My Catholic Table

This is a story about a table. It begins, in the early years of the twentieth century, when a young immigrant couple from Czechoslovakia bought a home in the Duquesne neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The neighborhood was a bustling one then, filled with Catholics from around the world. For six days, the men worked in the steel mills, and on the seventh, they donned their Sunday best to walk with their families to one of Duquesne’s three Catholic churches.

The young Czechoslovakian couple was no different. Their life revolved around the mill, their parish, and their neighborhood. It also revolved around their boys—all five of them. Early in their marriage, recognizing they’d need some place to feed the growing brood, the couple took more than a few of their pennies out of savings and used them to purchase a dining room set made in Lenoir, North Carolina. On the bottom of the chairs, paper tags proclaimed the date they left the wood shop: March 1916. DR2 The dining set was beautiful, grand even, far grander than the working class home to which it went. But, it was meant for a grand and noble purpose—to be the locus not just for daily meals of halushki and peroghi, but also for daily conversations, for homework and story telling, family prayers and birthday celebrations, schooling little ones in the virtues and handing on the traditions of their homeland. It was, in a sense, made to be an altar, an altar upon which the sacrament of family life unfolded.

For decades, the dining room set more than upheld its end of the bargain. It welcomed first the boys, then the boys’ wives, and eventually, the boys’ children. Its faithful service earned it a few scratches, especially near the legs, where little feet so often kicked, but the damage was nothing a little Murphy’s Oil couldn’t hide. DR1 Nearly half a century passed, and the mother of the family passed away. Then, one of her boys bought the house, dining room set and all. There, in the years that followed, his three girls ate pasta cooked by their Italian mother, and history repeated itself. First, boyfriends joined the family at the table. Later, after the boyfriends became husbands, grandchildren followed. And night after night, holiday after holiday, the table played host to them all.

The daughters and their children never stopped coming back to the family table, but by the 1980s, the neighborhood to which they returned was no longer the neighborhood in which they grew up. The mill closed down, never to re-open. Meth makers set up shop in vacant houses. The streets weren’t safe after dark. But the Italian mother would not leave her home. She remained there, still cooking for her family and welcoming them to her table, only now making sure to bolt the doors when she was alone. DR3 Finally in late 2013, three days after her 90th birthday, she passed away. Bit by bit, her daughters began the arduous work of cleaning out the house, jam-packed with the remnants of two lively marriages, five Czechoslovakian boys, and three Czechoslovak-Italian girls. First, they divided up the boxes. Then, they sold off some of the furniture and gave away what no one would buy. But, try as they might, they couldn’t bring themselves to sell the dining room set.

Somewhere between Wednesday night dinners and Italian Christmas feasts, the table and its companion pieces had become more than furniture; they had become part of the family, a witness to their grandparent’s story, their parents’ story, and finally their own. The table had soaked up something of those lives, something of the prayers prayed around it and the laughter laughed over it. And, because of that, it was sacred—scratches, dents, and all. How could they sell it?

But, how could they keep it? None of the daughters had need of it. None of the grandchildren wanted it. A new owner would soon take possession of the house, and the dining set, sitting alone in the now empty house, had to go. So, up on Craig’s List it went at last. DR6 It sat there for a month, priced too high to sell. Then, the day after the family lowered the price, a troublesome redhead called. She was badly in need of a new dining room table, and this one fit the bill perfectly. More perfectly than she knew. For when she arrived, she found not only a dining room set that looked like it had been made for her home, but also a story of family, love, prayer, and food.

In sum, what she found was a thoroughly Catholic table, one over which generations of Catholic women had served. And although she paid for the table (not much, but something), she felt like she was the one receiving a gift…or, more accurately, like those now departed Catholic grandmothers were entrusting her with more than just a table. They were entrusting her with a mission: to safeguard the table for another century, to welcome people to it, to honor those who sat around it, and to use it as it was meant to be used—as an altar, a sacramental, an enduring sign of grace and beauty, goodness and love, faith and family.

That’s a mission she plans on carrying out. DR4

96 thoughts on “My Catholic Table

  1. Emily says:

    It’s got one large leaf, Jennifer, that when inserted allows the table to comfortably seat 10. Uncomfortably, it can seat 12-14. And what’s a large family gathering without a little discomfort?! 🙂

  2. Colleen Rooney says:

    Emily this is such a beautiful story, full of what really makes a Catholic home what it is meant to be – love, faith, food, beauty, memories, and sacrifice – lives lived out over time. I am so glad you bought the table and shared its history with us. I hope many women read this story and treasure the rich meaning inherent in family life.

  3. Ansley says:

    I think your table found the perfect home, and I think all of the people who have sat around it would think so too. Wherever they are, I’m sure they know it, and it makes them smile.
    It is beautiful. Enjoy!

