Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Religious History

By Richard J. Martin Jr.

I WAS BAPTIZED Catholic at six weeks of age. By the time I reached 14, I had received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation and was about to graduate from St. Gabriel School. It was then that I questioned the religious instruction of my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Roseanne.

"I don't understand."

"What don't you understand, Richard?"

"How Jesus died for my sins. I mean, how did He know what sins I would commit?"

"God knows everything...."

"So if Jesus died on the cross so that my sins could be forgiven, then I can really do whatever I want, because I will be forgiven."

"No!...I mean, yes...if you ask for forgiveness, in Christ's name."

"But if God is all-powerful, why doesn't He just stop us from sinning? How could He just stand by and watch us get into trouble?"

I wanted to back off then, but it was too late. Jaws that had been chomping on wads of bubble gum had gone slack. Sister Roseanne had her hands together as if praying, and a small bead of sweat had appeared from underneath her black cowl. "I think you had better discuss this with Sister Marian Clare."

I got out of my seat and went to the principal's office. I had done battle with Sister Marian Clare before--broken windows, fights in the schoolyard, and "not living up to my potential." How much trouble could a guy get in for asking a question in class?

I sat in front of her and looked directly into her eyes. I knew the routine. First she would instill shame. Then came the punishment: privileges denied, the 1,000-word essay, weekend work at the convent. Then the threat: more terrible and unnamed consequences that would be levied if I ever had the misfortune to come before her again.

But today was different. She started with an almost maternal tone.

"You know, Richard...eighth grade is a turning point. The habits and behaviors that you develop in eighth grade stay with you through high school and often set the course of your life."

I sat in silence.

"It was horrible what you did to Sister Roseanne in class today."

That was my cue, "Hey, I was just asking..."

There was a "snap!" as Sister Marian Clare rapped one time on the desk with the pencil she was holding. Her eyes and her nostrils had widened--I could see hairs in her nose and in the small mole on her cheek. There was the Sister Marian Clare I knew. I waited for the punishment.

She seemed to compose herself. "I will be phoning Brother Draper at St. Ignatius and telling him what you did today. I'm sure he will want to know what to expect. Maybe they can do something to help you. This evening, I will ask Sister Roseanne to join me in prayer for your immortal soul. I'm afraid that's all we can do."

"Well, do you want me to come to the convent on Saturday to clean up?"

"That won't be necessary."

Then I started to cry. She asked me to leave her office.

I didn't think about her again much until some 12 years later, the first time I asked the church for help.

I SAT IN WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK in front of St. Peter and Paul's Church, where Mass was said in Italian. I was hungry. Both my welfare check and food stamps were gone, and it was 28 days until I would see more. I had a friend, another poet/welfare recipient, who sat with me.

I thought of the church. Sister Marian Clare. The money my mother had given me to throw into the collection plate and the money she had thrown in herself. The years in the hated school uniform, and how many fights I had lost to public school kids because of it. The Salesian Missions, Catholic Charities, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and all the time and money we gave to them.

I figured it was time for some payback. These fucking assholes. How could they call themselves a church if they would let me, a Catholic, raised and schooled in this very archdiocese, sit here hungry while they collected people's hard-earned cash for missionaries in Guatemala?

I decided to go over to the door of the rectory and ask for some food.

My friend was hungry, too. We walked over, lifted a small doorknocker and let it fall. A nun answered. I was glad.


"Look, I'm a Catholic. I'm out here with no food and no money and I'm hungry. I went to St. Gabe's!"

I waited for her to refuse me. I could picture her running to the chapel to pray after I told her what a hypocrite she was.

She looked over at my companion, then back at me. Was she asking me if he too was a Catholic? This guy was a Protestant, so I decided to ride it out.

"Wait here."

When she came back, she had a paper bag, which she handed to me, and I think she heard me say, "Thank you, Sister," as the door slammed. When we got over to the park, we opened the bag, and inside were two sandwiches (one piece of baloney between two pieces of white bread, fresh), two small bags of potato chips, and two of those tiny containers of chocolate milk that you get at a sixth-grade cafeteria lunch.

We sat on the park bench and ate the food. I started to cry, and after a while, so did my friend.

