My Catholic Grandma
My maternal grandparents live in the same house as me, on the bottom floor. When I stand on the top of the stairs I can bet on hearing one of two things: my grandma’s enrapturing laugh or the Rosary on the TV. The same way that my grandpa always jokes, my grandma always laughs. And the same way that Judaism has always been a part of identifying my grandpa, Catholicism has always been a way of identifying my grandma.
Last month I wrote a blog about my grandpa, a Jewish man who married a Catholic woman. I learned more than I imagined, not only about my ancestry, but also about what interfaith looks like within the world. Now, I am going to shift my focus to my joyous, resilient, and Catholic grandmother, Carol Katz.
My grandma was born August 26th, 1937. My grandmother was one of six kids. Douglas and Kenneth are her older brothers, Barbara is her twin, and Gordy and Donald are her younger brothers, who also happen to be twins. As you will read shortly, they grew up all over the Northeast. Despite all the moving, one thing always remained true: there was a Catholic church within walking distance nearby.
Below are my grandma’s responses to my questions.
Was your family religious growing up?
No, I couldn’t say that. On Holy days of obligation we went together to church, but not often. I went to church often, but just with my twin sister Barbara. We went to a religious school and they told us which mass to go to. Back then, in the Roman Catholic church, it was all in Latin. By the time I learned Latin for the mass, they changed it to English. We would group up as a class to go to mass on Sundays. Barbara and I didn’t associate with our younger brothers, and I don’t remember whether or not my older brothers went because they were so much older.
Barbara and I took care of the house because my mom couldn’t get out of bed because of her rheumatoid arthritis. She was religious but she couldn't get out to church. She had the priest come to our house to do confession and they would bring her the eucharist. It was very rare that she would get out of bed.
I didn’t know my father that well. I am not positive if he was Catholic but I know he went to church with us on special days of obligation, Christmas and Easter. He was a hard-worker, very diligent. He always went to work, so he didn’t see us much. My father worked at a bank and they kept transferring him, that's why we moved all over the place. We went to the school that was closest to our house. They were usually Catholic schools, but not always. There was always a church within walking distance to where we lived.
What was it like being in a Catholic school?
They were very strict. The nuns were tough because in the class there were about 30 kids. We sat in the order of our grades. Barbara was number one and I was number two, so we sat next to each other at the front of the class. The stupid one was in the last seat. When we answered a question we had to stand up to talk. I didn't mind the strictness because I was used to it.
Was being Catholic an important part of your identity growing up?
I always wanted to go to church because I loved God and I felt like God was helping me no matter what. I consider myself the most religious in my family. I know that Douglas and Kenneth didn’t go to church. Barbara went to church all of the time. I took care of myself and I wasn’t about to tell them what to do. I don’t judge people ever. It is not my place to do that.
What was it like marrying Grandpa?
We were interviewed by the priest, Grandpa and I, and he was talking to us like he wanted to make sure we really loved each other. My brother Kenneth was interviewed too, and he told the priest that we had three marriage licenses. So the priest called us in and he said that we had to get rid of the two other marriage licenses that didn’t have to do with the Catholic church. So we got rid of them and went back to the priest and then he set up the wedding date: September 19th, 1959. My family couldn’t care less that he was Jewish. They knew him, he was a friend of my brothers, and he was nice. They loved him. And they knew he loved me. One time I was out on a date and Grandpa was sitting there with my mother waiting for me to come home. If I knew I would have ran away! [lots of laughter]. We had a fight once when we were talking about getting married and I was talking about a Christmas tree and he said that there would be no Christmas tree in his house. So I said well then we aren’t getting married. We ended up in a diner but we weren’t talking much. Eventually, he said alright well you can have a Christmas tree. So we went back home and that was that.
I was firm. Some people said they would leave it up to their kids to decide which religion they believed in. Grandpa agreed with that but I said no. I wanted to raise my kids Catholic. He loved me, and he couldn’t care less. When our children didn’t want to go to church, Grandpa said alright, then you can be Jewish and go to Jewish classes and learn the Jewish religion. Then they would say no thanks, we will go to church. He was smart about it. He swore to me that he would raise the children Catholic.
What do you believe in now?
Well I believe in the Catholic church and all that they teach. It is hard to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand the Catholic church. I believe in all the rules and regulations of going to mass on Holy days of Obligation. I say the Rosary everyday for peace on Earth. That is what our Blessed Mother wants. We need that now, there is a lot of bad stuff going on. The more you pray the Rosary the better off you will be. I pray it everyday. Sometimes I think I miss it so I say it again.
What was the most important part of Catholicism growing up and what is the most important part of it now for you?
When I was younger I just felt that we were a part of the community, but we weren’t treated differently. We didn’t have much stuff and one time we went around trick-or-treating for halloween and we went to a nun’s house. They told us to come into the house and they gave us coats because it was freezing out. They were given to the church to give out to whoever needed them and we were needing them.
When I had a stroke at 28, I definitely depended on faith. I trusted God completely, I put it all in His hands. Nothing bothered me. I had a husband that was fantastic. I knew I was going to be taken care of. Whatever God wanted for me, I trusted completely. I trusted your grandfather tremendously too.
Until this pandemic started I always went to 5:30pm mass on Saturdays. There was always a seat for me and I always had friends there. The people in church were so nice. There were times when I was coming out of church where I dropped something and because I had the walker, they would pick up the things I dropped. There was one time I left my purse in the pew and someone got my attention and asked if that was my purse I left. I used to go to a woman's apartment to do the Rosary with a group and then we would have snacks after. They were just nice people. When I hurt my back and couldn’t walk, I called the church and asked if I could have someone come and give me communion so they arranged for someone to do that for me. When I would get together with people from the church we would talk about our medical problems. You never realize what someone is going through, so when you find out someone has a worse situation than you do, you pray for them and you don’t pray for yourself as much. That was the type of sharing we had. Like a prayer community.
What is something that you live by? Are there any mantras or quotes that you incorporate into your life?
Every night I pray for every member of my family. Every last member of my family. And I tell God that if I missed somebody, please bless them too. I always pray for the people I love, and even the people I don’t like. Even if they are creating havoc I pray for them because they need help. If I can’t do it for them, God will.
The weathermen aren’t the ones who make the weather, God makes the weather regardless of what everyone else might think. God is the only one who knows what is going to happen in the future.
Similar to how I felt after interviewing my grandpa, there are things about my grandma that I have learned for the first time. I have gotten bits and pieces of stories growing up, but now I feel like I have a much clearer image of what my grandma believes. Interviewing my grandma also gave me more insight into my grandpa’s story, especially in regards to the dynamics of their interfaith marriage. I learned from my grandma the power of trust, community, and empathy, which I will take with me for the rest of my life.