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Saint Mary of Egypt—Who Had Been A Sinner Donna Perry -L he best part ofgrowing up CathoUc was the saints." My husband and I are shopping on Arthur Avenue, an ItaUan area with the best prosciutto in the Bronx. We've stopped in a CathoUc supply store so I can buy a plastic statue of Saint Joseph for a friend who is trying to seU his house. Although I have been what we used to caU a "lapsed" CathoUc for years, I stül identify, culturaUy, as one. I feel at home in Gothic cathedrals and love Gregorian chant, the smeU ofincense, and ritual. In foreign churches I Ught candles in memory of my mother. Neül, the son ofmiddle-class nonreligious Jews, doesn't get it. "In my halfofthe Bible there's an injunction against worshipping graven images," he says. "The statue is a representation," I say, getting huffy. "We don't worship the saints, we venerate them." I have no idea where "venerate" came from—the place I've stored the corporal works ofmercy, the Act of Contrition, the Seven Gifts ofthe Holy Ghost and hundreds of other words—plenary indulgence, sanctifying grace, transubstantiation, mortal and venial sin. A CathoUc databank. "What's the difference?" "We respected the saints," I say, scrambling. "But they were human— their lives made great stories." "But you planted Saint Joseph when you wanted to seU your house." Since I have already explained to NeUl that burying a statue of Saint Joseph—facing the property for sale—wasn't something my people ever actuaUy did, and that this is ajoke gift anyway, I don't respond. I'm also not sure how Saint Joseph became the patron saint of real estate, unless it has something to do with his being homeless on Christmas Eve. There are several models to choose from, but I settle on the cheapest. I'm at the counter with my made-in-China, six-inch plastic SaintJoseph— 118 Donna Perry119 holding both the baby Jesus and his signature white lily—when NeiU brings over Our Friends the Saints. Copyright 1956, a smaU paperback fiUed with old-fashioned colored pictures and simple text, it's the same book I spent hours poring over as a child. As I turn the pages, I'm transported back to Saint Peter's School in LoweU, Massachusetts, where I got to know these bizarre people who defied heathens , joked in the face of death, made friends with wüd animals, and lived exciting, eventful Uves. Without thinking I turn to my favorite—Saint Mary of Egypt. She looks exactly the same. Without reading the text, I remember her story and what it meant to me. When I was eleven we had to write a book report on a saint's Ufe. We were supposed to choose one who was particularly inspirational and whose Ufe has a special meaning for us, Sister Ursula said, and explain why in five handwritten pages. The paper was due in two weeks. She's just told me I can't do Saint Augustine when Anne McHaIe's hand shoots up like a rocket. "Sister, may I do Saint Ursula?" I want to throw up. Sister Ursula is aU smües. "Why Anne, what a good choice," she says. "Saint Ursula was a teacher who saved her children from the terrible Huns, and you are so good helping the first graders. I'm sure you would find her Ufe inspirational." "Thank you, Sister," Anne McHaIe says and sits down. I'm sitting there wondering why I can't do a saint whose Confessions are in my grandfather's bookcase and Anne McHaIe can do what she wants because she's a suck-up. I'm imagining hoards of Huns burning Anne McHaIe at the stake when the beU rings and we aU file out to lunch. I announce the assignment at supper. My mother and Aunt Hunna are fighting over whether Lu Bean should have gotten married so soon after her husband died. Hunna says she figures LU was lonely and Frank EUis had been a widower for three years already, so what was the big deal? The big...


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pp. 118-129
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