THE NEXT TIME I asked the church for help, 15 years later, things had changed. I actually didn't even ask for myself, but for another Catholic who needed help. I had a job: administrative assistant to the head nurse on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.

One night, a very old man lay dying in the hospital. His name was Oscar Padua and his family was gathered around him--12 of them in all--convening an emotional bedside vigil.

On night shift, there is only one doctor on duty and he is usually asleep. If a patient's heart stops or if he can't breathe, you wake the doctor up. Otherwise, the head nurse is in charge and he or she will consult the doctor's orders that are hanging from the hook on the side of the hospital bed and make decisions from that.

The orders by the side of the bed of Oscar Padua said "comfort care," which basically means that this patient is going to die soon and you should pump him full of morphine until the time comes. But the family wanted Oscar to live. They kept coming up to the nurse's station with annoying requests and disturbing the peace and quiet of the ward by sobbing in the hallways. I got a call in the Nursing Administration office, and was charged with doing something about this family.

I came into the death room and offered them some tissue, and told them that there was a lounge down the hall where they could rest and watch television. They declined, and asked some medical questions I couldn't answer. I went down to the cafeteria and assembled a platter of food for them.

When I re-entered the room, their eyes lit up. They thought I had brought something that could make Poppie well again. When they saw it was only bananas and sandwiches, they turned away--the matriarch even slitted her eyes a little. The food sat there.

Now they were pissing me off. I sought out the head nurse on duty, Bob.

"Bob, let's wake up the doctor."

"We can't."

"Why not? If this guy is dying, why can't we hook him up to the ventilators, the defibrillators, and all that shit?"

"It's not gonna help. Forget it."

"I'm phoning a priest then."

Bob laughed.

I got the number for St. Gabriel's Parish from information, and made the call. I had been saving my diatribe on how the church owed me for about 20 years now, and I was eager to wake this priest up at 3:19 a.m. to deliver it.


"Hey, I need to talk to a priest."

"This is Father Mickey.... Hello?"

"Yeah...okay...Father Mickey, I'm at Davies Medical Center, and there is a Catholic here who needs last rites."

"What is the patient's name and what floor is he on?"

"Uh...well, his name's Oscar Padua, and he's on Three North."

"I'll be there in about 15 minutes."

When Father Mickey entered the room, the Padua family breathed a collective sigh of relief. The women rushed to him, and he took them into his arms. They wanted to touch him, touch his robes and the cross he carried around his neck. He let them touch his garments, then he touched each woman on the cheek, and their hands in turn rushed up to their faces to protect the spot that he had just touched. He spoke to them in Tagalog; he had been a missionary in the Philippines. Finally, he turned to the bed where the patient lay, audibly struggling to breathe. He said, "Let's pray...."

That broke everybody. Even the men started to weep openly. They gathered around the bed and assumed a prayerful stance. The matriarch, who had given me a dirty look earlier, gave me an even dirtier one, and I slid into the circle and bowed my head. I didn't want to embarrass Bob by looking over, but when we started to say the prayers, I'm pretty sure I heard his voice.

By the time Father Mickey went back to St. Gabriel's, the sun was coming up. The Padua family stopped asking questions and bothering the nurses, and when I returned for work the next night, Oscar Padua was in the hospital morgue and the Paduas were gone. 2

About the Author

Glen Park resident Richard J. Martin Jr. has lived in San Francisco for more than 40 years. He makes his living as a grant writer, a skill he developed as a client of Walden House, a drug and alcohol treatment center. A graduate of City College, he says at 47 years of age that he "just might be the oldest student in San Francisco State University's creative writing program." His stories, poems, and articles have appeared in the S.F. Herald, Seattle Weekly, Working Magazine, Bay Area Reporter, Frisko Magazine, the Walden House Journal, and Successful Fundraising. Much of his work is drawn from his past personal experience as a Mission District heroin addict and his subsequent work in nonprofit human service agencies. He's also a musician and a member of Musicians Union Local 6.

Martin's favorite Noe Valley ritual is "to get a haircut at Isa's Salon, where the stylist is always kind enough to trim my eyebrows." He likes to follow up with a visit to Pasta Pomodoro, for spaghetti and meatballs. His most memorable Noe Valley experience is winning a trip to Paris in a Bell Market giveaway.