An Open Letter to the Most Reverend Dennis Sullivan

Dear Bishop Sullivan:

There is nothing more important in the life of a Catholic second grader than First Holy Communion.  It is a very grown up step on their path to fully understanding just how much it means in their lives to know Jesus and to embrace our faith.  They spend months in preparation, including nervously heading into the confessional for the first time, memorizing prayers, and feeling the excitement of their big day.

Saturday, May the 4th, was a beautiful day.  God showed his love for the day and these children with brilliant sunshine and perfect springtime temperatures.  Our church quickly filled with parents and grandparents; aunts and uncles; friends and neighbors – all waiting to witness the walk of faith our tiny ones would make.

My daughter, Granuaile Frances, was among the children receiving the sacrament at St. Rita’s parish in Bellmawr.  She anxiously recited prayers over and over to make sure she knew them, even as her hair was pinned and her shoes buckled.  She was reading the presentation of gratitude to our parish priest, and she practiced her reading, practiced blessing herself, and even practiced bowing her head without knocking off her veil.

As we arrived at church, we deposited our children into the capable hands of Sister Miriam, who has been their spiritual mentor through every minute of this journey.  She welcomed them excitedly, organized them behind the scenes, and prepared them for their big moment.  The rest of us began gathering inside the church, with people bubbling over with excitement.  Just in my family alone, we had family in from Virginia and Florida, and guests who drove from various parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and we were excited to come together as a Catholic community, to welcome our children into the next phase of their Catholic journey.

Then we were shushed.  You know – where someone who is older than you or who has authority over you points their finger to their lips and yells, “SHHHHHHHHHHHH!!”  Multiple times.  No talking.  Despite the fact that there was still 15 minutes before Mass, we were told we couldn’t speak in the church.

The children were beautiful, bundles of excited and anxious energy, and Mass was going beautifully.  Father gave a lovely, brief homily, directed towards the children, which almost moved me to tears in it’s beauty and simplicity.  And then he turned his chair away from the children to speak with the adults.  What followed was a nasty, bitter, vitriolic tirade, where he scolded us for being responsible for the closing of the church and the inevitable imprisonment of our children, who are obviously going to get involved in drugs and other illegal behavior because of their lack of good Catholic parenting.  He spoke for nearly 30 minutes, chastising the adults, frightening the children, and alienating non-Catholic members of the people who congregated.

But he wasn’t done.  The children made their sacrament, Mass had ended, and he recessed down the center aisle to the back of the church.  He greeted and congratulated each child as they recessed out behind him, then he disappeared.  He did not make himself available for parents to thank him, children to have photos taken with him, or even to greet guests. Talk about a missed opportunity to make a good impression.

But wait, there’s more.

As the children giddily showed off their new certificates, bursting with joy from what they just experienced, parents began to congratulate their kids, thank Sister Miriam and the other CCD volunteers, and families wanted photos in front of the beautifully decorated altar.  Then the shushing began again.  Only this time, it wasn’t just shushing.  Father was yelling at us over the church’s PA system, telling us we were in a church and conducting ourselves improperly.  He told us all to get out if we couldn’t be respectful, reprimanding us for taking photos in the church and being gleeful and happy for our children.

And if this had been my first experience – as a mom to a first communicant, or as a guest in a Catholic church – I would have been completely turned off to the church and the process of celebrating a sacrament.  Having Father yell into the PA system about how disrespectful we were was in complete contrast to my two older daughters’ celebrations, where they were welcomed onto the altar by the priests to have photos taken, to enjoy their celebration, and to appreciate the joy that filled their hearts.  We were chased out of this church by the priest, and no one should ever be made to feel unwelcome in the home of their heavenly Father.

No one was unruly, no one was outrageous, no one was inappropriate.  The atmosphere was celebratory, the children excited, the parents overjoyed.

After watching this priest wobble and sway; after listening to him spit venom during one of the happiest days in the life of a member of the Catholic faith; after being shushed and chastised – it’s time to find a new church.  And I have to pray about keeping it a Catholic one.

