Thursday, March 13, 2014

That Deacon Sandy Church? That's Where I Grew Up!

My life is such right now - because of homeschooling and the house being insane with contractor work and my not having blogged for, essentially, a year - that I'm out of the habit of reading the many, many Catholic blogs that I used to. It's still probably for the best, given that I haven't backed down from being mostly drawn to conservative Catholic topics like a fly to sh*t.

Nonetheless, in the last two weeks, as I've been perusing a few sites and blogs, the name "Deacon Sandy" has popped up a few times. At first I ignored these stories, but then when I kept seeing the consistency of coverage, I finally clicked in to see what all the fuss was about. I couldn't believe it when I figured out that all the hoopla is about a deacon at the Catholic parish in which I was (mostly) raised!

However, I'm gonna say this: Not surprised. Thus, what follows is my own personal story and memories, which might add a little sliver of understanding to what's happening at this Wisconsin parish that is currently in the limelight.

Good Shepherd in Menomonee Falls! I lived in Menomonee Falls from 1978 (third grade) until I moved away in the middle of college in 1989. My parents remained there until 1998. During the years in which my parents actually went to mass (which wasn't for very long), and during the longer range in which they had my brother and I participating in CCD, the majority of church time put in was at Good Shepherd. Not all, but most.

When we moved back to Wisconsin in 1978 - after a two-year hiatus in the Bible belt - my parents were both still semi-high off the Cursillo Movement and the backyard folk masses that they were involved with when we lived in northern Wisconsin. It was there that my father converted to Catholicism from non-practicing Lutheran when I was about three or four years old, and his conversion was clearly predicated on the touchy-feely version of Catholicism that was so prevalent in the early 1970's. I have vague memories of these backyard masses and they are happy, fun memories of playing on swingsets with the sound of guitars in the background. My Dad was probably playing one of the guitars! Don't ask me how I know this, but I know for a fact that they were the kind of masses where a big loaf of bread was used for communion and the drinks were rolled out immediately following mass. That's just how it was back then.

Coming back to Wisconsin, living in the Milwaukee area was something my Mother never wanted. Long story there, but suffice it to say, I think she actively looked around for a parish that would maybe, hopefully, bring back that good Catholic feeling to help her deal with a situation that she was unhappy about. I suppose it may have been providential for her that we ended up in Menomonee Falls, given that in all of the Milwaukee archdiocese, the most hippy trippy happy clappy parish was to be found right there under her nose. I don't know how she stumbled upon Good Shepherd, but it might have something to do with the fact that she was pissed off at the first church we attended in Menomonee Falls (St. Mary's). That parish made my brother and I re-do our "first" confessions because our actual first confessions weren't face-to-face style. Not just that, but she was furious that I found out about sexual intercourse in a 4th grade CCD class. (Please note that Archbishop Rembert Weakland was our bishop at the time.)

I know we were attending Good Shepherd parish on a regular basis by the time I was at least finishing 5th grade. The church space was odd, and I know for a fact that my parents liked it that way. Truth be told, I initially found it to be a novelty, but later came to recognize it as mind-numbingly drab and depressing. It was nothing but a very large church hall. The kind that is found in the basement of every Catholic parish, except at this church, there was no church! It was designed from the start to be a box with pews. Furnishings were typical blonde wood of the 50's/60s era and there were lots of banners. I can't recall if there were windows - stained glass or otherwise? This state of affairs might have something to do with the fact that Good Shepherd parish was not an old church that had early on wreckovated everything. Rather, it was a brand new parish that came out of nowhere in the late 1950's.

Here's what I do remember: Father Fran and guitars. Lots of guitars. Oh, and big chunks of wheat bread ripped from loaves for communion.

Father Fran Eschweiler was a Menomonee Falls legend, although I don't really know why. No one ever told me. Pop's Custard (still there and still really, really good) even had a custard flavor named after him, and when that flavor appeared on their sign, people flocked in to buy it. I suspect Father Fran was a big social justice guy because back then, and to this day, Good Shepherd was/is all about the social justice. (Oh wait. I just researched on the internet. This explains EVERYTHING.) Anyway, for whatever reason it was, when I was a kid, Good Shepherd was packed on Sundays because of Father Fran. I'm sure there were people coming to mass from outside of our cozy little suburb just to see him from all over the Milwaukee area.

