by D.A. Hosek —
“That is a medallion of San Judas—Saint Jude, no?”
I had ignored her when she first slid into the seat opposite me in the club car, keeping my eyes focused on my copy of Brideshead Revisited while I sipped mediocre red wine from a plastic cup. Now I had no choice but to acknowledge her presence. Even I can’t be that rude. I fingered the medallion hanging from my neck. It had been a present from an aunt for my Confirmation, one of those relics from adolescence that ends up buried in the back of a nightstand drawer. I’d found it while sorting everything from my childhood bedroom into the three categories of keep, donate, and throw out. I’d slipped it over my head without thinking and continued my task, trying to forget that it was my father’s recent death that had led to the task of cleaning out my room.
I turned my attention to the woman and nodded, saying a barely audible “yes.” She was an older Hispanic woman, leaning a little towards fat. She was dressed in a plain skirt suit and wore plastic horn-rimmed glasses with transition lenses that were slightly darkened from the sunlight piercing the window of the train car.
“Ah, so you are a Catholic then?”
If I were filling out a form that asked for religion, I’d probably write “Catholic” there, but other than all the visits I’d just endured around my father’s funeral, I hadn’t set foot in a church in years.
My hesitation must have been clear in my face because she said, “But, you were raised as Catholic, no?”
“I was raised as Catholic,” I admitted.
“Then you know all about the saints, yes?”
A sad smile possessed my lips. She was trying so hard and I had nothing to offer her. “No, when I was going through CCD, they didn’t teach us much of anything about the saints.”
“The sisters didn’t teach you?”
“You mean nuns? There weren’t any at my parish. The CCD was taught by grown-ups at the church.” I didn’t mention how these well-meaning adults were either dependent on the disposable classroom handouts or too quick to offer their own heterodoxy as part of their instruction.
“Things have changed so much since I was young. When I was a girl, the sisters taught us about the saints in the school. So why a medallion of San Judas?”
“It was a gift from my Aunt Lucie for confirmation. I picked Saint Jude as my Confirmation saint.”
“Did you want to be a policeman?”
“Something like that.” The fact of the matter was that the choice was one of my first acts of rebellion against Catholicism. I picked Jude because he was just a couple letters away from being Judas. I felt a bit of guilt after I filled out the form before Confirmation but it was too late: it was already printed in the program and the invitations to my confirmation party my parents had sent out. The way this woman pronounced Judas—Hoo-das—made it seem somehow less transgressive.
“Saint Jude is the most wonderful of the saints,” the woman said, breaking my silence. “It is not only the police that he guards but hospitals and all those in desperation.”
I silently wished Saint Jude might guard me out of my own desperation so I could return to my book and cheap wine. “Do you really believe that?”
“Por supuesto, yes. May I tell you a story of what San Judas did for me? Perhaps it will help you.”
There was something about how she said, “perhaps it will help you,” that caught in my chest like a barbed hook. I fought the urge to cry, like I had so many times since I first got the call from my sister that Dad had died. I leaned back in affected disinterest and said, “Sure, go ahead and tell me your story.”
She drew a finger along her jawline before speaking, perhaps a bit of celebration for persuading the gringo to listen to her tale.
“In 1972,” she began, “I was a young woman working in the First National Bank on 26th Street and living with my parents in La Villita.
“In this time, I had a boyfriend named Ramón for two months. He was a man of solidness with a good job with the electric company. He did not drink much when he did not work and he was amable with my parents. There was only one problem: he didn’t go to the mass. In truth he was against everything the Catholic Church taught.”
“Was it the changes in the church because of Vatican II?” It occurred to me that he might have thought the church had changed too much or too little.
“I believe no. It had only been few years since the pope continued to prohibit the anticonception and but more since the mass had been in Latin. Nevertheless, I think that nothing of this had importance to Ramón. He only did not like others telling him what he should do.”
I decided that I liked Ramón.
“I tried to convince Ramón that he go to mass with me, but it only put him in a bad mood so I did not want to continue with that. I went to the priest at San Pio, Father Green, to ask him what I should do. I thought that perhaps he going to tell me to give up Ramón, but he didn’t say that.
