Memory’s Flame

February 23, 2000

My trip down Memory Lane yesterday took an ironic turn. After I drove past Bishop McDevitt High School, I decided against the direct route home and took the longer, but more scenic and much less congested way through the remaining pocket of rolling farmland that separates the city from the northern suburbs.

To do this I turned north on Carey Street, past the apartment house where my first date lived, and then through the borough of Penbrook on 28th Street past Canby, where I lived until I was seven.

Susquehanna Township begins where 28th Street crosses Herr. One then drives along the eastern edge of the Harrisburg East Cemetery and the west border of the parking lot of Saint Margaret Mary Catholic Church.

My parents were founding members of that parish. It was begun in 1948, when I was a year old, to serve the growing number of Catholics who were building homes in the new developments east of the city. My name is Margaret Mary. As my mother once believed that her mail carrier father had arranged for all the post offices to be closed the day she was born, so too did I believe for a long while that my father had had some influence in naming the new parish after me.

I attended first grade in the school that was attached to the back of the church structure, and then we moved to a different area of the city where we joined (by diocesan regulation then) a different parish. I experienced this move as an enormous loss, and have attributed every social problem I have ever had to the fact that I had to change schools after first grade.

In their retirement years my parents once again moved to a neighborhood served by that parish. Both of their funerals were conducted there.

Thus St. Margaret Mary church and school is one of those “comfort places” that starts something vibrating in me, so that driving by triggers one memory, which triggers another, and another

Last evening was routine. I went out to a meeting that broke up about 7:30. I stopped at a religious bookstore for supplies for my Sunday School class and was home just a little after 8:00. I wrote the piece for yesterday, and at ten I sat down for NYPD. At its conclusion I stood up, stretched, and was about to snap off the TV when I saw the 11:00 news teaser — “St. Margaret Mary School in flames!”

Live reports from the scene showed that the fire was almost under control. It had begun at about 8:30 in a row of six newly-installed modular classrooms situated along the back of the property. These structures are made almost entirely of wood and wood byproducts, and any fire, especially one that begins when the place is unoccupied, spreads quickly and leaves behind almost total destruction.

The local volunteer firefighters, who in my opinion never get enough recognition for the job they do at great risk and sacrifice, kept the main school building and the church from becoming involved, although some smoke damage was inevitable.

It was reported that arson was strongly suspected.

The principal was being interviewed by a bevy of reporters dispatched from the various local news organizations. She looked dazed and anguished, but she was answering the reporters’ predictable and intrusive questions with more grace than I would be able to muster under the circumstances. 

(“Predictable” and “intrusive,” are, of course, judgment words. I think there should be a law requiring reporters to keep back fifty feet from people undergoing an experience like this, and when they are finally allowed access, like maybe a week later, to be enjoined from asking stupid questions like “How do you feel about this?” and “Will you rebuild?”)

As a person with a flexible schedule, I feel a certain sense of obligation as well as desire to attend daytime events where community support is called for. This morning I went over to pray with the people of St. Margaret Mary at the regular daily Mass.

I ran a bit late, and it was almost 9:05 when I pulled up and parked along Herr Street. I could see a hand printed sign on the church door — “Mass at Youth Center Today.” A man in a “News 21” jeep had pulled up along the side street just ahead of me. Toting a camera and a notebook, he walked up to the door, peered at the sign, looked around, and then started walking toward the back of the building.

Evidently he didn’t know that the youth center is a nondescript former garage across the street, its entrance not obvious unless you know it’s there. I waited until he was out of sight (I am sometimes suspicious of reporters, especially ones who show up at religious services that follow tragedies and obviously have no knowledge about the facility they are visiting), and then slipped into the Mass.

What I didn’t know was that the time for daily Mass had recently been changed to 8:30. I got there in time to hear the benediction, in which the priest reminded us that God will help us in this time of trial, will guide our decisions in the next weeks, and will help us to be people of courage and people of peace, if we but call on him. He ended by calling for God’s grace and love to be made manifest to the arsonist. And then I joined hands with the congregants and sang “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” a hymn of adoration I’ve known for fifty years.

Among those gathered were teachers, some schoolchildren, parents, and neighbors. There were tears, and embraces. I spoke to a few people I knew who thanked me, a virtual stranger in that setting, for my show of support. Practicing what I believe, I avoided the priest and the principal for now, since they would not remember anything I said and had important work to do in comforting the children.

And I wished that I had told the reporter where he could find these brave people, whose hearts are broken but whose faith is intact.

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