All this juicy back and forth of late about removing crosses and statues from schools reminded me of the fact that I’ve been exposed myself to a religious icon or two or three in my distant past.
One of the earliest was a monstrosity of an icon, oval shaped, heavy as hell, so to speak, and depicting in graphic detail each station of the cross in which Jesus Christ was whipped and bludgeoned into a bloody pulp, a horrific death the Christian world has always maintained was orchestrated by Jesus’ father, or, as the believers called him, God the Father, in order that the crucifixion could pay for “our sins.” (If my dad put me through that kind of suffering, I’d have been decidedly upset and he would have never gotten that worm container for Father’s Day I picked up at the Gander Co-op for 50 cents in Grade 4).
There were a dozen scenes of carnage encircling the icon like the numbers on a clock, any of which would have made the final shoot-out in the blood-dripping movie, “The Wild Bunch,” relatively bland by comparison.
And it was all mine, lucky seven-year-old or so that I was, this wooden-framed, dust-covered Stations of the Cross, taken down very carefully from a wall located in a tiny bedroom in one of those narrow miniature homes on Lime Street in St. John’s by a relative we all called Auntie Murphy (a devout Catholic whom I’m sure would have had her Saturday bath in holy water had that been possible), and delivered in a pious ceremony into the hands of the innocent Ganderite in the big city for a visit.
I couldn’t protest, of course, and tell my parents that the Stations of the Cross scared the bejeezus out of me and that the idea of having the scourging at the pillar and other delightful beatings just above my bed back in Gander, right in the spot where a poster of Gordie Howe was proudly positioned, would turn me into a shivering wimp. Or that it could bring on another case of Obsessive Compulsive Catholic Disease, possibly sparking a nightmare that would keep Mom and Dad up all night trying to convince me I was not going to burn in hell for having hung out with a protestant, a “black,” behind the Amalgamated School.
On cue, under implied orders, I had to thank Auntie Murphy graciously for the lovely present, kiss her thickly powdered face and protectively hold the Stations of the Cross to my chest for the entire eight-hour drive over the dusty, pot-holed Trans-Canada “Highway” to Gander, and make sure the crown of thorns did not topple from Christ’s bloodied head onto a car floor covered with potato chips and bar wrappers and the residue of vomit from Mom’s and Dad’s youngest off-spring. If that was to happen, I was convinced I would bypass purgatory upon my demise and be delivered directly into hell, to be barbecued for eternity.
Worse still was the frightening prospect that I might one day have to take my newly acquired religious icon into Grand Falls to visit Mom’s relatives, thus having to cross the Exploits River on a wooden barge ridiculously and liberally defined as a car ferry, a contraption powered by outboard motors, a “vessel” that miraculously managed to never lose a passenger or vehicle in 20 or more years of nervous service.
If that trip was to come about, I just knew I would be worried sick that one of the 12 heads of Jesus on my Stations of the Cross would be decapitated as our Davy Crockettish mode of transportation fought the rapids, and would wind up in the river, sink to the bottom, never to be seen again until an anthropologist in the year 2080 stumbled across its rusty remains. Historians from around the world would gather in St. John’s to study this strange object, this religious icon from an odd time indeed.
But there were other such icons in my early life.
There was the cross in front of St. Joseph’s in Gander, visual evidence even to pilots landing and taking off from the Crossroads of the World that there was at least one school down there run by the Catholic Church, the “one true Church,” as we were brainwashed to think.
And inside those bastions of religious tolerance, there were statues everywhere.
I remember that during the month of May, for instance, there was a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in every classroom and each grade competed to see who could come up with the most original assortment of blue decorations to affix to the Virgin Mother (an oxymoron for the ages).
And I don’t know if you’d call it an icon or not, but on a wall in most classrooms hung a sacred stats board with all of our names attached, a public list of numbers of how many masses and communions we managed to accumulate during Lent. It was a Stanley Cup playoff for bread and wine, body and blood, a genuine race with a set of rosary beads presented to the winner. I don’t honestly know whether any of the first-place finishers were the real bonafide holy-rollers of the class, or whether they were just competitive gamers, perhaps teacher’s pets, nun’s pets, keen on impressing the hell out of all who surrounded them. Who’s to say?
Or maybe one of the losers, one of the more enlightened types who pooh-poohed the entire game, went on to become a civil servant or a cabinet minister in the Tobin government and helped bring denominational education tumbling down off its expensive and religiously bigoted pedestal.
Again, who knows?
As we all do know, there was a bottom line decades later: the vast majority of the province voted to do away with denominational education and opted for a public school system, one that wisdom and common sense dictate should function without religious icons.
I thought the whole issue was as dead as one of those moose who try to go head to head with the grill of a Mack truck at two in the morning, that the icons, the crosses, the stations of the cross, had been removed from the schools. But apparently they’re everywhere, and a parent at St. Matthew’s School has threatened to take the matter to court, prompting school board officials to admit that the complainant has a legitimate case, that if he goes before a human rights tribunal, the icons would lose.
Well, I say kudos to that gutsy parent for taking on this ticklish affair.
It’s an open-and-shut case, of course, as even the board lawyers have concluded. These are public schools. The crosses and the other icons should have been removed years ago, and placed where they belong: in churches.
By the way, Auntie Murphy’s Stations of the Cross disappeared from my haunted bedroom during one of our many moves after we left Gander.
I don’t recall where it ended up; all I cared about, and was grateful for, was that it was gone.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.