“Más bien, he asked if I loved Ramón. I said I did. He said, ‘Love can do anything, then. Perhaps not by the way of the church. Nevertheless, love can do everything.’
“Two weeks later, he announced to the parish at mass that he was leaving the priesthood to marry. I heard that he married a nun, but I didn’t believe that he would do that.”
“It happens,” I said. “My parents were friends with a couple who used to be a priest and a nun. Their friends’ marriage didn’t work out though and they got divorced when I was in grade school.”
“Perhaps I am wrong of this. The new priest had an idea very different about what I should do with Ramón. He desired that I bring Ramón to the office of the church for to meet with him. I knew immediately that the combination of this new priest and Ramón was a bad idea—if I could even convince Ramón to see him.”
“So what did you do?”
“There was only one thing to do: I prayed.”
I struggled to keep myself from rolling my eyes too obviously. I’d heard a lot in my life about the power of prayer and I never knew it to work out. There were the usual excuses, that God had other plans, but I just can’t imagine that God ever listens or cares or exists.
My efforts to hide my reaction clearly failed because the woman said, “You do not appear impressed. Probably I would not be impressed if I was you.”
I nodded meekly.
“The truth is that I was desperate. And my aunts offered much advisement about Ramón. They knew each saint that was the patron of some little piece of help: of las novias, of the young women, of the marriage. More than all, they said that I should pray to Maria, one rosary after another. And when it appeared that there was not a response to my prayers, they discussed with mi abuelita and all the other viejitas in the neighborhood.
“So they told me to pray to San Andreas the apostle, Santa Ágata, San José. One old lady sent me to the church of Santa Catalina de Génova. I took the bus for Halsted almost to the end of the line and walked in this Irish church. The women gave me such cold looks that I prayed to Santa Catalina that she should protect me and I forgot all about Ramón.”
“What about Saint Jude?”
“Pronto, I will tell you. In September there was a grand fiesta in Pilsen to celebrate the Day of Mexican Independence.”
“I thought that was Cinco de Mayo.”
“Ay, no, nobody in Mexico celebrates that. Well, perhaps the Poblanos. In Chicago, we are almost all Tapatíos—de Jalisco. What was I saying? Ah, yes, it was the day of the fiesta for the Independence. The city blocked part of 18th Street for the fiesta. There were mariachis and bandas rock and tamaleros and guys selling fruit with chili and others selling beer. Ramón had to work, so I went with my cousin Rita. Somehow, she had met up with some migrant farm workers headed to Michigan for the sugar beet harvest. We were sitting on the porch of the apartment building where they were staying when Rita told them how I had been praying to various saints to bring a change of heart to Ramón about the Church.
“I was embarrassed by this. I didn’t want them to think of me as being that kind of person, but one of the workers—I believe he was called Alejandro—became oddly excited when he heard this. He grabbed my arm—it felt like he might pull it from my shoulder—and said that I should go with him upstairs.”
“And you went with him? Was that safe?”
“Now I would not go, but then I went. These were different times and I insisted that Rita come with us. We three went through the gangway to the back and up the back stairs to the third floor apartment. When we arrived, Alejandro brought us through the kitchen into a room with mattresses covering the floor. I suppose it was where the men slept. In the corner was an old man sitting cross-legged with a box in his lap.”
“Who was he?”
“I do not know. I had never seen him before. He did not look like he was nobody to be harvesting nothing. He was little more than a skeleton. Alejandro knelt at his side and the two of them talked in a low voice then the old man gestured that I should sit in front of him. I did as he asked and he stared at me for an impossibly long time before in the end he opened the box.”
I leaned forward in spite of myself, curious about what this mysterious man had in his box.
“Inside was a picture of San Judas, equal with the one on your medallion. The same one that you see everywhere, with San Judas holding an image of Jesus in front of him. The picture was attached in some manner to a pin or stick so that it was more or less an inch away from the bottom of the box. I imagine that the idea was to make it look like San Judas was floating in midair.”
I raised my eyebrows in disappointment.
“It was just as unimpressive as it sounds,” she said. We both laughed.
“Even so,” she continued, “there was something about the old man that kept me there. He asked me what I wanted of San Judas. I told him about Ramón. Then, he bent over the box, whispering into it and turning his head to hear inaudible responses.
