishioners are African-American and Latino. The pastor, Rev. Peter Gavigan, says, A parish is a very special part of the fabric of our lives. For new immigrants, he adds, a parish family is a place of welcome, refreshment, connection and growth. And indeed Father Gavigan welcomed me, granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, as if I were returning homewhich of course, in a way, I was.
In this parish, first Communion is a festive bilingual celebration and an important milestone in children’s lives, just as it must have been in 1920, that is replicated in many parishes throughout this country. First Communion is a powerful church and family ritual; no one who has been present can miss its importance for the children taking part.
For the last seven years I have been directing an oral history project that seeks to record the faith journeys of Catholic women in New Jersey. Thus far, we have recorded close to 100 interviews. Among our narrators are recent immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as second- and third-generation Irish and Italian American Catholics. In all the interviews we ask: What are your earliest memories of being Catholic?
In answering, many of the women have shared wonderful stories of their first Communion. Whether the sacrament was received in Elizabeth or Newark, N.J., or in Trinidad, Peru or India, it was surrounded by rituals that marked it as a special day. The women recalled months of preparation, weeks of practice and some trepidation as the moment approached. Would they remember to keep their fast? Would they forget when to kneel? Would they be able to swallow the host?
We heard stories of mothers who struggled to find the money for a Communion dress, of family parties and, most important, descriptions of the experience of receiving Jesus for the first time. Some of the women spoke of more recent family celebrations—first Communion for a son, a grandchild or a niece—and how that event triggered their own deep feelings.
Here are some excerpts from our oral history transcripts.
—The morning of my first Communion, I remember waking up at 4 o’clock and waking up my mother. She said, Elissa, it’s four o’clock! We don’t have to get up yet.’ I said, But Mommy, if I get ready now, I can get to receive Communion sooner.’ The sisters taught us that this was really Jesus. It was a very exciting moment in my life. [Years later, after I had abandoned religion] a friend invited me to a retreat with her church community, and the experience I had in my first Communion came back. Everything flooded back. Christ was real. God was real. And you finally understood that God loved you.
—My father used to have to travel a lot for business, but he always tried to get back for big occasions. I can remember him saying, Well, she only makes her first Communion once in her life.’ Yes, I think it was probably at that point the biggest day of my life. It wasn’t that a lot of fanfare was made over the dress or anything. My mother made sure I had a lovely dress and veil. But I just knew that that day was so very special and that the Lord came to me in a special way and that he loved me.
—I received my first Communion [in Peru] when I was 6 years old. That was the most beautiful day of my life. I can remember it. The sky was in a shade of blue that I have never seen again. It was beautiful, beautiful. And then I don’t remember much about my first Communion. You know why? Because I fainted. I fainted. Yes. But that shade of sky, it was beautiful. I will never forget that.
—I can remember the smells. I can remember the smell of my little white pocketbook and prayer book. I can remember my scapular, which I had forever and ever and ever. My rosary beads. I can remember practicing for first Communion. I remember receiving first Communion. And I just remember that wonderful feeling of grace and closeness with God.
—I was supposed to receive Communion in May, and my oldest sister was working in another place, in the capital city of India, New Delhi. So she said she will be coming for my Communion. She will be bringing the dress for me to wear, and my Communion was postponed. I was so disappointed because I couldn’t have my Communion with my other friends. Then I received Communion by myself. It was on July 3, St. Thomas Day.
—Last year my niece was getting ready to make her first Communion. About three weeks before, we were at Mass together and she walked up to communion with me and held my hand. When we got to the back of the church she grabbed my arm and she said, Aunt Claudia, I can’t wait for my Communion!’ It really flashed back to my own sense of I want this, I can’t wait for this.’
—I remember my first Communion very well. In those days we had to fast from midnight. And the sisters used to cover the water fountains in school so the kids wouldn’t take a drink by mistake before Mass in the morningto remind you, you know, in case Sister wasn’t looking and you wandered down the hall, you’d better not take a drink. Things like that seem funny now, though they were so very, very important to us. You really wanted to do it right.
After listening to these joyful memories, I find it troubling that today we seem to center many of our differences around the Eucharist, turning the Eucharist into a battleground. Some bishops believe it necessary to refuse Communion to politicians who do not vote pro-life; parish discussions about liturgical matters escalate into heated disputes; because of the dramatic decline in the number of active priests, there are now prayer services instead of Sunday Mass for thousands of American Catholics and for hundreds of thousands of Catholics worldwide. Added to these public issues are numerous private experiences of anguish and antagonism that interfere with our participation in Eucharist.
While these issues cannot be ignored, I suggest that we take a collective deep breath and revisit our personal stories about first Communion to treasure them and perhaps draw wisdom, patience and love from them. Are we honoring this heritage? What do we lose by making a battleground around a sacrament that has had such significance to our parents, to us, to our children and grandchildren? And finally, we must ask ourselves: Can we celebrate each Sunday’s Eucharist with the love, awe and anticipation that children, past and present, experience during their first Communion Mass? All of us, who are the faith-filled people of God, be we members of the laity, clergy or hierarchy, owe each of these questions our serious reflection.