I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house
Who was the gray-haired little lady tidying up the sanctuary before the 6 o’clock evening Mass? She puttered noiselessly in and out, setting up this, removing that, sometimes smiling a little to herself. She disappeared during Mass, but at the end she reappeared and did the same job in reverse. She seemed so at home there in that tiny chapel in the Alps that we college students used for daily Mass. I envied her, not just because she belonged in Europe, while I was only passing through, but because she belonged in that chapel. She was the sacristan, or as my mom used to put it, the “church mouse.” At the age of 20, I envied a little old lady. I wanted to be a little old lady. She had a job that was out of this world.
I didn’t care so much to be a real sacristan, handling sacred vessels and vestments and altar linens. I just wanted access to a church I could tidy up — to vacuum, dust, and sweep. To pick the wax off the candle racks and throw away the old matches, to get the cobwebs off the tops of the Stations, to spray and wipe fingerprints from the windows and doors. To straighten throw rugs and replace faded blooms with fresh ones. Yes, I’d even clean the bathroom if it meant I could putz (the German word for “clean”) the house of the Lord.
At the age of 20, I envied a little old lady.
Why the attraction? Mine is a contemplative soul in an active body. Cleaning up a church would mean getting to be like Martha, who served Our Lord, and at the same time getting to listen to him as Mary did (see Luke 10:38–42). If other people were around, I could hum sacred music over the droning C sharp of the vacuum and they’d never know. If people weren’t around, I could sing all I wanted and compliment Jesus on his house’s fine acoustics.
I first tried to volunteer when I was a young mom. You won’t believe this if you’ve never tried it, but it’s hard to break into the church-cleaning game — even if you want to work for free. There is always somebody who gets there ahead of you. “Oh, that’s Bobby’s job,” one priest told me. “He takes care of everything.” Everything? Not a cobweb left for me? I would watch Bobby walk up and down the aisles, rattling his keys like he owned the place. So unfair. But it was just as well because he had time to do regular maintenance, and I did not.
Later, at a different parish, I finally got my big break. Feasts days — they were just too much for one maintenance guy. The call would go out parish-wide to help clean and decorate the church. My Christmas joy was complete the year my daughter and I got to hang the glorious 30-foot plastic holly swag from the choir loft. There were several other church mouse hopefuls there that day, ironing linen and arranging poinsettias and greens. The mood in the church was festive and friendly. We shared something, and it bonded us.
Then came a financial crisis in the parish. We barely survived closing. The new pastor had to let all the hired help go, which included the maintenance guy. In just a few weeks, our church began to look like Miss Havisham, the rejected bride from Great Expectations, who grew old surrounded by her wedding finery. The sanctuary wore a dusty layer of velvet. Candle drippings mixed with ash wept onto the votive stands. The chandelier swayed like a decayed wedding cake.
“This place needs a good cleaning,” I said to a friend one day after Mass. Then it hit me. “This place needs a good cleaning!” Thus the two of us began. For once, no one had gotten there first and shut me out. I was where I wanted to be. At last!
I was where I wanted to be.
Since then our parish has bounced back and is now booming. Still, we have no hired help. We don’t need it. The parishioners do all the work and do it joyfully. I still clean when my schedule allows. But now I have to compete with several other church mice for the privilege.
I don’t mind. There is always plenty to do, as I putter noiselessly in and out, setting up this, removing that. Some days I even get to vacuum the sanctuary, humming over the droning C sharp and smiling to myself.