“He told me that I should pray a novena at the shrine of San Judas. He took a scrap of paper and wrote the prayer on it with an address of a church in South Chicago. I folded it as neatly as possible and I thanked him and I tucked it into my purse.”
“So you followed this strange man’s advice and prayed at a church on the other side of the city?”
“I was not certain at that moment. None of the other prayers helped and I was disposed to give up everything and leave Ramón as he was.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“I do not know. Some of it was Rita. She wanted much that I try this prayer. She even searched out how to take the I. C. train to the church. There was a station only two blocks from the church. I do not suppose that you have been to the shrine of San Judas, no?”
I shook my head.
“It is in South Chicago where the steel foundries once were, in the church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I suppose this is how the old man knew about it. Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, of course.”
I nodded. I’d seen enough T-shirts and car window stickers to be able to guess this on my own, even if I hadn’t learned it somewhere else.
“When I realized that the shrine was in the church of Guadalupe, my heart gave a turn. Perhaps this was going to work.
“The first time that I went there, it was a Sunday, so the foundries were closed, but you could see the glint of excess steel from the smokestacks on the sidewalks and the parked cars. I arrived in the early morning, in the moment that the mass was beginning. San Pio still used an organ for the music of the mass, but Guadalupe had guitars and trumpets and a priest who spoke Spanish well in all the mass.”
“It sounds like it was a much better parish than you had at Saint Pio.”
“Yes, it was. When the mass ended, I asked a woman about the shrine and she directed me to a side altar where I saw a statue of San Judas just like your medallion. I walked there, knelt at the altar rail and said the prayer that the old man had scribbled on the paper.”
“Did anything feel different?”
“No, not at all, but still I had a hope.”
She stared out the window for a while watching the corn fields as the train sped west.
“The next day,” she continued, “I went to the church after work. The foundries were open that day and the skies were dark of smoke like before the rain, but without what you feel before the rain.
“Tuesday, I missed the return train and returned almost an hour later than I had planned. Ramón was waiting for me on the stairs of my building. He asked me where I had been. I said at the church. He pointed out how close was San Pio. He said he had just walked by there. He said there was nothing going on there. I said that I was at a different church, and then that I was at Guadalupe and in South Chicago. And then, there was the question most horrorizing, ‘Why?’”
“What did you say?”
“What could I say? I thought of making from between my hands a story to explain why I would go to a church on the other side of the city. I had not said nothing about how I had hope of his returning to the church somehow. It was such a relief to be able to tell him everything, all the different prayers to many saints and at the end this newest prayer.”
“How did he respond to that?” I couldn’t imagine that it was good.
“I was afraid that he would be angry with me, but he just put his eyes white and said that if I was going to go all the way to 93rd Street, at least he could give me a ride. And for the rest of the week, he drove me to the church. He sat in the truck of the electric company while I prayed before the shrine inside the church.
“On Saturday, he actually entered the church. He said he only wanted to see what the interior looked like and that I should not have hopes, but how could I not? I think that was the first time he had been inside of a church for many years.
“It was difficult to pray when he was walking around the church. I was conscious of the noise of each step he made echoing in the empty church the whole time that I tried to read the words of the prayer on the scrap of paper.
“We went to the movies that night, and the only thing that I could think of there in the dark with his arm on my shoulders was that tomorrow was Sunday and I would be going to mass at Guadalupe the next morning. Perhaps the prayers to San Judas were working. I did not want to hope too much, but still, maybe?”
“Did he go to mass then?”
“Yes. Ramón sat with me in a pew in the back of the church. He stayed seated the whole time, even when we stood or kneeled, but there was something different this time. When I went to pray at the shrine, he stayed seated in the pew instead of walking around the church like he did the day before.
“When we returned home that day, Ramón was quiet like he was absorbed in thought. Perhaps it was the intervention of San Judas.”
“Or maybe it was just that he was at mass for the first time in a long time.” I had felt something of that myself during my father’s funeral mass. All the beats of the mass, the Catholic calisthenics of sitting, standing and kneeling, the songs, the responses to the priests’ prayer, they still do something to me. That’s part of what keeps me away.
