Two adolescent girls try to make it into the Guinness Book of Records for saving lost souls.Sister Apollonia was more than eighty years old and less than five feet tall. Nevertheless, aided by some secret, Church-sanctioned voodoo, she managed to tower like Godzilla over our sixth grade class at St. Therese of Lisieux Elementary School in Brooklyn.
Sister had two educational goals for our class of first generation Americans. The first was to teach us something called Decorum. The Thursday afternoon Decorum lessons were for female students. Apparently, we were supposed to learn how to behave like civilized human beings then inflict this arcane and unwanted knowledge on the boys. Sister’s lectures on the importance of thank you notes, seating arrangements and other social niceties mystified us, as they bore no resemblance to the rules of sixth grade social interactions we needed to survive the school day.
My girlfriends and I were much more excited by Sister Apollonia’s other favorite self-improvement project – the saving of souls. Millions of them waited hopelessly in Purgatory, waited for ages until some Catholic with time on his or her hands got down on bended knees and prayed for their salvation. Fifty Hail Mary’s would do it; it was a formula invented by the fourth century Council of Bishops or by Sister Apollonia after her fourth cream sherry: we weren’t sure which and we didn’t care. Not long after Sister’s first lecture on the perils of the unchristened or just semi-sinful souls waiting for rescue, Mary, Annie, Nina and I skipped lunch for the first time. We sneaked into the church next door to the schoolyard. That first day, we saved four souls between us and still had time for a trip to Louie’s candy store. It was our first taste of power in this world and we thirsted for more.
Lunchtime was a generous hour and a half in those days. It should have afforded plenty of time to eat a sandwich and save a soul. But, after a few days, we decided one soul each just wasn’t enough. It was Nina who first brought up the hapless soul who was next in line after we’d finished our first set of Hail Mary’s. “Imagine him watching the guy in front of him fly up to Heaven and he’s stuck!” she pleaded. They were all guys in Purgatory, we assumed – guys who had never learned Decorum. Nina settled onto the cushioned kneeler again, draping her enviable sixth grade breasts over the altar rail.
“Alright, one more,” everyone agreed, and we rattled off another fifty Hail Mary’s before allowing ourselves join the gang on the playground. Doubling our daily soul count would have been manageable. But we couldn’t stop there.
It wasn’t long before bologna and cheese sandwiches were rotting in our cubbies as we kneeled before the statues of Mary or Joseph or Saint Somebody and freed one soul after another. We bartered our sore knees, our boredom and our hunger for the thrill of springing one semi-sinner after another from the Limbo line. We even talked about an after-school session to squeeze in another divine intervention or two.
Alas, our Salvation SWAT Team deteriorated once a seventh-grader named Manny decided Nina was cool enough to go out with him. Nina stopped coming to church with us at lunchtime and started making out with Manny behind the handball wall.
Mary decided to concentrate her energies on finding a boyfriend of her own. This required being in the company of boys, none of whom spent their lunch hours hanging around in church. Annie hung on until she fainted one afternoon in Confirmation class. When her mom found out she’d been skipping lunch for a month, she lowered the boom and made Annie come home for force-feeding.
I did go into church a few more times by myself but it wasn’t the same. That long, long line of the un-saved loomed before me; I would have sworn I heard millions of shuffling feet somewhere just beyond the altar rail. The end truly came when Sister Apollonia mentioned how hard Catholic missionaries were working to convince non-Catholics all over the world to embrace the One True Faith. The idea that there were more unbaptized souls destined to fill up all the vacancies we’d managed to create in Purgatory had never occurred to any of us, and it did me in. Every day, babies in non-Catholic places were being born. It was just too much for one small schoolgirl. I rejoined the lunchtime dodge ball game and tried hard not to think about the next guy in line.
And the next one. And the one after him.