“Summer vacation, 1964, the summer after my freshman year in high school, was the beginning of my dark night of the soul.”
What the hell? What was Louis Sojo talking about?
“It was,” he said, “the start of almost twenty years of wandering in a jagged wasteland, searching for something — I didn’t know what. Confused, uneasy, lost, I would get glimpses now and then of a direction to take, a turn to make. Was this the right way to go? I didn’t know. I just knew I had to be moving. I had to continue searching.”
I just nodded. What else could I do?
We were sitting in a booth at McDonald’s. Louis had a cup of coffee in front of him. I had pretty much finished my Diet Coke.
His publisher — he’s a textbook writer — had sent him out to sit in on some classrooms where one of the company’s books, The Spirit of the Nation, was being used. At the John Coughlin Academy of Excellence and Justice, I turned a corner and suddenly I heard, “Chippy!” And there was Louis.
Internally I cringed at that nickname. I hadn’t been called “Chippy” since my early 30s when I’d play basketball every Saturday morning at a church gym on the North Side. Louis was part of those games — a short, plumb guy who was a lot more agile than he appeared. He had a horrible-looking shot that almost always went in. A good teammate, a quiet presence on the court and off. A good guy.
But it’s not like we were close. I was happy to see him again and glad to catch up. I never expected to hear him unload his life story — or, at least, his story about the summer of 1964. We’d been talking about baseball and the players we remembered from the 1950s and 1960s, and, then, for whatever reason, Louis began to ramble.
“In 1963,” he said, “I had been riding high, graduating from eighth grade with good grades and high expectations. As one of the four boys in my class going off to be priests, I’d been a pet of the nuns. Unlike the other three, though, I wasn’t going to the archdiocesan high school seminary. My choice was more exotic. I was to go to a seminary 60 miles away, out south near Kankakee, outside the small hamlet of Momence, barely more than a stop sign or two on Dixie Highway. St. Jude was a boarding school. No one from our neighborhood had gone there before me. No one from my neighborhood, at least as far as I knew, had ever gone to a boarding school. It had lush green grounds, a gym, a swimming pool. It was a new complex, built in the 50s. It was fresh and clean, and some place completely different from the blue-collar neighborhood in which I’d been raised.
“This was a fulcrum moment in the history of the Catholic Church….”
“You know, the Second Vatican Council was just getting under way. John XXIII had opened the windows, but the breezes were just beginning to stir things up.
“You were an altar boy, right?”
I nodded. I’d been one of those altar boys who missed most of my assignments and who didn’t even know how to mumble through the Latin. But, yeah, I was an altar boy.
“I had been the chief altar boy during the summer after 7th grade,” Louis said, “with the responsibility of making sure servers were at each mass (which meant that my younger brother and I were over at the church, a half block away, almost every day). I was deeply rooted in the Latin liturgy. I was bedazzled by the gold candlesticks, the elegant vestments, the insider-ness of the thing.”
I remembered all that gold and marble, and how I had to stretch way high to light these tall candles, I couldn’t even see their wicks. What a pain! But Louis was now talking about reading the book The Cardinal.
“…Then I saw the movie starring Tom Tryon — and that was what I saw for myself. The hero priest! The priest, so firm in his faith that he could face the challenges, dangers and, yes, temptations of the world and persevere. And not only persevere, but succeed — end up as a Prince of the Church.”
I wanted to butt in and change the subject. Talk of Princes of the Church always made me a bit itchy, like someone was about to pick my pocket. We were Americans, weren’t we? But I couldn’t find an opening. Louis continued to ramble.
“For me, the church was a way out. It was a ladder out of my neighborhood and up the levels of acclaim and triumph. It had much in common with the hierarchical structure of the city’s Democratic Machine — precinct captains, committeemen and aldermen, Mayor. Joining the Conclave of Cardinals was not much different, to my teenage eyes, as being elected to the Chicago City Council.”
The City Council — that was something else that made me itchy.
“Not that I thought I had to become a cardinal. I didn’t need to. The priests in that era — which was so near its end although neither I nor most people could see that — were small gods. In an immigrant Catholic neighborhood like mine, they exuded ultimate authority. Their word was law.”
As he talked, I could see what he meant. When I was growing up, the pastor was a powerful guy in the community. Then, the neighborhood began to change, and, well, then, I stopped going to Mass…
“So going off to the seminary was like heading to officer training school. It was like an appointment to West Point. When you were done, you had a title. The plebe became a lieutenant. The seminarian became Father. You had prestige. You had status. People acknowledged you. You were — in the sidewalk theology of that time — a sort of saint in their midst.”
I nodded. I knew a little of that being an altar boy and standing by the priest, like at a wedding. Once, a very hot day, I was there in these heavy vestments, and I was sweating like a dog, and this one drip of sweat had rolled down my face to the end of my nose, and I was trying to blow it off…..I’ve often wondered what that bride and groom had to say about it over the course of their marriage, this kid blowing sweat off his nose as they said, “I do.” But Louis kept on.
“My first year at St. Jude was, in many ways, like boot camp. We arose at 6:30 a.m. We wore a uniform — a black pullover sweater with an orange-grey-black patch over our hearts announcing our affiliation with the school. Much of the day was spent in silence. We were silent in study hall, silent in class (unless responding to a teacher’s question), silent at most meals (while listening to one of us read from a religious book or magazine). We all had jobs — called manual training — around the buildings and grounds, and there were set times in the day when we were to carry out our duties. We had two hours of recreation in the afternoon, and a half hour after lunch and supper during which we could talk. Every minute was scheduled, from the morning bell and prayer until lights out at 9 p.m.”
