By Michael Miller /
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Paincourtville, Louisiana, is an unassuming brick building with a modern metal roof and a smattering of trees providing scant shade in its parking lot.
Inside, it is an overwhelming architectural achievement — 50 stained glass images of saints and the Passion, statues of key figures of faith and meticulous columns and arches embraced by stunning hand-painted flourishes from floor to ceiling. It’s impossible to describe the artistry of the church interior as a separate entity from spirituality, as every dab of paint and inch of wood is infused with the glory and promise of faith. The church’s founding priests are entombed near the altar, silent witnesses to the testaments of generations. Founded in 1840, St. Elizabeth is one of the oldest parishes in its region and has been in the same building since 1902. Described as “The Gem of the Bayou” on its website, “the beautiful gothic building was designed by the LeSaicherre brothers, who were priests at the parish in the 1880s. From the magnificent Italian marble high-altar to the hand painted images painted on the cypress ceilings, St. Elizabeth Church is a glorious sight to behold.”
The interior was painted by two Mexican refugee brothers on sections of burlap feed sacks, which were then sewn together and hung on the walls.
It is a magnificent place of worship, but the baptism that brought us there July 20 could have taken place in a broom closet with one dim light bulb and the spiritual impact of the sacred event would not have been diminished one iota.
We traveled to Paincourtville for the baptism of Cullen, first-born son of our friends Will and Rachel. I have known Will for more than 20 years, since our University of Toledo days. We have seen each other in times triumphant and disastrous, hilarious and mournful.
Will and I are not always fans of happy endings, but it has been gratifying to see Will and Rachel build a life together, especially in the context of my jaundiced disdain of some of the less pleasant people he has spent time with. To see Will build a family has been amusing, as his contempt for romantic conventions in general and children in particular has softened into an understanding that one does not have to compromise intellect to engage emotionally.
My family shared with the arrival of Cullen just a bit more than a year ago, trading visits to strengthen our relationships and making sure our sons will know Cullen.
When Will asked if I would serve as Cullen’s godfather, I hesitated long enough to do some inner searching and evaluating of my own faith and qualifications to mentor and guide. I came up short but accepted anyway.
I am Lutheran, not Catholic, so even though I took a class on being a godparent to a Catholic child, I am officially Cullen’s “Non-Catholic Christian Witness,” a title Cullen will one day appreciate as a perfect title for my sense of humor and askance approach to organized religion and the complications of bureaucratic thinking.
We gathered with a large number of Rachel’s family after Mass to celebrate the baptism under the auspice of the Rev. Andrew Merrick, a pastor who seemed as young and irreverent as his church is old and authoritarian.
Father Merrick struck the right note of comfort and adherence to tradition, walking us through the understanding of our responsibility and a renouncement of Satan (I have renounced that particular entity before but not with as much conviction as I did that morning).
Cullen, a blue-eyed, curious child with his father’s still-waters-run-deep demeanor, marveled at every moment of the sacrament and did not cry once. Surrounded by a loving family and a loving God, the little boy glowed in the light of the spirit and the purity of Christ’s embrace.
I remembered the baptism of our sons Evan and Sean and how precious it was to be surrounded by our earthly family and our heavenly one.
In his life, Cullen will know good and bad, great love and great evil. He will experience the complexities of life, the whims of love and the mysteries of faith.
All that was miles and years away as Father Merrick anointed Cullen and let the holy water welcome him into the faith. For those few minutes it was only about family, faith and love.
As godfather, it is my responsibility to help Will and Rachel as they guide Cullen. If we can retain the spirit and momentum of that brief confluence in St. Elizabeth, that responsibility will be a joy, not a chore, a celebration, never a burden.
A graduate of Toledo Libbey High School and the University of Toledo, Michael Miller is co-founder and Editor in Chief of Toledo Free Press, Lucas and Wood County’s largest Sunday newspaper. Michael has worked as an editor in Washington, D.C., and edited publications in Pittsburgh, San Jose, Calif. and Miami, Florida. His syndicated column, “Lighting the Fuse,” has been published in more than 40 national newspapers since 1999. In 2002, a book compiling Michael’s columns was published by American City Business Journals. Michael has won more than two dozen industry awards, including the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Humor Columnist of the Year for 2002 and was named third-best columnist in Ohio at the 2009 Society for Professional Journalists awards. He is a Toledo “20 Under 40” recipient and the youngest living member of the Toledo Libbey High School Hall of Fame. Michael and his wife Shannon have a 8-year-old son, Evan, and a 5-year-old son, Sean.