Sweet Daddy Grace
Being born into an Italian family, and having been sent to Catholic grammar school and high school, elevated guilt levels to an all time high. I was sandwiched in between a religion that allowed no flexibility and a nationality that basically endorsed this principle.
In my case, both were recipes for disaster.
The Catholic Church was supposed to provide safety, sanctuary and guidance. So was my family. Both failed miserably.
Catholic school was strict and unkind, especially grammar school. Harsh discipline was handed out regardless of whether or not anyone deserved it. Slapping, spanking with yard sticks and verbal insults were part of the curriculum. Today, these nuns would be arrested for abuse.
Humiliation was the name of the game. The nuns were masters at attacking any dignity a student possessed. Denigration of the student just seemed to make the nuns stronger. It seemed to spark a tirade of “creative” insults that they themselves enjoyed.
Self esteem plummeted from the constant barrage of insults. Students were called “stupid”, and “dim-witted”.
In the 1950’s parents gladly welcomed any discipline the nuns dispensed, be it verbal or physical punishment.
The wedding ring on the nun’s fourth finger made its imprint on my face more than once. This is the same wedding band that the nuns received when they “took” Jesus Christ as their groom on the day of their vows. How happy would He have been to have an abusive “wife”?
Through all this confusion of my religion and nationality, the one religion I envied was in my neighborhood. I dare not mention this religion to anyone at school, or even my family, but I was envious of the compassion, feeling and pageantry that this “church” held.
The church was called The United House of Prayer for All People. It was situated in the black section of Dixwell Avenue, in New Haven around the corner from Henry Street. The building was a huge white stucco fortress with a huge red, white and blue oval banner on top that stated “Welcome All People”. Simple, true, accurate. No exclusions here.
Sweet Daddy Grace was the leader of this church. He was the Bishop, who founded this church. He was born in the Cape Verde Islands and came to the United States.
Daddy Grace was a flamboyant minister. He was said to have owned one of the largest fleets of Cadillac’s, had his own line of soaps and healing medicines, performed miracles, baptisms and referred to himself as “The Boyfriend of the World”.
Once a year Daddy Grace came to town and would parade for his followers.
I would squirm my way into the crowd and sit on the curb waiting for this Man of God to parade down the street.
Black children and adults would march down the street all dressed up, with batons, trumpets, banners and drums proclaiming the wonders and words of Daddy Grace.
Kids on bikes had banners of red, white and blue, flapping in the spokes of their wheels, with the words, “Welcome All People”.
Just before the float that held Daddy Grace appeared, there would be a small group of men, talking in gibberish. I soon learned that not only the Catholic Church staked the claim “talking in tongues to the Holy Spirit”, but Daddy Grace also held the Power of the Holy Ghost.
As Daddy Grace’s float came closer, there was a collected silence among the immediate crowd, and then it hit -boisterous cheering, weeping, clapping, singing and praising.
People were throwing money on the float. I wished I’d had some. I would have tossed it too.
As this old man came closer, I saw what I expected God to look like, except for his long red, white and blue fingernails. He looked resplendent with his pure white suit, long white flowing hair, and gold chains around his neck, as he blessed everyone in the crowd.
The white people in the neighborhood didn’t put much stock in Daddy Grace.
But I know what I saw, and I know what I felt.
Catholicism couldn’t hold a candle to Daddy Grace.
To me, this was what religion was all about, or should have been