Remembering the Dormition of Mary

I remember the painting well: two figures in white encircled by grievers tacked onto the wall of the church high above me. One, Jesus standing, hand in blessing, surrounded by a golden mandorla and angels. The other, the Virgin Mary, lying on a funeral bier wrapped in a white burial garment; her hands folded on her chest. Two lighted candles and a lily attended the intimate scene of the dead Virgin, known as the Dormition

I was a boy — an impressionable one — but that image haunted me. Mary died?   

My parents made a risky choice when they decided to send me and my brothers into the gritty center of the city of McKeesport, not far from Pittsburgh, to attend grade school after our own parish school in the city suburbs had shuttered its doors after the end of the 1972-73 academic year. 

A family friend in education recommended St. Mary’s School on Olive Street. Known as St. Mary’s, German, it was built by the city’s German community, Catholic and non-Catholic, as a center for German culture and language. The school was known for its library and extensive collection of books on art, history and literature, and for the German nuns who enforced discipline, academically and behaviorally.

For me, however, it was a perceptive choice that has influenced my life academically, professionally and even spiritually ever since. For at the heart of the parish stood its majestic brick neo-Romanesque church, its elegant campanile and an interior covered in murals painted between 1908 and 1910 by two Benedictine monks, Fathers Bonaventure Ostendarp and Raphael Pfisterer, artists who had studied at the Royal Art Academy in Munich.

The murals depicted the life of Mary on one side of the nave and the life of Jesus on the opposite. The murals were united at the triumphal arch, where saints and angels viewed the Assumption and Crowning of Mary by the three Persons in the Trinity. In the apse, Christ was enthroned in majesty, adored by his mother, John the Baptist and the apostles.

The interior of St. Mary Church in McKeesport, Penn., at Christmas with its magnificent murals of the lives of Jesus and Mary. The church was demolished in 1994. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

The architecture and murals referenced the churches and sacred art that graced Europe before the development of Gothic art and architecture. Yet, they were rare North American examples of the twinned sacred art and liturgical revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries driven by the monks at the Beuron Abbey in southwestern Germany.       

All eyes were drawn to Christ in Majesty, but mine were fixed on the Dormition. As I grew older and bolder, I quizzed my nuns, the Sisters of Divine Providence, Allison Park, about that mural in the church. Nothing in our catechism classes provided any information on the circumstances of Mary’s death. This silence opened a large void in my imagination, the details filled in by that painting. 

Christians of the East and West commemorate on 15 August the Virgin Mary’s transition from her life on earth into eternal life. While Latin-rite Catholics specifically stress her Assumption into heaven, Eastern Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, celebrate the feast of the Dormition, the falling asleep of the Virgin Mary. 

“Neither the grave nor death could contain the Mother of God, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection,” reads the Byzantine kontakion, or hymn, for the feast. 

“As Mother of Life she has been taken over into life by him who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.”  

As St. John Paul II reminds us, there are no scriptural references for the feast. But through the course of Christian tradition — beginning in the early Christian period in both East and West — the belief in her falling asleep and entrance into eternal life, body and soul, evolved. This development in Christian belief culminated in the dogmatic declaration of the Assumption of Mary by Blessed Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. 

Sister Mary Dolores Fauth (may her memory be eternal) would remind me that Mary’s death and entrance into eternal life echo Jesus’ triumph over death, and what awaits all Christians after they die: the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Even in her death, she would say, Mary is an example, a model, for all of us to remember. 

Remember indeed. That beautiful church and its glorious murals no longer survive, swept away after the steel mills were shuttered and many of the families who lived and worshipped there moved. Yet that image of the death of the Virgin haunts me still, and remains indelibly marked in my mind, a reminder always of what awaits all of us.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s director of communications.

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