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The Priest, the Wine and the Cousin
by Don Drewniak

Both my Grandpa John (grudgingly) and Grandma Sophie (devotedly) attended a Ukrainian Catholic church located a half mile from their tenement. Established in the early 1900s, the church, although labeled Catholic, had no connection with the Vatican. Rather, it was under the control of a bishop who resided in Philadelphia.

The priests were allowed to marry (and, by extension, have sex). This created a problem. Occasionally an unmarried priest would become smitten with one of the church ladies resulting in the two becoming fodder for gossip by the parishioners, who for the most part were in the fifty to seventy-year age range. Society then was far less tolerant than it is now.

A fund raiser to benefit the church was held in the church’s basement every two months. (Grandpa John claimed that a succession of priests used the money for liquor.) Raffle prizes were donated by area businesses and members of the church. The food, which was cooked and donated by the parishioners, invariably was comprised of holuptsi (cabbage rolls), pedeheh (Ukrainian for pierogi), kovbasá (the Ukrainian word for kielbasa) and cake for dessert. My grandmother would be in her pantry from dawn to dusk the day prior to the fundraiser preparing upwards of two hundred holuptsi.

The church basement could hold no more than fifty people at a time. During the 1940s, church membership was well over one hundred (perhaps as many as two hundred), and was thriving. As a result, the church took possession of the deserted Laurel Mills office building located diagonally across from my grandparents’ tenement. The Laurel Mills (one of what were once over 120 cotton mills in Fall River) ceased production two years into the Great Depression. The office building was renamed the Ukrainian National Home. It had a seating capacity of over one hundred and was used for special occasion banquets and weddings.

A portent of dark days to come. One of the few items from my childhood days still in my possession is a black-and-white, twenty-inch by twelve-inch framed photograph of a gathering at the Home on Veteran’s Day, 1945. The occasion was a “Welcome Home Banquet” sponsored by the Ukrainian War Mothers Club of Fall River. Of those in attendance, approximately sixty percent were fifty and above in age. Most of the rest were in their thirties and forties, including World War II veterans. Among the veterans were my father, my mother’s two brothers and the son of my grandmother’s sister. I was one of only three children present.

Sunday services at St. John’s during the 1940s were most often filled to capacity. As parishioners began to pass on, attendance slowly declined in the 50s. The pace of the decline accelerated in the 60s and early 70s. By the mid-1970s, the church no longer had a dedicated priest. Services were performed by visiting priests from a parish in Rhode Island.

During the 70s, long after I left Fall River, I attended a wedding ceremony at the church in which a relative of the family was being married. The priest who performed the ceremony arrived sixty minutes late after having driven in from Rhode Island. Strike one.

The reception was held at a restaurant, the Coachman, in nearby Tiverton, Rhode Island. Sitting at the head table was the priest who performed the ceremony. I’m guessing that he was in his early fifties. During the course of the afternoon, he downed a good-sized amount of red wine. Strike two.

About two hours into the reception, I noticed quite a few of the attendees had their attention focused on him. Sitting on his lap was a well-endowed woman in her mid-thirties. Coincidentally, she was a cousin of mine who had been married four times. The priest had a smile on his face that appeared to extend from ear to ear. The newly introduced couple disappeared shortly thereafter. Strike three.

Strike three and out — out of the restaurant to somewhere best left to the imagination.