By Ray Jordan
What is Tenebrae you might well ask – Well, to a lot of older people it was a religious service during the last days of Lent which was very atmospheric in that the church which was only lit by a number of candles was slowly darkened as one after another the candles were extinguished. There would be prayers said between each snuffing out and finally when the candles were all out and the church was in total darkness a loud noise was generated to symbolise the earthquake at the actual moment of Jesus’ death.
The churches were usually packed to capacity for ceremonies of this type because as such they were theatrical in nature and appealed to a people who had very little in the way of entertainment in the Ireland of the time of the little story I want to tell you about which was let us say somewhere in the 1940s. There was also great respect for religion in those years and Lent being a period of fasting coming to an end was indeed an attractive idea and one to be celebrated and in the case of Tenebrae, celebrated ‘With Gusto’.
My mother told me on one such night she met up with Miss deVeere (not her real name) who had recently, despite reservations of her family converted to Catholicism from Church of Ireland. Together they entered the church early so as to get a ‘good seat’. As was the practice in those days the women of the Parish frequented the left aisle while the men sat in the right aisle. I was never quite clear as to what the designation of those worthies who sat in the two centre Aisles was.
Now it happened at about the time of the extinguishing of the seventh candle that Miss deVeere jumped in her seat as if she was about to rise up and leave but didn’t, instead she plopped back down. My mother who had got quite a fright at this performance whispered to her ‘was she alright’? Despite her assurance that all was well my mother kept one eye on her throughout the rest of the Ceremony.
When it came time to leave the church Miss deVeere held back and my mother stayed with her thinking this was for reasons of greatly enhanced piety often shown by converts. The title of the book about Erskine Childers ‘The Zeal of the Convert’ may well have entered mothers head as she waited to depart. Only after they had been eyed and politely coughed at by the sacristan who obviously wanted to lock up and go home, only then Miss deVeere who was holding her skirt tightly in her left hand deigned to move.
Now it happened there was a small area of hallway at the back of the women’s aisle which actually housed a version of The Pieta and when she reached the privacy of that place she stopped and confided in my mother that she had a problem – nodding her head down toward the tightly held skirt – ‘There’s something there’ she told mother – ‘And I’m afraid to let it go’. Now mother who was a very practical person suggested she would press the skirt as tightly as she could to the leg above the clenched part of the garment and she, Miss deVeere should push the object whatever it was down on to the ground. Luckily there was no one around to witness this rather strange scenario, the sacristan was nosily locking up the other two doors.
Imagine their amazement when a mouse tumbled from the skirt onto the ground. Now the mouse did not pick himself up and scuttle away, no he just lay there dead. Obviously he had been smothered and as you might expect of a Church Mouse he was quite small. The ladies lost no time in leaving by the side door and once outside broke into peals of laughter. There may just have been a touch of hysteria in Miss deVeere’s laughter but who could blame her if such were the case.
I think this was a supreme act of devotion and respect for her surroundings by the good lady and definitely ‘Above and Beyond’ what might have been expected in the circumstances. Unfortunately it must be numbered among the unsung heroics which are destined to go unreported (until now) and unnoticed by the public at large. Hopefully it would have been mentioned honourably when the lady in question finally presented herself at The Pearly Gates around 1975.