Sophia’s Sunday — Part 3


Her family did rouse themselves, more slowly than most Sundays, but this was not most Sundays.  Except for going to mass as 9:30 that morning, none of their usual preparations for the week ahead needed to happen.  They would wash their clothes, but there was no sense of urgency to get it done.  If it had to be finished on Monday, that would be all right.  Sophia noted how structured her Sundays usually were, and there was comfort in that structure.

Unlike her brothers, who disdained going to mass and frequently found ways to keep from going, Sophia enjoyed the mass.  She found it comforting.  Father DiGrasso, who always said the 9:30 mass, always gave uplifting sermons.  They unfailingly provided comfort and hope, particularly when the community was going through hard times.  He always seemed to know exactly what to say, and Sophia really liked him.  Fr. DiGrasso was someone she had found in whom she could confide, more than just as her confessor, but especially as a spiritual advisor.  He was not like the priests she had known in Poland, a little cold and aloof, he always seemed happy to see her and always had time to listen to her troubles.

At this particular Sunday’s mass Fr. DiGrasso was markedly different from any she had observed before.  He was quite solemn, and never broke a smile, as he usually did.  He spoke of the strike they were all enduring.  He spoke at great length on the rewards of “turning the other cheek.”  He implored his congregation to avoid trouble at every turn.  He assured the people that the Boston Archdiocese would be helping the congregation with food supplies and other necessities.  Sophia wanted to believe him but his statement troubled her now because he had made that promise a week earlier and so far nothing had happened.

Two days after the strike had started the local socialist labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, held a mass meeting in the city’s common.  A large man they called “Big Bill” spoke to them and promised them the same support Fr. DiGrasso had promised.  But the IWW had set up soup kitchens within a couple a days, and Sophia had had a number of meals there already.  They were lean meals, but far better than nothing.  And nothing, as the IWW was fond of saying, is what the Catholic church had given them thus far.  In private, her parents had contended that had their been a Polish church in the city thing would have been different for them.  Sophia was not so sure.

But what Sophia did know, and everyone she knew seemed to agree with, was that they were all literally starving.  It was what the strike was truly about.  They had begged the church on numerous occasions for help but it seemed their pleas had fallen on deaf ears.  She knew the Catholic Church hated the IWW socialists, and she suspected most of the IWW leaders felt similarly towards the Church.  But the IWW had kept its promises, so far, and the church had not.  She had heard rumors that the pastor of the Irish Catholic church had literally ordered his congregation not to participate in the strike.  But a few days after the strike had started, they had little choice, the mills were closed, although there were scabs who crossed the lines to do what little work could be done.

As she walked home, Sophia reflected on the strikers who put out the cry for “bread” on their table where they claimed there was none.  Although her family had fared well enough during the tough times, she knew of other families who had young children who had died from malnutrition, or were always sick because they did not have enough to eat.

Then she felt a bit of pride over the fact that it was Polish women who had started the strike when they found their wages had gone down with the new year.  They had walked out of the mill yelling “short pay” and imploring their co-workers, of every ethnicity in the city, to join them.  Most did.  It had seemed a glorious moment when it started.  Sophia had worked on the floor below the women who started the strike.  But she remembered how the Polish women had left the mill arm-in-arm with the Italian women who worked with them.  It had seemed such a joyous moment, in a morbid sort of way, but it was a declaration of freedom.  Those first few days had been both heady and scary.  A day after the strike started several hundred of the state’s militia came to the city to assist in keeping the peace.  That was scary.  They all carried rifles with their bayonets attach.  When crowds of strikers gathered, the militia would taunt them with their bayonets pointed at the crowd.  Nothing had come of these taunts, but everyone feared a riot was sure to break out.

Holding strikers in check, Lawrence, Mass

As she arrived home from church that morning she wondered to herself what she should do next.  It was a most perplexing problem, fraught with the fear of the unknown.  She thought briefly about the promise the mill owners had made right after the strike had started that anyone who returned to work would be fully employed and there would be no retributions.  But then her mind went to the IWW leaders, Godless anarchists the city fathers had called them, who said publicly that they could win only if their remain solid.  In private everyone “knew” of the threat of violence to any who crossed the picket line.  She found choosing between hunger and violence a difficult task, certainly not one someone of her young years could fully fathom.

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