My memories of Father Fran are few but solid. He was a short guy, already graying and old. He liked giving hugs. He always had a smile on his face. What kid didn't like that? I really liked him and I know that even while my brother and I moaned about having to go to mass each week, it was made better by the fact of Father Fran's presence.

Mass at Good Shepherd was a guitar experience. All the way, baby! Folk music central. Now mind you, I grew up with a father who was into the Kingston Trio and sang me to sleep while playing Peter, Paul, and Mary on his guitar. Thus, I have a soft spot for folk and always will. And remember that my earliest memories of mass involve backyards and more guitars. So this state of musical affairs didn't really impress me as odd. I knew enough that Good Shepherd was different from the other church in town, but it wasn't a big deal to me or, seemingly, to my parents.

But looking back, the guitars were over-the-top, and here is why: The Kids Mass. Good Shepherd had a Kids Mass we could go to, complete and separate from the regular mass, and my parents were absolutely enchanted with this idea. Now don't misread me - this wasn't the situation where the children leave mass during the homily and return back with (as Erin Manning likes to quip) their "Jesus Loves Me" coloring page. Nope. This was an entire mass for kids, led by a separate priest (deacon? worship team?), in a large room behind the main church (the gym?) that was rocking it's own guitar vibe concurrent with the Adult Mass. At least that's how I remember it.

The Kids Mass is where I learned to resent pandering to kids. I'm sure the homilies were geared to a kids' level and that we benefited - of this I have no doubt. But it was the music. And the puppets. And, perhaps even, the balloons? But most of all, the forced sing-a-long church songs, all accompanied by guitars, guitars, and more guitars (and tamborines). They tried and tried to get us to sing along and out loud, but we all just sat there self-conscious, not wanting to stick out and then be made fun of back at school. It was a hippy-conceived nightmare of guitar praise and worship.

After going to more than a handful of these masses, I'm pretty sure I wanted to be with my parents in the main church, but I knew in my heart that my parents found this innovative approach to religion so wonderful that I couldn't say anything. They LOVED the Kids Mass because they felt we were being spoken to and ministered to in a way that was just right for us.

Memories of CCD at Good Shepherd are vague. I recall very empty hallways in the school building and being confused as to which classroom I was supposed to go into, because the halls and rooms all looked the same - empty and devoid of decoration. Almost like a time capsule tomb. (I researched on the internet that Good Shepherd's school closed in 1971, which is mighty, mighty early for a Catholic school to fail, if you ask me.) I also remember not wanting to go to CCD there, as well as being allowed to ride my bike to get there a handful of times, and my purposely dawdling and riding around on side streets so that I would be late.

Then, just as quickly as we had suddenly switched over to Good Shepherd parish, we just as suddenly reverted back to St. Mary's about five years later. My mother claimed that my brother and I started whining about wanting to go to CCD where our current batch of friends were going, and I guess for a time that wasn't at Good Shepherd. I was confirmed at St. Mary's by Bishop Cousins. Looking back, I feel happy that it wasn't Rembert Weakland, which it just as easily could have been, given that Cousins confirmed me while infirm and sitting in a wheelchair, and he died not two years later.

Fast-forward to recent times.

My father had died. Later, my mother met someone. They decided to get married. He was divorced and decidedly not interested in an annulment; his divorce had occurred 25 plus years ago. My mother wanted a Christian wedding and didn't know who would perform it. I asked around and found someone - an ex-priest who was now married. And guess where he attended church now? Good Shepherd.

Discussing this ex-priest in certain circles, I was appraised of the current situation at Good Shepherd: Ex-priest? You're welcome at Good Shepherd. Gay and practicing? Good Shepherd. Leaning towards or outright pro-womyn priest? Good Shepherd. Suspended priest? Good Shepherd. Really into social justice? Good Shepherd.

Now, let me be clear. What I'm alleging is hearsay. Take it for what it's worth, given that I'm not attending the church and can't personally vouch for this situation. But I'm pretty sure that the priests who have spoken with me about Good Shepherd, while maybe embellishing a bit for emphasis and comic relief, aren't lying about the general profile of parishioners who attend there.

Which is why whatever's going down at Good Shepherd with Deacon Sandy isn't a surprise because this is the legacy of Good Shepherd. This isn't anything new over there; supposed heresy would be the natural outgrowth, based on its history.

