Scanning Around with Gene: Memories in the Daily Missal

When I was 14, my 18-year-old sister Marguerite died from leukemia. My mother grieved by deleting all traces of Marguerite's existence, including photos of her. So on a recent visit to my childhood home to celebrate my mother's 90th birthday, I was glad to find the Catholic Daily Missal that was a gift to my sister in 1963 when she was 11. It brought back a mixture of emotions.

I don't know if young Catholics still have missals, but in my day it was an important possession and a focal point of Catholic life. The number of holy cards, notations, and other material added to your missal was a pretty good indication of your piety and the seriousness with which you took your young faith. All of the images here are from my sister's 1963 edition. Click on any image for a larger view.

A missal, from the Latin missa (mass), contains the liturgy the priest says at daily mass, as well as specific information for special holy days and feasts throughout the year. It is a treasure trove of Catholic doctrine, lives of the saints, and stories and parables.

Sadly, I never got the chance to talk to my sister about religion or God or even life and death. I know Marguerite had pretty much rejected the church by the time she went away to college. But those were in the “bad old days” of the church, complete with ruler beatings, severe imagery, and even more severe teachings. Things have changed quite a bit since then.

In my sister's and my day, boys and girls had identical missals, except for the covers: the boys' were black and the girls' were white. The better editions had gold-leafed page edges and were often presented as birthday or Christmas gifts, or to commemorate a particular religious holiday. Before I had my own missal, I remember carefully leafing through my sister's, noting the images and wondering what the stories were behind them.

My favorite parts of the daily missal were the multi-colored ribbons attached to the spine for marking your place. They gave restless children something to play with while stuck at Mass, and you could mark your favorite images of saints slaying dragons or young people being graced with an appearance from Mary.

Looking through my sister's re-discovered daily missal has certainly brought back a flood of memories. Since I was the youngest and she the oldest we had a certain bond I didn't share with my middle sister. She was beautiful and independent and I loved hanging out on the periphery when her girlfriends would come over and talk would turn to a favorite Beatle or the war in Vietnam.

Eighteen isn't very old and when Marguerite got sick, she was still a confusing mish-mash of adult views and child-like needs. It was not a good summer that year and I entered high school in mourning instead of wonder. I didn't turn to God during that time -- perhaps the images shown here had made me fear death. I certainly didn't understand it.

Though I continued to go to Catholic schools, after my sister's death I lost whatever faith I had and figured everyone was on their own. But by the early 1970s the church was changing. Old priests who had once represented discipline and fear were replaced by young priests preaching compassion and marching for peace.

I often think of my sister's last days and the confusing emotions we both felt about death, life and eternal salvation (or damnation, which seemed just as likely).

I do know we were both very scared. We were taught that God did everything for a reason, and yet there didn't seem to be any good explanation for what was happening to us. While she tried to show courage, I could see the fear. I'm sure if we had looked hard enough, there was great consolation in the Daily Missal, but somehow we missed that part.

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