I know three things about Mary Kess: She was my great-grandmother; she came to America from Central Europe; she died of a heart attack at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in Tremont in 1935.
Her death certificate is the only written record of her life. Her children rarely spoke of her. They either remembered too little or repressed too much.
Mary was 46 when she died. My grandfather and his four sisters and two brothers were parentless after her death. They spent time in an orphanage, but some were eventually taken in by Maria Guzi, a Holy Ghost parishioner. My grandfather married Maria’s granddaughter, who became my grandmother — generations made possible by tragedy.
My mom and her sister and four brothers were baptized at Holy Ghost and sporadically attended Mass there in childhood. But by the time I was born, the Kesses had moved to the suburbs and attended the ubiquitous, and less ethnic, Roman Catholic churches and schools there. We went to college, got good jobs, bought nice homes and lived lives Mary could not have fathomed. I never knew Holy Ghost, just as I had never known Mary.
But I wanted to know where I came from. To know that, I needed to know where Mary had been. Her death certificate told me that she had died in Holy Ghost at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, 1935.
I thought I would never see the basement where Mary died, because Holy Ghost closed in November 2009. The church, which had nearly 900 families as parishioners around the time of Mary’s death, had only 28 families when Holy Ghost closed. I felt as though Mary’s legacy lay dormant with the empty church. To get inside, I thought, would be to reawaken my family history.
I called the newly formed Byzantine Catholic Cultural Center. I left a message: “How can I get inside Holy Ghost?”
The Rev. Richard Plishka called me back. He told me that the Byzantine Center had recently moved from Parma to Tremont, and is now based at Holy Ghost. He said the center had started holding services there every weekend.
On a humid summer night, my mom and I attended vespers, the evening prayer service. I was nervous. I’ve had minimal exposure to Byzantine Catholicism, so its rite always felt exotic, even intimidating to me. It did not feel like the church of my childhood, but the more formal church of Mary’s world. I thought Holy Ghost would swallow me up with imposing architecture, elaborate icons, incense, chanting and priests cloaked in gold.
Instead, the church was small — much smaller than I’d imagined. The gold iconostasis (the glittering wall of icons separating the nave from the sanctuary) had been hand-carved in Budapest. Soft yellow light shone through the stained glass windows. The church felt warm and familiar. It reminded me of my grandparents’ home, though there was no reason why it should have.
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice,” the dozen in attendance sang. My mom, back in Holy Ghost for the first time since she was a child, began to cry.
“I remember this,” she whispered. “This is who we are.”
After vespers, Plishka invited us down to the basement, where a youth group was preparing for a mission trip to West Virginia.
I walked downstairs. I thought the basement would be dim and shivery. Instead, I found myself face to face with a brightly colored Christmas tree and decorations for a Christmas in July celebration. Gifts wrapped in brightly colored paper sat in piles on the black-and-red-checkered floor. I wandered into a partitioned area furnished like an inviting living room and took a seat on the sofa, next to a fireplace decked with Christmas stockings. I was finally in the room in which Mary’s life ended.
I didn’t feel anything.
I had thought that perhaps I would cry when I set foot in the church basement. I thought maybe I’d be awed. I had hoped that being in Holy Ghost would bring a sense of clarity about my family and myself. It didn’t come.
I tried to visualize Mary in the room. I wondered what she would think, seeing me sitting there near an illuminated Santa Claus wall decoration. I bet she’d be amused, I thought, as someone who’s easily amused myself.
It was then that I understood. Mary’s essence wasn’t in that basement. It was in me. I didn’t need to be where Mary had died to find out who she was. I needed only to understand that, as her great-granddaughter, my existence is inextricably linked with hers. Just as Holy Ghost still exists.
Holy Ghost — like faith itself, some might argue — wasn’t there to give me answers. Instead, the Church reminds me that in spite of everything, life continues. Nothing is closed for good. No one is forgotten, churches still stand, and through all the tumult and strife, families remain.