Church in Those Days
Dad never talked about the faith in which he was raised, but in around 1965 or 1966, Dad became a member of the First Polish Baptist Church at 2611 Dundas Street and the rest of us tagged along every Sunday.
I’m not sure exactly how Dad decided we’d become Baptists. His sister Jadwiga (Ciocia to us) was Greek Orthodox. This may have been because Uncle Benedict was Ukrainian and she adopted that culture by marriage, including the dominant religion. Dad could have gone that way, too, as the village in which he grew up was either in Poland or in the Ukraine depending on the decade; the border was pretty fluid. I think he didn’t belong to any church until he moved to Canada.
Joining the First (and only) Polish Baptist Church in Toronto instead of one of the several Catholic churches may have had to do with Dad’s disillusionment with organized religion in general, and specifically ill feelings he’d developed toward the Polish Catholic faith community. An inappropriate relationship had developed between Mom and one of the church staff when she worked there; I’ll leave it at that, and that really soured Dad’s opinion of the institution and its leadership.
In any event, for this and a laundry list of reasons that only grew in the decades that followed, Dad decided that the entire Roman Catholic denomination was corrupt so he found another one he liked better at 2611 Dundas Street. Until he didn’t – he’d eventually have a falling out with Reverend Pashko and cry corruption at First Polish Baptist as well – but that would take another decade or so.
So there we all were, every Sunday, in the second last pew on the left bank of pews, with about 40 or 50 other people. There were three or four families with kids our age, with whom we developed friendships, and everyone else was, well… ancient. There were the two little old ladies, mother and daughter, about 95 and 75 years old respectively, whom we picked up each week and occasionally visited in the small flat they shared. There was the minister’s wife who sat in the second middle pew with their mysterious roommate, Miss Lily. No one could ever figure out the exact reason she lived with them – and the gossip wasn’t very Christian sometimes – but it was thought she might be Mrs. P’s cousin or something who needed help to get by.
Up front, the pulpit was manned by Reverend Alexander Pashko and the organ was manned by Mr. John Liedtke, who’d play the hymns and sing a solo or two in his rich baritone each week. There were a couple of deacons who doubled as ushers who passed the plate and counted the cash each Sunday, and I think they also did some handyman work around the building when they could. There were no women in leadership roles, because 1966.
With very limited resources, there was no Sunday School other than a nursery for tiny tots and one class for very young children. The entire congregation couldn’t have been more than 100 people total. I don’t know how Rev. Pashko put food on the table or heated the church in winter; it certainly wasn’t from my Dad’s weekly contribution to the plate, which was always one dollar. Even in the 60’s that was stingy. I’m guessing the other parishioners were more generous.
We always arrived about half an hour early, because that’s how my family rolls. This gave us kids a even bigger window of boredom. We’d squirm and fidget our way through the service. I don’t know what mental tricks my brother used to pass the time, but my MO was to paste an interested look on my face during the sermon while I checked out and mentally spun stories and fantasies about exciting quests to distant lands, planets and dimensions, and about the soft friendly animals who lived there.
On holiday weekends like Easter or Christmas, Dad would double down on our church attendance – rain, snow, or shine. There were at least three services over the Easter weekend and four services over Christmas – five if Christmas fell on a Tuesday because there would be the Sunday service, the Christmas Eve service, and the Christmas double-header.
Of course, at Christmas there would be gifts under the tree that the minister and his wife wrapped up for us, which in our kid minds almost – but not quite – paid for all the holiday hours in the pew (which felt like most of our winter break). One year, the little girls all got a manicure kit (it was useful and I liked the little vinyl case it came in) and I have no idea what the boys got that year (a boys’ manicure kit?); another year, a coffee-table size bible story picture book; and another year, it was a picture book about dog breeds (my favorite!)
Back then, people dressed up for church. Early on, the ladies wore hats and gloves, no matter what the weather. Ladies’ hats stayed on during the service. Mom had quite the collection – two or three bright colored straw ones for spring and summer and felt or fur ones for winter. She had one white rabbit-fur hat that I loved to pet as much as if it had been a real bunny.
Men also wore fedoras or other headwear, which of course came off as soon as they crossed the threshold. Females of all ages wore dresses, and the great thing about Easter (other than chocolate! eggs! bunnies!) was the new dress each spring.
I did like the annual church picnics at a big park in the country, about 50 miles away I guess. It was at a park built on an old gypsum quarry, and who knows how many different minerals that might not be good for humans leached into the man-made lakes in which we swam. But there were trees to climb, and playgrounds with really high swings. And of course, with piqued outdoor appetites, fried chicken, salads and sandwiches, and cakes and cookies and ice cream were great to eat at long tables in the shade. Good times.
A few times a year, we kids were expected to contribute to the service by sharing our talents, real or imagined. My best friends Annie and Liz played solos or duets on the piano. Some kids took a shot at singing. My parents decided my talent would be… wait for it: reciting poetry.
I was actually pretty good at it, surprising considering my shyness in other situations. I learned and recited a few different poems in those years, but my last and most stunning (in more ways than one) accomplishment was a recitation of W Piwnicznej Isbie (loosely translated, In the Basement Hovel) by Maria Konopnicka – a 47-verse heart-wrenching poem written in the late 1800’s about a mother and child living in extreme poverty (spoiler alert – the mother dies). I memorized it when I was six or seven years old. It took me about two months to learn and almost that long to recite during the church service. Holy crap. I’ll bet the grown-ups who managed to stay awake during my recital were twitching and fidgeting with boredom in their pews.