The Club Diner Bellmawr, New Jersey

The Club Diner 20 North Black Horse Pike, Bellmawr, NJ  

If you live in Jersey, you have a diner.  Come on, you know what I’m talking about.  You don’t OWN a diner, but you HAVE a diner.  It’s the place you go to after Mass on Sunday for breakfast and after bowling on Thursday night for a snack.  It’s the place you go grab a bite before a PTA meeting or after a funeral.  If you walk into a room full of your family right now and said, “Let’s go, we’re going to the diner”, there’s no mistaking which diner you are talking about.  It’s YOUR diner.

For us, that diner is the Club Diner, located on the Black Horse Pike in Bellmawr.  Within about 3 miles of our home, I can count 5 diners.  We live closest to the Club diner, so for our first diner meal in New Jersey after our move back from Florida, that’s where we went.  In the 7 years we have lived in this part of New Jersey, the Club diner has become our diner, but in the past year, it seems to have become more our diner than it was before.

Jim works out in the Midwest, and I pick him up at the airport on Thursday nights.  His flights when he worked in Milwaukee were always late – scheduled to come in at 10:25, but often not getting in until 11:30 or later.  He would skip dinner in Milwaukee so that he and I could grab something to eat before we went home.  It was a nice way to reconnect after being apart all week, and because of it’s convenient proximity to our house and the 24 hour schedule, the Club diner was our restaurant of choice.

It only took a couple of weeks before Patty, the overnight waitress, became acquainted with our patterns.  She would walk over to our table with Jim’s large glass of ice water and my unsweetened iced tea.  She would double check that our order was the same – and it always was.  I would order the bowl of Chicken Orzo soup, and Jim ordered the crab cake platter to share with me; mashed potatoes and peas; and a cup of the soup.  We would also order another crab cake platter to go, with the same veggies.  By the time we were nearly through with our crab cake platter, Patty would be there by the table with the second order wrapped up and ready to go, Jim’s rice pudding packed up, the extra rice pudding with the other platter wrapped up, and a box for the leftover crabcake on Jim’s plate.  It’s a nice feeling to be a “regular” – you know, the Norm on Cheers type of guy, walking into the diner, everyone knows you, and they know your order from the time your car pulls up in the parking lot. 

But all that doesn’t give a fair review of the Club Diner.  So here’s the thing.  Diner food is comfort food.  You don’t go there looking for delicate seafood dishes or frou frou souffles.  You want to know the diner can make a good meatloaf, and that there will always be mashed potatoes on the menu.  You want them to produce a good Western Omelet, whether you are there at 8 in the morning, 8 at night, or 3 in the morning.  You want the chef’s salad to be served with a heaping helping of lettuce, a ton of julienned lunch meats and cheeses, hard boiled eggs, and enough dressing that they serve it in a gravy boat. 

The Club Diner gives you all of that, and more.  We don’t get to go late at night on Thursday nights anymore, and we’ve branched out into ordering other foods now that I can eat more.  On a recent visit, at about 9 on a Thursday, I ordered the scallops.  They were perfect!  Nicely seasoned, perfectly cooked, and served on the traditional diner toast, the dish was a real treat at a reasonable price.  Their roast pork loin is so tender, you can eat it with a spoon and not have to worry about cutting it up.  The crab cakes are tasty, although a bit filled with filler, but there is real crab meat in them and they are HUGE.  Another visit had me ordering the special teriyaki salmon.  Thank goodness THAT was before gastric bypass surgery!  Had the dining room been emptier, I would have licked the plate clean and gone into the kitchen looking for more. 

The waitresses at the diner all seem like they’ve been there for most of the 7 years we’ve lived here.  Most of the patrons seem like they’ve been there for the whole 60 years the diner has been there. 

You can’t beat the Club Diner for price or portion anywhere, but the added bonus here is that it really seems like someone cares what comes out of the kitchen.  What I wouldn’t do right now for a big bowl of Chicken orzo soup – better than Grandmom made (of course, my grandmother was Irish, and definitely NOT known for her abilities in the kitchen).  Seriously, the Club Diner has everything and anything you could want, and someone wants you to enjoy what you order and come back for more.  That’s more than can be said for a lot of area diners.  I’m glad we found this diner and made it our own.