Of Holy Pictures and Rosaries

After Sunday mass there always seemed to be a fresh infusion of holy pictures and rosaries into the Couvent St. Joseph, which in turn stimulated an active market in those objects.  The holy pictures were pictorial representations of the saints, usually St. Francis, St. Joseph, and St. Dominic, and the angels Michael and Gabriel. St. Martin was also popular and in demand, as he was always on a horse sharing his cloak with a beggar.  And of course there was Jesus himself in all his guises at the varied stages of his life and death.  Among the girls, the Virgin Mary , Ste. Margaret, Ste Elizabeth and Ste. Magdalene were popular, but we were non-discriminatory traders.  Only the “quality” of the pictures mattered, and how we distinguished “quality” had something to do with the representations themselves.  All of the holy personages depicted wore halos, and usually had attributes which made them easily recognizable.  St. Francis was always accompanied by some birds, and sometimes by some lambs.  St. Joseph often carried some of the tools of his trade.  St. Dominic usually carried flowers of one sort or another, and lilies quite often.  The angels were difficult to tell apart, but we usually managed.  The lady saints, their eyes raised to heaven, usually looked sad, as if they’d had second thoughts about their martyrdom. How well the pictures were made upped their value in the trade circuit, and how well they were made had something to do with whether they had gilded edged, whether the halos were golden or just yellow, how detailed the representations were, and whether the whole was interesting or not.  We traded these pictures endlessly, much as little boys in America came to trade baseball cards.

Rosaries were another item of trade, and these also came in many styles.  The colors of the beads which made them up, whether they were brown wood, pink or black quartz had much to do with their value.  The crucifix which dangled from them also mattered, but mostly what was important was whether the cross  also held a Jesus, and how well he was sculpted, and out of what kind of metal.  But yes, these rosaries and pictures were valuable commodities on which we children, myself included, spent much time and thought on acquiring.  I have no idea what the original source of these items was.  I’m sure that the Jewish children didn’t introduce them into the convent, and as for the Catholic girls, they were supposed to be orphans.  So, who supplied them?  I have no idea.

In the course of my life at the orphanage, my father showed up once and took me out to the Bois de la Cambre, a large park within Brussels.   At its skating rink, for the first time, I tried roller skating.  Naturally, I spent a considerable amount of time picking myself up, but nevertheless, it was great fun, particularly as it was away from the orphanage.  And best still, my father bought me a bottled, iced, orange drink which I drank through a real yellow straw.  To this day, whenever I have an orange drink (and the flavor is still my favorite), I remember that first orange drink on a blissful Sunday afternoon in the park, in the middle of the greatest war the world has known, and the real straw through which I drank it.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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