Retiring a Rosary

January 18, 2022

First the Crucifix fell off. Another time the loop came unmoored from the Knights of Columbus pendant which was worn down to the copper. When a link in the second decade -- or fourth decade if one is going the other way -- failed, I made one last repair with the 24 gauge wire that I use for fixing toy trains.

It was time to retire these Rosary beads that I had used since 1993.

Burying the beads or leaving them at a church was out of the question. Why would I want to pass on to someone else what is the sacramental equivalent of a 1992 Volkswagen with 300,000 miles? So I archived my Rosary with other old family sacramentals including Rosaries held by my parents and grandmother.

But before putting that Rosary out to the heirloom pasture, I thought over the 28-year-long journey on which I had had it with me. The first thing I remembered was how I came to use this particular beadwork.

That was when I had to surrender another set of long-held beads in 1993. In March of that year, as a late winter blizzard buried my hometown in snow, I found my mother dead in bed.

Dad, who had taught me the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be when I knelt at my little bed in my childhood room was, at that moment, helpless. I had to take charge. My first act was to suggest that we say the Rosary.

For a few minutes after the discovery, my father and I sat, stunned. I remember how cold the house felt. Dad, who had taught me the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be when I knelt at my little bed in my childhood room was, at that moment, helpless. I had to take charge. My first act was to suggest that we say the Rosary. Our thoughts collected by that prayer, we called the fire department, the police, who must investigate when a person dies unexpectedly, and the undertaker whose van was the last vehicle to make it off our street as it was becoming impassable.

Over a foot of snow fell. An ensuing freezing rain storm made the accumulation hard as rock. I spent eight hours freeing one car from a concrete-like crust. It was three days before my father and I could get to the funeral home to view my mother's body. With roads reduced to 1.5 lanes, a wake was out of the question. Only Dad and I were present before the open casket.

"She has no Rosary beads," Dad noticed.

I had in my pocket that Rosary I had possessed for years, the Rosary I had turned to during a difficult period in the early '90s wherein I also underwent a renewal of faith, the Rosary on which I had counted prayers with my Dad in shock just a few days before. Somewhat reluctantly, I dug it out of my pocket. We called in the undertaker who arranged it in Mom's hands.

Over the next couple days the roads were cleared sufficiently. The friends and family denied a wake packed the church. At the pastor's suggestion, every voice present sent Mom off with her favorite hymn, Holy God We Praise Thy Name.

My renewal of faith that started three decades ago included my following Dad into the Knights of Columbus. Having your father "knight" you with tears in his eyes after the third degree exemplification is an unforgettable experience. As a new member I received the Rosary with the Knights of Columbus emblem, Mary with her 12-star crown on the reverse (or is it obverse?). This was the Rosary that I would pray with until 2021.

The new beads started getting a workout right away.

As weeks and months distanced us from my mother's sudden death, it became apparent that my father was not simply depressed and mourning.

Doctors determined that he likely had dementia. When one physician incorrectly predicted that Dad had only one and a half years to live, I quit my job. One and a half years turned out to be three years. I spent them caregiving, managing Dad's affairs, keeping my career moving forward, being angry, accomplishing things I never thought I could, planning for afterward, experiencing many blessings.

In September of 1993, my doctor diagnosed me as being mildly depressed and prescribed that I "get out more." I was lucky if I could get out with friends once a month.

But for Eddie Flaim, my Dad's best friend who would give me an evening of respite, I, not having siblings or a wife, dealt with my father's decline alone.

Although their context did not apply to my situation, I often thought of Jesus' words to Peter in John 21:18(NRSV): "You used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.”

I also thought often, and still do, of Sirach 3:14-15:

For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins; in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favour; like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away.

Neal Sr. passed away in 1997. By 1998 I was on my feet again, working in Washington, D.C.'s Catholic ghetto, Brookland, for a Catholic non-profit near the Basilica of the Shrine of The Immaculate Conception. With the twelfth largest church in the world looming near my workplace (as well as my alma mater, Catholic U.) I decided to pray, not just when I was in trouble or needed something, but every morning.

That is a decision that vies for quitting smoking as the smartest course of action I ever took.

Early weekday mornings found me in one of the Basilica's chapels to Our Lady, praying the Rosary.

Because of my Polish grandmother and roots, my favorite was the Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa. St. John Paul II prayed in that chapel on his 1979 visit.

