Saturday, December 20, 2014

Misadventure at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul: How I Offended a Nun

Philadelphia is, as you know or may at least suspect, an historic American city, full of wonderful old, majestic places. One of these places is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, a Renaissance-style Catholic church that dates back to 1864 (pictured above). It happens to be located very near Moore College of Art and Design, where I attended school. One sunny spring day, one of my professors took our drawing class over to the cathedral, from whom we had received permission to spend the afternoon drawing the lovely architecture.

Packing our large pads of newsprint, drawing boards, charcoal and other drawing supplies, we trotted the block and a half or so to the cathedral and entered. Not being Catholic or a tourist, I had not visited the cathedral before, and I was impressed by the size and beauty of the church. Its dark, cool and quiet interior was a sharp contrast to the bright day and omnipresent traffic noise of downtown Philadelphia.

My classmates and I wandered around, looking at arches and columns and various other bits of adornment, trying to determine which design element "sang" to us enough to stake out a spot and start drawing. Everyone else stayed within the main body of the church, but I considered myself a maverick and didn't want to run with the crowd, so I wandered farther afield, finding a smaller chapel to the side.

The chapel was much simpler in style, but a row of windows along a side wall made it sunny and cheerful, and there was a lovely arrangement of white lilies up at the altar. Feeling more comfortable in this serene place than in the austere, cavernous main church, I settled happily into a pew and began sketching. Every now and then, someone would enter the chapel, genuflecting at the doorway, and take a seat farther back in the pews. Most of these people gave me an interested glance when they saw what I was doing, but no one approached me, and I figured they didn't want to disturb my work. I expected they'd come to pray or to say some silent rosaries, which I thought was very devout of them, and I certainly would not want them to be interrupted, either, so I worked as quietly as I could.

Quite a few folks had entered by the time I was about halfway through my three-hour drawing; not nearly enough to actually fill the chapel, of course, but I was really impressed with how many people came in on a random afternoon to spend some time in quiet prayer. A nun entered, genuflected, and sat down in the pew in front of me, giving me a sour look. Did she think I was desecrating the place by making a drawing there? I wondered. She couldn't think that, could she? There's such a long tradition of reverential religious art, I couldn't understand how anyone could take offense.

Right about now, some of you are feeling that I am frightfully dim. First of all, I will stipulate to that, but by way of explanation, let me state a couple of things: I was 18 years old and had never been in a Catholic church in my life. I was raised Presbyterian, and in our church, if nobody was getting married, buried, or baptized, you only went to church on Sunday morning, unless you worked there. I was also laboring under the impression that Catholic people are quite likely to enter a church at any given time to sit in a pew and say their devotions, such impression having been given to me by every movie and TV show I've ever seen that always manages to have a few devout extras sprinkled throughout any given house of God while the main characters go to confession or question a priest about the nun who was killed, so please, people, allow me my naiveté; I come by it honestly, I swear.

It was not until a priest entered, smiled at me, and then another priest entered and smiled at me that I began to have a clue that MASS WAS ABOUT TO START. The clue was that they entered behind the railing, at the altar! And sure enough, the mass started, and there I sat, drawing board propped on the back of the pew in front of me; rather good rendering, if I do say it myself, of lilies at the altar taking shape on my paper; and an angry nun who turned full around in her pew and hissed, "This is a mass!"

Yes. Yes, it was. I continued drawing, because, pissed nun aside, I knew that what I was doing was not wrong or disrespectful because I meant no harm or disrespect, and furthermore that those priests had smiled at me. I also was quite sure that getting up and walking out of a religious service was howlingly inappropriate, rude, and possibly even blasphemous, so I stayed put and drew the best, most reverential drawing I possibly could. In time, the mass ended, the huffy nun cast one more baleful glare in my direction and flounced from the chapel, and several people came over to look at my work. No one seemed put out except that nun, who might have mentioned that a mass was coming in enough time for me to decamp, by the way. Poorly played, Sister Prevacid! Even the cheerful priests enjoyed my lily-and-altar drawing, so all's well that ends well.

And that is how I attended my very first Catholic mass, in the venerable Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in historic Philadelphia, PA. I'm still frightfully dim, by the way.

Image is my own photograph of the cathedral 


  1. Reminds me of my "frightfully dim" moment, when I attended a new Catholic church when my kids were young. I saw one line for Communion where nobody stood so I grabbed the kids and nearly ran to the front of the church only to discover that I had raced for the wine, and I was the only one standing in the wine line. In my defense, none of the other Catholic churches I attended offered wine to the congregation at that time.

    1. Oh, that's great! "Look, here, Father, I need some wine right NOW!"