“Sounds like jail to me.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Louis said. “There was a feeling of camaraderie among us that, I suspect, is similar to what recruits feel as they go through the rigors of boot camp. We were lonely — I was devastatingly homesick for the first month or more — and the rules of the seminary discouraged what were called ‘particular friendships.’ But we did make friends, and we felt, like our compatriots with the marines, we were getting tougher, sharper, more skilled as the year went on. I did well in school. I wrote for the school newspaper.”
That sounded better than my freshman year in high school. We were all pretty lost and confused — and we didn’t have a common goal like Louis did at his school. But we had girls. Who were pretty scary.
“High school’s hard for everyone,” I said to Louis. “Yours sounds not so bad.”
“Well, maybe,” he said, and then rolled on.
“The seminary was the training ground for the Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known as the Claretians, for the group’s Spanish founder, St. Anthony Mary Claret. The Claretians were involved in a wide range of ministries, and I always thought of the order as a poor man’s Jesuits, serving in a lot of odd, out-of-the-way places. One Claretian, in fact, was the chaplain to the Chicago Police Department, of which my father was a patrolman.
“The ministry in which I was most interested was U.S. Catholic, the monthly magazine the Claretians published. I knew I could write. I knew that, whatever I would do in life, I would be writing. The editorship of U.S. Catholic seemed made for me. I felt that, once I zipped through the 13 years of preparation for the priesthood, I would just move into the editor’s office at the magazine’s headquarters on West Madison Street in Chicago’s Loop, and my life path was set.
“Then came the summer.”
He stopped and looked off to the left. His face was intense. I’d seen him look this way on the basketball court at times when the game was on the line and he was working with his team for the final shot. You know, when passes are zipping around, and the defense is tight, and at any moment the game can be won or lost.
“I’m not sure what I expected,” he finally said, looking back at me. “I guess, I thought things would be the way they’d always been. And, in fact, the old neighborhood, my family, my friends — all of them — were pretty much as I’d left them. But I had changed.
“As I look back now, I can see what was going on. I had broken away from my nest. I had severed ties to the old way of life, the expectations for children of my neighborhood. I was different. I’d seen a bit of the wider world, albeit the cornfields outside of sleepy Momence. I’d put myself on a track that no one else I knew, no one my parents knew, had chosen. I was blazing my own trail.
“Yet, I was only 14. I couldn’t see the big picture. I had no way to visualize the trajectory of my life — how, by making the choices I’d already made, I’d pointed myself into a new direction.
“I just knew I felt like a freak.”
“We all felt like freaks in high school. Why, one time,….” I said. Louis didn’t seem to hear.
“As that vacation began — during the school year, I’d only been back for a couple weeks at Christmas and a week at Easter — I tried to wade back into the stream of everyday life. But it didn’t work.
“I reconnected with my best friend, Tom. We rode our bikes together a couple afternoons, but he finally said to me, ‘You’re different.’ We faded away from each other after that. I stayed at home and read books. I organized and re-organized my baseball cards. I hid out.
“It wasn’t that anyone said anything mean to me, or that I did anything strange. I just withdrew from the life of the neighborhood because I was embarrassed at who I was.
“That may sound crazy since a good part of the reason I went into the seminary was for the status it would bring me. But, as a 14-year-old boy with horrible acne coming back from nine months at a place as foreign to my neighborhood as the face of Mars, I knew — I knew — I didn’t fit in.
“I felt like an alien. I was an oddity. I had no one to talk to. Who, after all, in those days, was trained to talk about things anyway? My neighborhood was a tight-lipped place where feelings were thought best left unexamined. And, of course, in the seminary, feelings were dangerous because, well, lust was a feeling, wasn’t it?
“That lust thing was, of course, part of it. I felt like a eunuch because I was choosing a path that was leading me to celibacy. But I didn’t feel like a eunuch. That neighborhood, as much as it bowed to the priests and nuns, didn’t celebrate celibacy. Fertility was king. Within a block or two of our house, the Foys had 9 kids, the Hamiltons had 15, the Houlihans 14, the Doyles 8. At the time, I had 10 brothers and sisters, and my mother was pregnant with an 11th. Eventually, she would give birth to 14 children.”
This was starting to make me uncomfortable. I didn’t sign up for this. What the hell?
“Again, it’s not that anyone said to me, ‘Oh, you impotent freak!’ But that’s what I felt. I was frozen. I was trapped. Going away, I had turned my back on my neighborhood and its values. Now, I was paying the price. I was oppressed by my feeling of foreign-ness.
I was starting to get really irritated. How do I get out of here?
“On the night before I was to return to St. Jude, I worked up the courage to tell my parents that I didn’t want to go back for my sophomore year. I don’t know how I did that. With so many kids, my parents operated on the assumption that, once a decision was made, it was made. There wasn’t time or energy for fiddle-faddle. They were shocked.
“Not return? All the other high schools are already in session. Where will you go? How could we pay? I was on a hefty scholarship to St. Jude. And: Why?
“I couldn’t say. I had no words to put to the chaos of my emotions — my sense of having escaped and yet feeling caught, my dread of being different, my confusion at the demands of celibacy and the demands of my body, my pleasure at the routines and clarity of seminary life, my tightness, my emptiness, the gravity-like pull of my neighborhood on my psyche, my fear to even ask for a reprieve.
“We sat there, looking across the table from each other, and, then,….”
His phone rang with some classical-like ringtone. He quickly answered, listened a moment, said, “Ah, shit!”
“I gotta go, Chippy.” And, in moments, he was out the door, and I was left sitting there.
Wondering two things: What sort of a guy uses “precipitate” when he means “hasty”? And what the hell?
A month later, I got a postcard from Louis from Paris.
“Chippy — Sorry to leave you hanging. It turned out to be best moment of my life. It put me on a road. I met Cathy, and, well, the rest, as they say, is the rest. Louis.”
Patrick T. Reardon