Some might wonder why a parish so steeped in near or outright heresy and supposed liturgical abuse has been allowed to continue on as it has for decades? The easy answer is Archbishop Rembert Weakland. He ran the show in Milwaukee for so many years, and clearly he was, at least, a partial fan of what was going on. In the years since Weakland had to step down? It may be that Archbishop Timothy Dolan and our now bishop, Jerome Listecki, believe that a parish like Good Shepherd must exist in order to minister at the most minimum level to those who still wish to remain Catholic. In my opinion, it may be nothing more than an act of mercy.

Despite what I have described here, a tiny part of my heart has some good-feeling sentimentalism about my time at Good Shepherd. Age can do that to you.

I also question if something happened in my Catholic formation at Good Shepherd - that even though I left the Church for many years - I came back to it, and with such vigor? Did something happen at Good Shepherd that planted a good seed? Who knows?

Anyway, I'm pretty sure the time has finally come for somebody to address the liberal legacy that is Good Shepherd. That is, unless, like I suggested, the Church has many different forms of mercy. The Church is much wiser than all of us.....I have to believe that Christ knows His flock and provides for them.

We await many answers from the Lord about things that mystify us, don't we?


  1. Guitars and torn loaves of bread....we have that in common. Mass outdoors singing Bob Dylan songs and Free to Be You and Me with renegade Jesuits. Grateful that somehow the Lord directed us to knowing our faith better from so much early confusion. (I have photos of it to share with you.)

  2. "I also question if something happened in my Catholic formation at Good Shepherd - that even though I left the Church for many years - I came back to it, and with such vigor? Did something happen at Good Shepherd that planted a good seed? Who knows?" I love this line.

    I think the same thing sometimes about my eight years in Catholic elementary school. I don't think it was particularly rigorous in terms of faith formation. But out of over 25 first cousins, I am the only one who is still a practicing Catholic and I am the only one that went to Catholic school. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

    As far as the main topic of your post, I've learned to just let these things go and let the bishops figure it out. I'm not a bishop and Lord knows I have a hard enough time being a good person in my own ordinary life.

    Thanks for sharing this piece Charlotte. ~ Catlady

  3. I grew up in the southwest, and had much the same experience, but instead of loaves of bread, we had tortillas. And Mexican serapes as the altar cloth. I loathed the guitar playing hippies, who were 'with it', and wanted to make Mass cool.

    That guitar playing nun on Airplane! Reminds me of going to Mass back then. Everyone singing and clapping while the girl's IV is torn out. I am a Catholic in spite of the 70's.

    The felt banners, The felt banners....

  4. Love this post. Simply love it...I was away from the church for the entire 70s and into the 80s...when I came back things were kinda calming down. I recall thinking Are there churches with regular stained glass windows anymore? Statues? Those were part of my early childhood memories. The music minister in the church I married in, was an extremely talented former seminarian whose back story I eventually heard only a part were part of every mass. Along with a veritable orchestra, including trumpets. He would have us rehearse the sung parts of the Mass, including 2 and 3-part rounds and harmonies, for many of which he (rightly or wrongly) composed the music, ordering each musically clueless section of the church to sing THIS, or THAT, as if we were completely able. As I was newly back in the Church, I thought that was normal: guitars AND complicated, layered music. Bummer none of it was Aquinas, though. But still: happy memories!

  5. The parish my parents helped to found in the southeast is a mega-church today a liberal mega-church fostering delusions of calling itself Catholic. Back in the 80s when they founded it it was guitars although we did use unleavened host for the Eucharist. That much was okay. I made my first confession there and first Holy Communion. Shortly after my younger brother made his, we beat a hasty retreat to a non-traditional architechture but very traditional liturgy and very orthodox. Banners, we had lots of banners. The time we joined it was run by a Jesuit although named for St Francis of Assisi, after he left (he was an alcoholic) the Franciscans came in and ran it. My understanding from my mother (who still occasionally attends weddings and christenings there) is that non-Catholics frequently receive communion. There are no boundaries. A young man there that she served as confirmation sponsor for is now at a large liberal state university championing womyn's rights and gay rights and everything the Catholic church stands strongly against but he still goes to mass each Sunday. (No kneelers there though!) This resonated deeply with me because it talks to every uneasy and awful feeling I have about the parish of my childhood. Gross liturgical abuse and such that, even as a child I knew was wrong. My parents took us there as they felt welcome there as a young family. I only wish they could have made the necessary adjustments to attend an actual liturgy all those years ago. But they did what they did and in the end, thankfully, for us, it all turned out okay.