Finding Religion and Virgins
I wake up a bit late today with a note from my bartender excusing me from any conversation before my coffee. After stopping at one of the many independent coffee shops in downtown St. John’s, I climb up the hill to the Basilica. I should explain the hill. Downtown St. John’s reminds me a little of St. Maarten (yup, it would have been a lot warmer if you’d sent me there but, at this point, I have no regrets) in that when I worked on ships out of St. Maarten, I remember there were three major parallel streets; Front Street, Back Street and the other street (I think it was officially called Salt Pond Road, but we just called it “the other street”). Downtown St. John’s three major parallel streets are Water, Duckworth and Gower. Being my B&B was called The Gower House, it was quite obviously on Gower Street. To get to Duckworth, I simply walk one block down the very steep Cathedral Street. If I want to go to Water Street, I head down the 78-step staircase (holding on the metal rail for dear life as the steps seem to constantly be covered in an inch of ice). As we all know, what goes down, must come up. This fact is why I’ve given myself permission to eat fish and chips, poutine, licorice from the candy store and all those things I deprive myself of at home, as I walk up and down this hill two to three times each day. It’s very much like walking in San Francisco.
So I head up the hill from Water Street and even past Gower to the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. I’ve been told it’s beautiful and I should visit while I’m here. As a Jewish girl who travels, I’ve been in more churches, basilicas, mosques and, recently, a Mormon temple than most Catholics, Christians, Muslims and Mormons. The beautiful Romanesque cathedral is built of Newfoundland and Irish bluestone and granite and was consecrated in 1855.
When I finally arrive, I’m just happy to get out of the cold. But there’s much more than heat here. It’s a large, beautiful building with incredibly colorful stained glass windows on all sides. I walk around the place truly appreciating the sun reflecting through the beautiful blues, greens and golds of the 28 stained glass windows religious scenes which this non-practicing Jew can only appreciate for the beauty and artistic value.
As there’s no sign that says to keep out (I believe I’ve mentioned the effect those signs have on me anyway), I walk up to the pulpit. I take in the beautiful architecture before me and try to come to terms with some of the teachings. In the back of the basilica there’s a posting listing their rules for being married there. It states that it is between a man and a woman and, while I respect their right to state that in their own house of worship, I vehemently disagree (love is love) and attempt to put that out of my mind and simply appreciate this beautiful structure. Behind the pulpit are the pipes for a pipe-organ, a piano, some folding chairs and, mounted on the wall, some hand sanitizer. I guess cleanliness really is next to Godliness.
After exploring all corners of the basilica I walk next door to the Presentation Convent to see the statue of the Veiled Virgin. The Veiled Virgin was carved by Giovanni Strazza and brought to Newfoundland in 1856 and presented to Mother Mary Magdalene O’Shaughnessy, the Superior of Presentation Convent in 1852. I’ve gone online and called to be sure they are doing tours today as it’s only open four hours per week. Today being Monday, the tour is from 2:00-4:00. I press the button to get buzzed into the convent and very old nun at the reception desk asks if she can help.
“I’m here to see the Veiled Virgin.”
“Oh, what day is it?” she responds.
“It’s Monday,“ I reply with much respect (even Jewish girls get nervous around nuns).
After great consideration she says, “Oh, tours are Tuesday and Thursday.”
“But I called, and your sign on the door says Monday and Thursday.”
She asks me to wait and starts paging various nuns. After a few minutes, Sister Janet appears and explains that she is not the regular nun who does the tours, but she’d be happy to show me the statue. I thank her and we head back. We enter a room with the most amazing statue. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the best and most famous works of art around the world and yet I am awestruck by this piece. I wonder if it’s possible for marble to be transparent as it truly appears that I am looking at the face of the Virgin Mary through a veil. I can’t even make a recognizable face out of Play-Doh let alone understand how someone could make this out of marble.
The convent also houses a 120 year-old Regina music box. As Sister Janet doesn’t do the regular tour, she can’t play it as she doesn’t have the key, but she is able to open it to show me the many antique discs, which are about 15 inches around, that can be inserted to listen to the music (if you’d like to hear it, click here).
I thank Sister Janet for her time and wander back to freshen up and head out to my regular place, Yellowbelly Brewery and Public House (it feels a bit like Cheers). When I take my seat at the bar, I’m introduced to Alf (he’d be the Cliff Clavin of Yellowbelly’s). Alf tells me that he’s just finished his second book cover. He shows me a picture of a book with, what appears to be an Inuit painting on the cover with his name underneath. I ask if he painted the picture and he says, “No, I found it on Google Earth!”
“Um, I think you’ll have to pay for it to be on the cover of your book,” I tell him.
“But it was on Google Earth, so I should be able to use it,” he responds.
“I don’t think it works that way. But tell me about your book. Is it completed? Do you have a publisher or an agent?”
“No,” he replies. “I’ve not started writing it but I have the back cover too.”
“Oh,” I say while looking a bit confused.
“Like I said, it’s my next book. I’ve written one before this.”
“Oh,” I say, “where can I find it? Bookstore? Amazon?”
He points to his head and says, “It’s up here. I just have to put it on paper.”
I really would like to discuss his understanding of writing a book but I decide to just smile and nod my head.
After a while, and a few stories, Alf leaves. I finish my wonderful pizza (another thing I don’t eat at home) and beer and start the trudge back up the hill to get a good night’s sleep before my final day in this city that has begun to feel like home.
Tomorrow – Farewell Newfoundland.