  4. Christine says:

    Beautiful story, and a beautiful dining room set! It reminds me of the one at my grandparents old house (now owned by a bachelor uncle). I like my own dining room set well enough, but would happily trade up one day for the one with all the family history 🙂

  5. Renee T. says:

    It is rare to find another so attached to a dining room table, and all the memories it holds. I was blessed to inherit a dining room set from my grandparents, at which I had been enjoying meals my whole life, and my father before me. It has been with me in rentals, condos, and various homes throughout the country. I have always said, no matter where I live, it is non-negotiable that the table will come with me…even when its early american style does not fit. My only regret had been a raucous college party where one of the chairs was broken…but after 32 years of searching garage sales and flea markets, the happy invention of ebay allowed me to locate 5 additional matching chairs, which I had shipped halfway across the country as a Christmas present to myself a few years ago. Now, we can comfortably seat 10 around this table…and many more if we squish…and we regularly host our grandchildren with meals that always begin with, “Bless us O Lord…”. Thank you for your lovely tribute to a humble dining room table.

  6. Gema Lopez says:

    Beautifully written! You received a treasure indeed. Although I only have one child, a son, I hope he has wonderful memories of our family meals, gatherings and celebrations also.

  7. Rosemary Amend says:

    What a beautiful tribute! I grew up not far from Duquesne. I was a Protestant child in a bustling Catholic neighborhood. My friends were Polish, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, Greek…They set such altar-tables in their homes, and I was blessed to get a glimpse of what that meant. Now, the old neighborhood is gone, and I am Catholic. They are my examples; my heroes. They showed me the holy. They lived the life. Thanks be to God!

  8. Nurse Tammy says:

    How lovely ! I recently set out to oil a very old piece that my parents gave me as they scaled down in prep for the move out of the big house…I took the drawers out and found a message written in the inside back of the piece “Cabinet makers Rees & Schaaf, Tejon St Colorado Springs, April 1923” Mr Rees was my great grandfather and we never knew our ancestor MADE the piece ! I never lived in that city but in 3 months I will get married there !

  9. Ree Laughlin says:

    Beautiful reflection which speaks to your nurturing nature. I hope someday you are blessed with someone in your life whom you can hand down this treasure, along with its story.
    I have a beautiful set but my daughter will probably not want it. She likes modern, clean lines. My set is elegant, old world.

  10. Merle Pastrick Linn says:

    Dear Emily,
    I am a Slovak-German woman who grew up in Duquesne when it was still a working class town, full of hard working people. Your touching story brought me to tears thinking of my own grandmother’s Catholic table, which now resides in my sister’s home. I am sure that I probably knew the original owners or my family knew them. Enjoy the table and all the traditions that it carries. It looks beautiful in its new home. Merle Pastrick Linn

  11. Maureen Sullivan says:

    Beautiful! My husband’s parents, who married in 1968, had a table made for their family of 10 children. It’s the biggest, thickest, sturdiest, most beautiful picnic table you’ve ever seen. My brother-in-law bought his parents’ house, which included the table. He and his wife had the table refinished and it has fed three generations. The neighborhood in which this table calls home, continues to do its job, where 25 of the grandchildren live. I think that this table’s story has just begun.

  12. Joel says:

    I so identify with this! Our dining room table was my great-great grandparents’ and the bed we sleep in has been used by my family continuously since the 1840s.

    BTW, that’s a lovely dining room set. You’re so lucky to have it.

  13. Twillight5420 says:

    Nice story. I like it. Do you know the girl who owns the table? It sounds pretty real and that is why I love it. How about collecting more stories like this and making a book out of it. That would be splendid and simply wizard.

  14. originaltitle says:

    Love this! My Italian mother has been heaping big plates of Italian sausage swimming in homemade sauce on top of webs if pasta at our dining room table since before I can remember. Each year she hosts a huge party for family and friends and our priest, who married my husband and I, baptized my child and married my mother and stepfather, sits at the head of the table. Someday this table will be passed down to me or my daughter and I hope I’ll be able to carry on the tradition with as much love and fun as my mother has done. I envision dinners each Sunday after mass with all our family and our priest at the table and me and my husband in aprons trying to feed everyone too much. Great read, thanks so much for sharing.

  15. klh048 says:

    My Irish grandmother had a table that I remember only vaguely…she died when I was four. I remember the legs were like tree trunks and I was never tall enough to see what was on it but it made a great hiding space and a fort and a log cabin

  16. Christine Wasnie says:

    I believe the energy of loved ones is embedded within the furniture handed down for generations. This table was obviously embedded with love. Beautifully written story.

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