Eucharist in the convent basement

by Francine Dempsey

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"Above all, trust in the slow work of God . . . believing that God's hand is leading you."
- Teilhard de Chardin

How did I discover the Eucharist is my basement? The story begins long ago.


For my silver jubilee celebration in June, 1983, I mix, knead, watch rise, and bake a small loaf of golden bread for each guest: a symbol of the day's liturgical feast, Corpus Christi, Body of Christ.


In December, at a Christmas-themed store, I buy 4-inch by 2-inch ceramic bowls decorated for the season and fill them with my banana cake: real food, one of my favorite foods, a token of my love for family and friends.


The overnight ride in an aging yellow school bus from Syracuse, New York, to Washington, D.C., on a hot, humid August night is endless. Daybreak comes, and the driver pulls into a field crowded with buses. After some weaving about, he finds a spot, and we exit.

Most walk a few steps and join the crowd waiting for a speeding and shaking Metro train bound for the Capitol. Without Xanax, I am not made for such transport, even on a broiling late summer day. So, following a few others, I start to walk to the Lincoln Memorial where Jesse Jackson and hundreds of thousands more will remember American saint Martin Luther King Jr. On I walk. And walk. And walk … until … I see … in the distance … two Washington Monuments.

I step off the sidewalk to plop down on a patch of grass. Hands reach out — calloused, smooth, bony, thin, fat, massive, tiny. … They hold tepid water and cold sodas and crumbly sandwiches and melted cheese and broken crackers and store-bought cookies and apples and bananas and mangoes and more. I extend my hands and I am filled.


On a raw autumn morning at the locked gate of the Seneca Army Depot, cupped hands grasp my foot and boost me up and over the fence. "Oof," I yell, landing on my bottom in the muddy dirt. Soldiers who look too young to be out of school handcuff some 300 nuclear protestors. They take us on Army-green buses and deposit us in a pair of football-field-sized outdoor enclosures, one for women, one for men. Thus begins a long day and half a night with no shelter, no water or food, and hole-in-the-ground latrine privileges.

Later, I sit, resting against a fence pole and watch as a guard pulls from a paper bag a wax paper-wrapped sandwich. Looking around, he passes his lunch through the fence wire. Hands give, hands receive.


At an early-evening "midnight" Mass in the Syracuse jail, pieces of bread pass from hand to hand. The guitar intones, "Silent night, holy night."

All sing.

Pizza boxes carted into the jail and up to the tiers yield large slices dripping spicy tomato sauce and melting cheese. The volunteers' full hands reach through metal bars to the waiting hands of locked-in, grey-garbed men and women. The guitar plays "Jingle Bells."

All eat.


Holy Thursday supper, the opening meal of this year's Triduum retreat, loaves of bread in all sizes and shapes overflow straw baskets on each table. Hands, most gnarly from a lifetime of giving, break the bread and share it. Thus fed, we enter anew into the sacred days' rituals.

Sated, I return to my convent home. Built 60 years ago for the 24 nuns who staffed the parish school, this tired building today houses just four. All are approaching 80 years of age.

The convent chapel with its priceless stained glass windows, once a site of daily Communion, sits empty, hungering for bread and wine.


Down the hall, Marlene, Kathleen, Honora and I gather at the kitchen table to share the meal we take turns preparing for each other.


From the house's large basement below, once space for trunk storage, the cook's apartment, and two laundry rooms, rise the noises of the parish's food pantry's guests. Daily, Sister Margaret Mary and parish volunteers serve, as one says, "plastic bags full of macaroni and peanut butter — to strangers in memory of Him."

Take this bread. Feed my sheep. If you love me.

[Francine Dempsey has been a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Albany, N.Y., for 60 years. She is a retired educator, long-time justice advocate, a freelance writer and a member of the Eyes Wide Open of Northeast, New York.]