Patty Knap calls herself a “born again” Catholic. She planned to be a wife and mother of four or five kids with several girls, but as life played out, she’s a single mom with two young adult boys. She counsels at a crisis pregnancy center, teaches CCD, takes online classes with the Avila Institute, and loves the beach, dalmatians, and America’s national parks. She also saves recipes in a pile until it gets big and then throws them out.
Over the years, my beloved mother amassed quite a collection of holy cards from wakes. Each one represented a person she knew and loved. They were kept in a plain cardboard box at the back of the closet, and not being one to save things without reason, they were clearly special to her. I found myself starting to save the prayer cards in my 20s, and now having been to quite a few wakes myself, I have my own little collection. Mine are simply kept in sealed plastic bags, which never seems quite right. I started to wonder what other people do with them.
After a wake this week for a friend's brother, a few of us were chatting about what we do with all those holy cards. Apparently, it's quite common to hold on to them as a precious connection to the person who has now moved on to eternity. A few people said there's just something about the prayer cards from wakes that is holy. They said they're never thrown out, and that they keep them stashed together in a drawer.
One woman said that whenever she has something crucial to pray about, she takes out all her saved holy cards and has them laid out before her as she prays, asking for the intercession of the saints. Another woman said she's always had a couple of shelves where she keeps a Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, some favorite holy books, her rosary beads and all the prayer cards she's gotten through the years at wakes. “Some of these people are in my mind a lot, like my parents, and my sister who died in a car accident, and several other people I adored. Some were people I knew only a few years, maybe neighbors or co-workers. A few of them are from wakes of people I didn't really know as friends but I knew they were good people who had influenced me in some way, such as a couple of priests.”
Another person shared her own unique way of remembering these people with their holy cards. She has a small altar set up in her room, with a crucifix, a statue of the Blessed Mother, holy water, and all the prayer cards of deceased family and friends right there. “When I pray at night I just always include them—if they are still in purgatory I pray for their release into heaven, and if they are already in heaven, I ask for their help in guidance for me here as I live out my journey, and for those around me that need prayer, and for any special intentions I'm aware of. It gives me a greater sense of connection with the communion of saints.”
A few years ago, when my father was dying, I found myself grabbing my plastic bag of holy cards to bring with me to the hospital. It was comforting asking all these folks, including my father's own parents and two siblings, to join with me in praying for him.
Once in a while, when I'm adding a card to the collection, I come across one that's always especially touched me. It's from the wake of Msgr. Fr. John Casserly, the priest who was a friend of my mother's family and who married my parents in 1952. Along with a picture of Fr. Casserly, who died in 1972, is a simple request: Please pray for me.