The Sense of Beginning or of Ending

                                     How do I begin to write about the church whose
                                     ending was the beginning of this writing?

        St. Francis

                brittle pamphlet

                                     Inside a parish history published for its 50th
                                     anniversary in 1949, my grandfather’s name
                                     appears on the inside cover, written in what looks
                                     like my mother’s hand.

        a jubilee year

                        from the Latin

                to shout for joy

                                  A man named Francis I never met.

                                  A book I took years ago from my mother’s
                                  credenza, from the Italian for belief.

                                  Its pages flake as I turn them.

                                  It took a lot of fundraising to raise the church.
                                  Wage-earning families were urged to fund a lasting
                                  memorial for their children’s children, for the
                                  thousands yet unborn.

        to take shape

                      in a place

of creeks                          rocks    and weeds

        in obedience    they said

                  here       to be pure
                  and honest

        here                   to give your life
                      to this work
                                    in an age that needs

                                                your example

                                   In Assisi, Francis spent money with lavish hand
                                   until he met the lepers and built his house of reeds.
                                   Clare joined him in his mission. They called her a
                                   princess of poverty. My mother’s confirmation
                                   name was Clare.

                        to confirm         an initiation

        it roots us more deeply

                               the name a protector and guide

                                   After building a church, they built a school. The
                                   pastor said he could always identify a Catholic-
                                   schooled woman through the nobility and humility
                                   of her bearing, through her desire to imitate the
                                   violet — unseen, unheard, known only by its

        to begin then with a nose

                   to perceive a smell

                                    or else pry, search.

I remember a homeless woman with a ring of empty seats around her

        wish her peace and get a stink on you


                         in the church where my mother and father were married

                                            the church where they baptized their babies

                where his coffin, but not hers, would be incensed

                                                                                           a thurible swings

                                    a mist to lift prayer

                                                              to see      a kind of faith
                                                                                           to follow

                                   Another way to begin then is to say what I saw.
                                   What I saw when I returned. When I returned to
                                   the church after many years away. To see it on the
                                   day that it was ending.


the work of an Irishman

               who drew the faces of his ancestors into the glass

                             all their long faces and fingers and toes


        a bulletin board for those who served in the war

                                    each letter a pin

                asterisk marks a death         a war

                                     that gave work to those fleeing a fever, that
                                     in the South that drove people here, to this
                                     place where the people they’d work for
                                     would fly away.


        eagle for a lectern

                peacock for a painting

                                    a Jesus all wing and red flame

       A man who said: before the war, no one had ever left here,
       but after seeing the world in war, we had to see more, so we moved

       A girl who said: my father was taken from me, he’s in prison,
       so this church has been really important to me.

 the weight
of so much

                                     To begin then with an incomplete recounting.
                                     Another way to begin is to keep going.

                                     It’s two years after the church’s closing and I’m in
                                     the archives. It’s the day before my mother’s
                                     birthday, the first one since her passing.

        she    who repeated

                                          you don’t have to like
                                    but you do

                                                    have to love them

                                    a sentiment of kindness

                                                                                 or dilemma

                                  In a box of ephemera, I find a photo album from
                                  the church’s 100th anniversary labeled “A Welcome
                                  Back Mass.”

                            the women my mother drank coffee with

                the men who went off to war

                                 At the very end there’s a picture of the church on an
                                 empty corner. The way a corner looks after people
                                 have left it. No, that’s not right. The way it looks
                                 when those who remain are inside. Like my mother.
                                 Who didn’t need to be welcomed back, who
                                 remained. For years. With the neighbors whose
                                 practice was living and a faith grown strong in

                            completely living her everyday living

for her husband whose heart broke from working

                and her children who left handprints down the wall

                                 It’s two years after the church’s closing, and I’m in
                                 the archives. I find a yearbook from 1934, my
                                 father’s junior class, and a description of a school
                                 play, in which one student played “a darkie boy
                                 with remarkable facility.”

             beyond this dusty room

in the streets of a new century

                              people are chanting

                                        don’t shoot

                                 It’s two years after the church’s closing, and I’m in
                                 the archives. I find annual reports tracking the
                                 numbers of people in the parish. How many were
                                 baptized or married or died. How many people in
                                 1957 are “colored.” And how many are “Negro.”
                                 For years. For years, they asked how many, how
                                 many, until 1983 when they ask how many of the
                                 people are “Black.” Annual reports that ask in 1967
                                 have you talked to your people about fair housing,
                                 have you talked to your people about racial justice.
                                 Questions they ask the next year and then stop.

        to document

                     another form of beginning

                                 It’s two years after the church’s closing, and I’m in
                                 the archives. I find pamphlets from the 60s full of
                                 advice for parents. A warning against the use of
                                 racial epithets. It says don’t turn slurs into the air
                                 your children breathe.

                  months later    or decades

        people are screaming

                       we can’t breathe

                                In this room full of dust I can taste it — the gleanings
                                and failures of an archive, and those of the people
                                I come from, who I’m coming to know
                                through all they held on to and all they let go.


                                 After the church closed, the man who learned to
                                 make stained glass from the son of the man who
                                 made the church windows removed them from the
                                 church piece by piece. Only then did he notice that
                                 a saint’s legs were upside down.

                       pelvis for ankle

                                  red sash interrupted

                                                                                                         He said:
                                          It can be difficult for a maker to see the whole when
                                          focusing on its pieces.

                     fragile scrapbook

        a cigar box full of medals

                                                                                                         He said:
                                          It can be difficult for a maker to admit mistakes
                                          after completing the whole.

I look down to touch them:

                     the rust on my shirt

        the dirt under all of my nails

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