Just the Other Day: Sunny Beach

I carry a flip phone with no internet access, which often leaves me dependent on other people to look things up for me. I was going to be in Marquette, Michigan, Sunday, so, Saturday night I called my wife at home to ask if she could give me the name of a church and mass times.  She told me Saint Peter Cathedral had masses at 8 and 10:30 am.  The later mass sounded good to me.


I got up early to get ready and be to the church on time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the name of the church she gave me. I typed “catholic churches” into my GPS and it brought up several but none of them sounded correct. Opposed to calling Melissa and admitting I forgot the name of the church, (even after she suggested I write it down) I decided to find a McDonald’s.  With their Wi-Fi, my iPad and the GPS I could find the church on my own. All was going well until the GPS led me to a place where there were no golden arches.


It was 10:22 a.m. and I really didn’t want to be late for mass. The GPS showed another McDonald’s less than two miles away. I told it to take me there. “Continue on West Spring Street.” Said the GPS, then “In one quarter mile, turn left on Seventh Street.” When I stopped for the sign at Fourth Street, I heard church bells. Looking to my right I didn’t see anything and there was no church straight ahead. I looked to the left and saw the tall bell towers of Saint Peter Cathedral, just one block away. I made a quick turn that direction, thinking I would be on time…if I could find a parking space long enough for the van and the trailer I was pulling.


I turned right on Baraga Street in front of the church and saw the parking lot. It was full but there was a lot across the street with plenty of available spaces. I read the sign, “Marquette Police Department? Well that explains why there are so many squad cars there.” I opted not to park illegally in the PD’s parking lot. At the far end of the block there were several diagonal spaces open. I parked across four of them and started walking back to the church on the other end of the block.


The air was cool and the sky was clear. It was a gorgeous morning. I was admiring the large brick structure with its steep pitched red roof and beautiful stained-glass cathedral windows. The towers at the corners, each with a cross on top, seemed to reach right up to heaven. It is such a majestic building. The bells were still ringing out, sending a message of welcome, inviting all to come and worship.


I walked briskly toward the front doors. There was an elderly lady ahead of me who walked with a cane in her left hand. Her white tennis shoes shuffled slow and carefully below her full-length grey down-filled coat. The coat was trimmed with red velvet around the collar and the cuffs of her sleeves. She was trying to push her black gloves into her pocket while she moved slowly across the sidewalk.  I extended my arm toward her, “Would you like to walk to church with me?” I asked her.


Being quite a bit shorter, she looked up at me over the top of her glasses, “I would love to.” She answered, while wrapping her right hand around my left arm. We walked to the church together.  I asked her name, “Sunny Beach.” She replied, “It’s a nickname.


“I’m Tom.” I told her, “It’s also a nickname; short for Thomas, but only my mom called me that and it was usually when I was in trouble. We shared a laugh about that. “Are you from Marquette?” I inquired.


“No.” she answered, “I live in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.”


“Really!” I responded, telling her, “My dad owned a radio station in Port Washington, just down the shore from Sheboygan. I spent a lot of time there as a kid.”


Sunny commented, “Port Washington is a very nice town.”


“So is Sheboygan.” I chimed in, then asked, “What brought you to Marquette.”


Without missing a beat, Sunny replied, “My car.” Her little body shook as she laughed. I laughed with her as we continued toward the front doors.


Inside the vestibule, she asked me, “This isn’t a High Mass is it?” I told her I did’t know. An usher greeted us, handing each of us a worship sheet. She took the tri-folded pamphlet and asked him, “Is this a High Mass?”  He told her it was not.


Inside the church, I asked, “May I sit with you for mass?”


“Of course you can.” Sunny replied. I asked where she would like to sit. She started walking almost pulling me along for the first two steps. “Halfway toward the front will be fine.” We turned into a row and took a seat.


The man on the pipe organ played beautifully, certainly as well as Diana Bish, the organ lady from PBS Television.  I lowered the kneeler in our pew and Sunny and I both kneeled down to pray before mass.


When the cantor announced the opening song, I opened the red, hardback hymnal. Sunny shuffled through the pages of her book, still looking for the right page. As the congregation began to sing I handed her my open book and took hers. She took it from me and quietly sang along with the refrain.


Mumbling through the words of the verse, she leaned over looking at my book. I ran my finger under the words. She began singing louder as she followed along. When we sang from the worship sheet, she looked a bit lost, so I pointed to the line we were singing on her page. She nodded in appreciation and sang along. Sometimes, she would bring the music closer to her face so she could read it.


It reminded me of days long ago when I would go to Church with my mom. After the song ended, she leaned toward me and said, “I’m so near sighted I’m surprised I can read any of this. Every week they make the print a little smaller.” We shared a quiet laugh about that.


A lot of my non-Catholic friends tell me a Catholic mass is like an aerobic workout: stand, sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit, stand…up and down and up and down. Sunny had no problem getting up and down.


When it came time to offer one another a sign of peace, she shook hands with everyone around us, including the people behind us who were nearly out of reach. “Peace be with you.” Then, she started waving to everyone behind us. I asked her, “Did you get peace out to everyone?”


“No,” she said, “I was trying to get my daughter’s attention, but she never looked at me.”


I instantly felt guilty.  “I didn’t realize your daughter was here with you. I feel bad for asking you to sit with me when you could have sat with her.” I said.


Sunny waved her hand toward me as if telling me not to worry. “She could have found me if she wanted to. I’m the only one in here with a coat like this.” Then Sunny waved her finger toward the front of the church, indicating I should pay attention to the priest.


At communion, I offered my arm. Sunny held her cane in her left hand, taking my arm in her right hand. We walked slowly toward the altar. She said something but I did’t hear her. I leaned my ear her way and she repeated herself. “I said you can pick it up a bit. You know, walk a little faster?”


When mass was over, we made our way toward the doors. A lady in her late sixties I suppose, was standing near the baptismal font, looking right past us. Sunny called to her, “Hey, Linda.” Getting her daughter’s attention.


Sunny turned to me and said, “Well thank you for sitting with me, Thomas. Maybe I’ll see you here again.” Then she walked briskly toward Linda – at least four times faster than we walked together, “Why didn’t you come sit with us?” She asked her daughter as the two of them walked away together.


She left me standing alone at the end of the pew. I laughed. When I first saw Sunny outside, I assumed she just walked slowly. Maybe she was waiting for her daughter to catch up. The next time I attend mass at Saint Peter Cathedral, in Marquette, Michigan, I’m going to look for Sunny Beach, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She was a nice lady; I might even challenge her to a race.


The man playing the pipe organ was filling the cathedral with beautiful, joyful music as the people were visiting and making their way to the front doors. It was a good morning.