Baptism by horseback
One never knows what lunch conversation in Providence dining room will bring! Since I first started dining with Sisters of Providence in 2012, I have experienced lunch conversations that range from the weather to the prison industrial complex to “When I was a novice…” and beyond. This week, I was enthralled by a baptism story unlike any I had ever heard, and just in time for the retelling of Jesus’ baptism story in our own Church calendar.
“I call it my first horseback ride,” Sister Marceline Mattingly (nearing 82 years a Sister of Providence) said of her adventurous journey to baptism.
“I was born in November of 1915. At that time there were terrible rains and the bridge was washed away by the storm. I was going on six weeks old. My family was very concerned because in those days to go beyond one month without being baptized had a penalty of sin.”
With a twinkle in her eye, as if to imply the mischief this six-week-old could’ve gotten into, Marceline said, “I was growing fast and taking in the world!”
Marceline went on to describe the scene that day — 99 years ago this very week. The only way to cross the creek to get to the church was via a plank bridge that could only hold a horse with one rider. It was decided that her grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Hall, would be the one to take her across the creek to be baptized at St. Peter’s Church in Waverly, Kentucky.
This meant they had to construct a sling for the baby. The sling would allow her grandfather to hold the reins to direct the horse with one hand while supporting the baby with the other. (At this point in the story, my hands were sweating!)
Of course, valiant grandfather Hall and baby made it across the creek and to the church. But the drama did not end with the plank bridge. Marceline’s mother had requested her baptismal name be Thelma Louise. At this time in history, though, the priest would have the final say. The priest at St. Peter’s rejected the name since he felt it was associated with a popular actress he considered a “wicked woman.” It turns out the priest was mistaken – the movie star he had in mind was Theda Bara! But, Marceline was grateful for this mishap:
“Thank God!” she exclaimed, “I wouldn’t want to be named Thelma!”
The priest instead chose the name Elizabeth Louise.
The plot thickens still! Marceline’s grandfather, not wanting to disappoint her mother, reported back that the priest had chosen Elizabeth Lee. This way at least she would have a traditional family name for her second name, after her paternal grandfather, Robert Lee Mattingly.
Years later, Marceline finally tracked down her baptismal certificate and learned her true name. She was delighted to find out that she shared her middle name with her aunt, “My favorite person in the whole world as I grew up,” she said.
She spoke about the name confusion lightly, laughing, “I’m an AKA [also known as] all the way!”
On a more serious note, she explained, “I felt it was the real me; my true identity.”
I can’t tell you what I had for lunch that day, but I’ll hold on to the expressions on Marceline’s face and the sacredness of her sharing for some time to come. Find your thrills on TV or in the movie theater if you like — I’ll take another day in the dining room!