My Favorite Walk: An Occasional Pilgrimage to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Springfield

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On occasion, to keep up my health, I take a walk.

Nearby my home in West Springfield is a mile-long stretch of sidewalk with no hills, few cars, and even fewer people outside. The homes are densely packed, and I wonder about the people who live inside. Over time, I’ve made up background stories for the places I most like: the house with the pink honey-bee “Welcome” flag flying above the front door; the squat, one story home with the backyard choking on sun-bleached plastic slides, swings and miniature homes; the ranch with the yippy black and white fluff ball that escorts me across the property; and the vine-clustered row of tiny brick homes beneath towering, shedding, pines.

My goal is to walk two miles, and really I could turn around in my tracks anywhere, but I usually go the extra distance and circle around St. Thomas the Apostle Church on Pine Street. I tell myself there’s a satisfying symmetry to walking a loop instead of an abrupt retreat, but when you keep walking to your old church, circling it, and going home, there’s more going on than a little exercise.

For those who have never seen it, St. Thomas is a sturdy brick church with slim stained-glass windows, tucked into a sleepy neighborhood off Route 20. St. Thomas runs a private Catholic school just steps away from the church. The grounds are small and sparse on landscaping, yellow and red tulips and shrubbery outline the building, and there are statues of Mary and, judging by the bird on his shoulder, I’m going to say St. Francis standing in the shade of young trees.

The church is at the center section of the street, so I can see it on the horizon for a minute as I approach from the north. On this Friday morning, I know I am going to write about my walk for this column and I pay more attention to my surroundings and myself. A block from the church I stop in silence and smell the spring air. It’s dewy with an aroma of fresh flowers and yard. Onward.

As I usually do, I cut between the school and the church, which allows me to begin my return with the bright face of the building instead of the parking lot. On my right, the school windows are decorated in colorful construction paper cutouts of crosses and other shapes. The way the sun shines makes the windows appear dark. I can’t see the children inside, just the wave of a little arm here and there. The ramp to enter the church is on my left. A man with white hair, jeans, and a blue cap kneels by the foundation. He’s mixed some concrete and stacked about a dozen old bricks by his side to do some repairs to the inclined plane.

Since I’m here, and since I’m writing about being here, and since I haven’t gone inside in years, I push open the plain glass door and the soft smell of pews, incense, and Eucharist is welcoming.

And there’s a Mass being celebrated.

I want to leave, but that feels disrespectful. I take off my sunglasses and become very aware that I’m wearing a black leather jacket, jeans, and some Chuck’s. There are about 100 people inside the church. I’m the youngest one here by about 30 years. The father is preparing the altar for the Eucharist, the part of the mass in which wafers and wine are blessed and become the body and blood of Christ — transubstantiation.

Except for a midnight mass on Christmas with my in-laws and my brother’s wedding, I haven’t been inside a Catholic church, let alone my former Catholic church, since I was 13. At the time, I said I did not want to be part of a church that sees women as inferior to men — and I still don’t — but there was more to it than that. As a kid I was convinced that it was impossible to go an hour, let alone a day, without sin, and that I, like everyone else in the pews, was surely going to hell. No one ever sat me down and told me this, but for many Recovering Catholics the message that you’re born with sin and unless you confess your impure thoughts, misdeeds, and actual wrongs on the regular you’re going to spend an eternity mired in fire and brimstone, somehow comes across. The guilt was-is intense.

I sit in the front pew by the door, the only row in the church with padding. When I was young, I always wanted to sit here, but my tiny tuchus didn’t need pillows, my parents would say. Now I’m here and wondering why no one else is sitting in this primo pew.

People kneel, the father prays, the congregation responds in confident spiritual murmurs. I could join in; I know the words. I’m nervous and plan a discreet exit.

But before that, the father asks that we all exchange “the sign of peace.” Back in my church-going days it was a hug, then a handshake. Today, it’s a friendly wave with a lot of warmth communicated through the eyes.

Everyone lines up in the center of the church to receive the sacrament. I think about blessing myself with holy water upon exit, but slink out the door without it.

Outside, the mason is still working on the ramp and I jam my sunglasses back on. I skip quickly down the ramp and around the parking lot to the side lawn where a four-foot-high white Mary stands in a blue half-shell above a stone plaque that says, “Pray for the unborn who have died.” At Mary’s feet are a couple piles of coins, a blue marble, and a wilted pink flower.

I circle around to the front of the building. The spires guide my eyes up to the clear blue heavens and I whisper “Thank you” before heading back home.•

We want to hear from YOU about your favorite places to walk.

Whether it’s a walk down the aisle, or a crawl up the strip, a stroll in the woods, or an errand run, if it’s a meaningful place your legs take you, write us about it. Anywhere from 150 to 350 words is fine. Photos are a plus. Writers, scribes, scribblers, and texters share your walk with editor@valleyadvocate.com.

Kristin Palpini

Author: Kristin Palpini

Editor of the Valley Advocate

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