A Case of Italian Guilt

A story about "found money" and the poor box at church.


One of my relatives got married in Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on March 24. The wedding gave me the opportunity to visit this grand old church, located on Second Avenue. I think the last time I was there was around 1990, when a friend of my wife’s and mine got married.

While I waited for the bride to walk down the aisle, I began scanning the church to see how different it was since the last time I was there, and I was surprised to find that hardly anything had changed. The great pipe organ in the balcony . . . the huge marble ledge and statues . . . the wooden old-style confessionals located along the far walls. I had always remembered it to be a magnificent structure both inside and out when I attended service there with my grandparents on occasion.

All of these sights brought back a few memories for me from when I was a kid. For many years, my father’s mother, whom we affectionately called “Big Grandma”, was the cleaning lady for Star of the Sea. She used to come to the church at least two or three times a week and made the place spic ‘n’ span in time for Sunday mass.

In the early 1970’s after “Big Grandpa” retired from the A&P, my grandparents began taking vacations down to Florida, usually 2-3 weeks at a time. Then in 1975, my grandparents purchased a winter home in Florida, and for the next twenty years, became the quintessential “New Jersey snowbirds”, migrating down south from early January to late April to get away from the Jersey chill.

Every time my grandparents went down to Florida, my grandmother would call me up a few weeks ahead of time and ask me if I would clean the church for her until she came back to Long Branch. With the prospect of earning $20 a week for as long as she was down there, how could I resist? At 13-years-old, twenty bucks was a lot of money back then.

Every year, she’d remind me what the steps were to getting the church in shape for Mass. First, I had to sweep out every pew towards the center aisle. Then, I had to sweep the center aisle out and remove the dust from the church with a whisk broom and pan.

After the pews were cleaned out, I had to sweep the center aisle and outside aisles with an industrial-style sweeper. Then I went and used the sweeper in the church lobby. Finally, I went behind the altar and swept the floors in the sacristy, which wrapped around behind the altar all the way to the other side. That ended the sweeping part. Now it was time for the dusting.

Anything in the church that had chrome or metal plating on it had to be dusted. The major items were the doors to the ciborium (where the vessels are stored on the altar), the chalices, and the podium where the lecturer stood to present the readings.

It was tedious work, but luckily, the railings and the holy water fonts were all made out of marble, so that helped cut back on the dusting. I usually finished in about two days. Every once in a while, Father Horan, the longtime pastor at Star of the Sea, would come over to the church while I was working and shoot the breeze with me while I toiled away.

One of the things I remembered most about cleaning the church is what Big Grandma used to say to me when she went over what I had to do for her while she was away. She always told me that if I found any money while I was sweeping the pews out, I had to put it in the poor box.

The years went by, and I kept on filling in for Big Grandma. Then Father Horan passed away, and a new regime came in to run Star of the Sea. The first thing they did was find “volunteers” to help do things around the church. So Big Grandma was pushed out of her job cleaning the church every week.

Now you would think that she’d complain about the way she got treated and how the whole situation went down for her. But instead, Big Grandma – probably one of the holiest people I ever knew – didn’t complain and accepted it as God’s will.

As I reminisced about Big Grandma and my time cleaning the church for her, I couldn’t help but chuckle lightly thinking about her instructions to me about what to do with “found money” in the church. Just before the bride was to come down the aisle, I kept looking around one last time, and my eye caught something I could not believe.

The original poor boxes that I remembered from my days of cleaning the church were still there, right where I had remembered them to be -- next to the side exit doors. And then I had this thought that Big Grandma was looking down on me, wondering if I ever put the found money in the poor box.

The Italian guilt. I guess some things never change after all.

(You can also follow Kevin Cieri’s blog on his Facebook page, “Jersey Shore Retro” as well as on Twitter at @jsretro).

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