“It is possible, I suppose. I have considered that. Monday was the last day of the novena and I waited for him to pick me up after work to drive me to the shrine. He arrived half an hour late on foot. He had been fired from the job at the electric company. Somebody had seen him with the truck in South Chicago and denounced him for using it for a personal trip.”
“That had to be a terrible blow. Did this turn him off your prayer project completely?”
“I thought this would happen but no. I said that I did not have to go to the church another time, but he was stubborn. He said that he was not going but he waited with me for the arrival of the bus and I went alone to the I.C. station. I was not sure what to think of the latest that happened. There had been the appearance of everything happening exactly as I hoped. I thought that Ramón was on the road of returning to the church. How could God allow Ramón to lose his job like this?
“When I arrived at the shrine, I took out the page with the prayer even though by this time I knew it to my fingers. Still, I could not concentrate and I kept losing myself in my thoughts in the middle of the prayer.
“I did not see Ramón much in the following days. He said that he was busy looking for work and he could not come by. But on Sunday he accompanied me to mass at San Pio. He did not take communion but I began to believe that San Judas had truly interceded for me.”
I was not terribly impressed with her story. It seemed the sort of thing that would appear in one of those pamphlets that would be in the vestibule of the church when I was in the kid, the stories about the power of prayer. But the woman was not finished with her story.
“Two days later. Rita came by. She had a serious face when she sat beside me on the sofa in the house of my family. She said that she needed to speak with me about Ramón. I asked her why. ‘He is cheating,’ she said.
“I felt as if the earth had vanished from below my feet. My heart squeezed like a fist. I said to Rita that I did not believe her even though I knew it was so. She told me how she had seen Ramón holding hands with another girl when they walked together on 18th Street and it was not possible that they were only friends with the manner of looking one to the other and especially with how he kissed her when they separated. I could not understand how God could permit this to happen.”
“I don’t think God really cares about these things.”
“That could be. I have considered that, you know.”
I felt a little embarrassed at her rebuke.
She continued. “But let me tell you something: that night, my father was watching the news and he called me to the room. He asked me which train I was taking to South Chicago and when I told him that it was the I.C., he told me that there had been an accident that morning. Two trains collided so violently that the front of one crushed the end of the other, flattening it and killing dozens of people. I made the sign of the cross and said a silent prayer of thanks that I had not been on this train and another prayer asking the blessing of God for the killed and wounded.
“I did not know at that moment that Ramón was on the train. I learned the next day that he had been killed in the crash.”
“Yes. I think that this was how God responded to my prayers.”
“By killing him? You mean God caused this crash killing all those people on your behalf?”
“No, I do not believe that God caused the trains to crash. But perhaps God allowed Ramón to be on that particular train so that I would be able to move on, to pardon the hurt that Ramón did to me. After his funeral, many of my girl friends told me of other times that Ramón cheated. Sometimes with them.”
“I don’t understand how this was an answer to your prayers. Your boyfriend died and you found out he was a cheater. That’s not much of a gift from God,” I said.
“The gift was that I was able to forgive Ramón. If the crash had not happened, I would probably still be bitter about how he cheated on me. But the crash took that away.”
“I still don’t see how you can think this was a good thing.”
“I didn’t when it happened. The impact of his death kept me from asking an important question for a long time: Why was he on the train? I am not certain, but I believe he was visiting the shrine of San Judas. I do not know why.”
“He seems like he wasn’t really someone worth praying for,”
“He was a good man, just imperfect, like we all are. But I believe that he died in harmony with God and this helped me forgive him.”
My disappointment with the outcome of her story must have shown because she abruptly cut off her story. “I should return to my seat,” she said. “I have bothered you enough. But I hope that my story helped you in some way.”
I watched her climb the stairs to the upper level of the club car on her way back to her seat. What could her story offer me? It’s not like I needed to forgive my father for anything. Unlike so many of my classmates in grad school, my relationship with my parents was not a mess of hatred and resentment. Nothing of her story was convincing to me. How was God acting by letting Ramón die? But there was still that question, the one of what he was doing on the train. Maybe he really was returning to the church like this woman said.
I touched the medallion hanging on its chain. One thing was certain: her story wasn’t going to send me to mass on Sunday, of this I was sure. Pretty sure.