In Great Bend, Kan., in the mid ’60s, there was no such thing as separation of church and state. Not that I could tell, at least.
After all, within the five-block area that was in my bike path you would find St. Patrick’s Church, St. Patrick’s Grade School, the Dominican convent where all my teachers lived and a place for soulful reflection — the McKinney Sandpit. My St. Pat’s classmates were named after the apostles or other important saints and becoming a priest was on the differential career list for every boy. Serving Mass was cool and doing a wedding was getting a promotion to the bigs. Great Bend residents know all this, of course.
There was little space for life outside the confines of daily Mass, monthly confession and a moral compass in need of constant correction. My dad was a travel agent for guilt trips. I earned many frequent flier miles.
And then Holy Week arrived. This was the harmonic convergence of all things Catholic. The Dominican sisters — Principal Sister Mary Rose or her fellow Dominicans, Sisters Monica, Judith and others — made sure that truants — e.g. all boys — got their souls right for the big guy’s rising on the third day. The misery index soared for me and my two brothers.
And then, smack dab in the middle of Holy Week circa 1968, it happened. School was to be interrupted by a field trip — to the Crest Theater for a showing of “The Ten Commandments.” Released in 1956, it arrived in Great Bend over a decade later.
This was akin to finding a Bic lighter in the attic among a stash of fireworks. The Crest Theater was, and remains, an art deco architectural statement on the south side of the courthouse square in Barton County. With a marquee worthy of Hollywood Boulevard, it was like entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sans nude statutes. Going to a movie, any movie at that age was special, but on a school day when I would otherwise be on a kneeler craving a cheeseburger? Pure gold. I remember clearly heading to the balcony and taking my seat.
Even today, critics say that Cecile B. DeMille’s work is a top 10 movie epic. And as the story unfolded, kids prone to fidgeting found a way to focus. If released today, parents of young children would never see it. The review board would advise parents the movie involves “violence, mature content and imagery of thousands of Egyptians dying by four different plagues.”
I had no forewarning. For three hours I watched a burning bush talk, the Red Sea part to drown an entire army, streams go from crystal clear to blood-red and Moses’ staff become a serpent. Early in the movie, in my mind, I had already confessed nine of my own sins, five of my brothers’, and even tossed my dad, Larry, under the school bus.
My Roman collar fitting was imminent. And that was before intermission. Then the Angel of Death arrived via a green cloud and killed the first-born Egyptian sons. Hyperactivity went on suspend mode; breathing was enough of a challenge.
The New Testament, with boring stories about fishes, loaves and the wedding at Cana, took a back seat to a much richer narrative. This was a God much closer to my own reality — real-deal, shake-in-your-shoes and get-your-life-straight stuff.
Even when Moses had left Egypt, I found other connections. The golden calf scene, for example, looked vaguely familiar. It resembled late-night social events involving my older sister and her friends at the sandpit. That is, until Moses, uh, Larry arrived. And so, yes, that movie scared me straight — all part of the grand plan of the Dominicans. I also understood why Great Bend didn’t have Egyptians: they all perished. Still, it remains one of the greatest stories ever told.
And this week, when I drag my reluctant brood to the Holy Saturday Easter vigil Mass, I long for the good ol’ days of Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Sister Mary Rose.
Matt Keenan’s book, “Call Me Dad, Not Dude,” is available at Borders and online at thekansascitystore.com. Write to Matt at his website, matthewkeenan%.com.