When I was in third grade, my sister became friends with two brothers who lived across the alley and down the street from us. Although they weren’t Lithuanian, they seemed ordinary enough, with names like David and Bill. Evidence soon emerged, however, revealing the sinister underpinnings beneath their veneer of normalcy: they were Protestants.
I wasn’t quite sure what a Protestant was, but it was clear that the nuns at St. Anthony School didn’t like them very much. One sister suggested that the world had been spinning on its rightful axis until Martin Luther came along in the early 1500s and mucked things up. She emphasized that we were not to confuse Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, Jr. the great civil rights leader and orator: “They were of no relation,” she lectured. Another nun, more reactionary, explained that although Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. were not related, both could be said to be troublemakers.
“Protestant comes from the word protest,” she said. “Protestants are called protest-ants because they are always protesting.”
I discovered that my sister’s friends were Protestants when I came upon them planning a church service in our back yard. Reenacting religious rituals was a popular pastime in our neighborhood—cat and dog baptisms were especially common, as were inter-species wedding ceremonies. In this case, my sister was wondering whether Ritz crackers could be valid substitutes for communion wafers when David stated that he’d be in charge of the grape juice for the service.
My sister and I looked at each other briefly before bursting into uncontrollable laughter.
“At my church during communion we go up to the altar and receive grape juice,” he protested.
We had never heard of such a thing.
“Are you sure it’s not Kool-Aid?” I snickered.
“Yeah, are you sure it’s not grape Kool-Aid?” my sister added.
Because the boys stopped talking to us after the grape juice incident, it was years before my sister and I had the chance to enter a Protestant house. The nuns had hinted at the temptations lurking inside, which, of course, made us all the more eager to find some Protestants into whose homes we might venture.
Worse than entering a Protestant home, however, was going to a Protestant church. There was little danger of that in Cicero, Illinois, with its Poles, Lithuanians, Italians, and Czechs (though I later learned the latter were not to be trusted in terms of Catholic religious identification.)
“The dangers will be greater when you are adults and are faced with difficult decisions because of peer pressure coupled with your lack of spiritual rigor,” one sister lectured. “Engaging in premarital sex or attending a Protestant service might seem very glamorous at some point in your lives.”
In order to avoid the dangers of the former, she gave us helpful hints: never dine with a boy in a restaurant with white tablecloths because it might remind him of bed-sheets; always wear your Blessed Virgin scapular. She tried to pre-empt the latter by explaining what might await us in a Protestant church.
“Most Protestant denominations don’t believe in saints, so you will find their churches very plain,” she explained.
We pondered this for a minute or two.
“What’s a denomination?” we asked.
“It’s a five dollar bill,” someone answered.
We had hoped Sister might explain the exact meaning of the word denomination, that she might draw a Venn diagram or something, but she just told us that was the end of religion for the day, and to please take out our spellers.