Knights of Columbus Rosary Beads

There between the tapestries of events momentous in Polish history, with the Black Madonna and Polish saints watching over me, I would say the Luminous Mysteries that John Paul, a saint I saw in person, added to the devotion in 2002.

In those dawn moments I was usually the only one in the Great Upper Church, cocooned in warmth, brightness and silence. However at the turn of the millennium, I had to pray in the din of construction. Workers of many trades were reinforcing the masonry organ loft and installing the marble bas relief, The Universal Call To Holiness.

On September 11, 2001, I felt mysteriously uneasy as I prayed in the Our Lady of The Miraculous Medal Chapel with its deep blue mosaic tiles. A couple hours later, I watched on TV, with my coworkers, the two towers fall. I'll never forget the Basilica bell tolling -- Bong.....Bong.....Bong -- as we fled the office for home, not knowing what was happening in the crystal clear skies, blue as that mosaic, over the Nation's Capital.

My years in Brookland, working with other Catholics I could pray and have fun with, were blessed, but they had to end.

My next job with its daily deadlines was more challenging and stressful. The work hours were later in the day, usually until 11 p.m., sometimes later if there was late, breaking news.

I could have no weeknight social life, including Fridays, especially Fridays. I had to drop out of a church choir because I could not attend rehearsals.

Running for the last subway train and hoping not to miss the last bus was hard on a middle-aged guy who is naturally an early riser. I did not have to arrive at work until 3 p.m., but I was usually downtown by Noon.

Quickly I realized that the new regime of reciting all the mysteries was necessary for God to help me put certain sins behind me.

I found myself killing time in central D.C.'s churches, primarily St. Matthew's Cathedral, secondly old St. Patrick's in the City. I always prayed the Rosary. Soon I was attending daily Mass. Eventually I signed up as a eucharistic minister at St. Matthew's.

Remarking that noontime Masses were well-attended, especially by a noticeable number of young people and of course, tourists, I figured that there are likely more out there who would be interested in lunchtime or morning Mass. So I created Daily Mass in Downtown Washington, DC.

Again, I had to move on and see another blessed era close, moreover with a prayer yet to be answered and a story yet to conclude.

Attending daily Mass was not convenient in my next position which involved a one-hour commute each way. Using my fingers (remembering, of course, to count the pinkie twice), I prayed a set of mysteries appropriate to the day on the subway ride home. Sometimes I had to interrupt to ask my guardian angel to stand close by me.

Fair-weather Saturday afternoons found me praying the Rosary in my parish's Mary Garden before vigil Mass. The old marble statue that I had known for decades, of the Blessed Mother crushing the serpent's head, had been vandalized over the years. Her fingers were broken off. I understood the significance of this Mary, wounded like the Czestochowa icon, but the Ladies Sodality decided to replace it with a polycast resin statue, sans serpent, guaranteed to last ten years.

Among the blessings of the pandemic was the suspension of that long transit ride. Working from home allowed me more time to pray in general.

Like most Rosary devotees, my habit was to say no more than one set of mysteries at a telling. On August 14, 2020, I received the intuition: Tomorrow you will begin praying all mysteries, Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious, each day.

That "tomorrow," August 15, was the Feast of the Assumption.

Quickly I realized that the new regime of reciting all the mysteries was necessary for God to help me put certain sins behind me. With those out of the way, I was able to recognize far more serious sins that I must grapple with.

The past 30 years, my entire 60 years, have been a long journey up a mountain. On such journeys, one falls into thinking that one has reached a pinnacle. Then the clouds part, as they did for me in 2020, revealing that one still has a long, long way to go. I hope the clouds keep parting.

Saying 212 Hail Marys, 24 Our Fathers and 24 Glory Be's each day quickly added wear and tear to my 1990s Rosary and hastened the day of its retirement.

A few years ago I learned about "pull-chain" or "military" Rosaries. These strong, silver-plated brass beads, were contracted by the U.S. Government to be given to Catholic military personnel in World Wars One and Two.

It would have been nice to have beads actually carried by a soldier, perhaps on the Marne or at Bastogne. However, while vintage pull-chain Rosaries can be found in abundance on-line, their provenance is seldom known.

But also available on-line are reproduction pullchains, I ordered one with the Knights of Columbus pendant.

Now, I hope, I'm equipped to meet the enemy in the battles to come, within and without.

For Further Reading

About Neal J. Conway

Four Books For Priests

The Other Jack Webb and His Crimebusting Priest