Riding JFK’s Catholic coattails

Written by Bob on September 23rd, 2009

WANAMINGO, MINN – As a kid growing up near Wanamingo, Minnesota, I looked upon my Lutheran friends with envy. They seemed rich and popular. The religious ‘in crowd’ in which anyone who was anybody belonged.

I on the other hand, through unlucky fate, or so I thought at the time, was born and baptized a Catholic. There weren’t many of us in the little village of about 400. I can count the families I knew on one hand: The Otto’s, the Swarthout’s, and the Gombert’s.

We didn’t even have a Catholic church to call our own in Wanamingo. Mom packed us up early on Sunday mornings for our drive to Zumbrota and St. Paul’s Catholic Church where just a hand full worshipped from the two villages and surrounding countryside.

But Lutheran churches popped up everywhere. Wanamingo had three – Aspelund, Trinity, and Wanamingo Lutheran. And there are ten – count them ten – Lutheran churches in and around Zumbrota, Wanamingo, and Kenyon. All within 20 to 30 miles of each other.

Lutherans dominated the religious landscape. We Catholics were out numbered. How did a lowly Catholic boy stand a chance? I heard all the Catholic jokes and the name-calling – including “cat licker,” which I cringed in embarrassment every time I heard it.

I pictured myself as the little Catholic orphan boy in tattered clothes peeking through the window and watching with envy as a rich Lutheran family gathered around the dinner table on Christmas Day like the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson family.

Oh, how I longed to be a Lutheran. To belong to the in crowd. To mingle with the rich and popular. To be free of Saturday Catechism classes, confession, dour-faced nuns, stern priests, and all the kneeling and standing, and forever performing the sign of the Cross.

On the other hand, Lutherans seemed so relaxed and serene while calmly sitting in their pews during church services. No constant up and down with all the kneeling, and sitting, and standing as with us Catholics.

My grandpa Louie Mortenson was a Lutheran. A devout Lutheran, who according to my mother’s memoirs, went to church two and three times on Sundays. I should check. Maybe grandpa set a Guinness Book world record with all his church going.

When my mom married my dad, a non-practicing Catholic, grandpa reacted as if his daughter had joined an outcast society. How dare one of his offspring leave the Lutheran sect and side with THOSE Catholics.

So you can understand how some of us Catholics growing up in the midst of a predominantly Lutheran society, might have such feelings of low self-esteem.

Until John Fitzgerald Kennedy happened along in 1960. When Kennedy won the November 8th election to become the 35th president of the United States, Catholics across the country toasted and celebrated our lofted status.

The FIRST Catholic president! We have arrived! We carried our heads high and proudly embraced our Catholicism. No more mediocrity for we have Kennedy on our side.

In school, I gloated over my new and strange, elevated status. I reveled in my Lutheran classmates’ dejection and in their profound sense of defeat. Many had scoffed at the lunacy of a Catholic ever becoming president of the United States.

My Lutheran schoolmates supported Republican candidate Richard Milhouse Nixon (“I am not a crook.”) and boldly stated that, “Kennedy doesn’t have a chance. Nixon’s going to beat him,” they proclaimed with an overbearing confidence.

Did I gloat? As governor-quitter Sarah Palin would say, “You bettcha!” I didn’t know anything about politics. And I didn’t know what Kennedy stood for, or if he would make a good president. But this I knew:

“We won!”

It was a great victory – like the Twins winning the World Series. We finally had in Kennedy a unifying force. A famous Catholic whom the rest of us could grab on to his coattails and ride with him to heights we never before could have foreseen.

And during Sunday Mass, all the genuflecting, the tiring ritual of kneeling and standing, and even the stern faced priests and nuns became bearable.

I was a Catholic and proud of it. Thanks to JFK.

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