Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #9: Helping After School

At Saint Edward School one of the traditions was, with parental permission, to stay after school and "help Sister." My friends, Frances Donnelly, Johnabeth Kolarik, Kathleen O'Donnell, and I were avid helpers. First we would ask our own teacher if she needed help. If she had no tasks for us, we visited other classrooms to see if another teacher needed our help. The kindergarten and first grade teachers in the "minum" school always appreciated when we showed up. Our tasks were cleaning or washing chalkboards, clapping dusty erasers---outside---and not against the building, aligning the rows of desks, and occasionally correcting papers.

Helping the Sisters like this was a chance to get to know them in a less formal setting. When we finished our "work" we hung around and talked until Sister had to shoo us away. At this age we were curious about the Sisters. What did they do before and after school? What did the convent, where they lived, look like? What were their former names? In those days the Sisters did not keep their given names but changed them. How old were they? Did they have hair under their veils? How did they keep their habits so white? The Dominican Sisters wore all white garb, except for their black veils. Most of the time the Sisters didn't tell us their secrets. Perhaps we were being too nosy.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #10: Sixth Grade

Sister Mary Dominica, my sixth grade teacher, was tall, young, and wore tinted glasses. Her class was very enjoyable because she smiled so much and had a good sense of humor. Everyone liked her.

Playground Mishap
On the playground one day a group of us girls asked Sister to join us in a footrace. It took some persuasion, but she finally agreed. We were lined up on our mark, and, when the signal was given, we dashed off. In seconds Sister tripped on the hem of her long, ankle-length habit and fell face down on the asphalt. My heart beat wildly at witnessing Sister laying there hurt. She picked herself up. Sister's eyeglasses were chipped and her hands were abraded. Her face was red with embarrassment, yet she laughed. That's the kind of person Sr. Mary Dominica was. Her laughter put us at ease.

Singing and Choir
Sometimes Sister had singing time in class. She was very musically talented. I loved singing, but I didn't like when Sister stood near me. I wouldn't sing solos. We were allowed to go up into the church balcony and sing morning Mass with the 7th and 8th grade girls. Sister Mary Dominica was the organist and somehow she was also able to direct us. Those choir times were some of my best times at St. Edward. Mass was in Latin, so we learned the Mass parts, like Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Agnus Dei, in Latin. However, there were also many hymns that we sang in English, like "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," which was usually sung at the end of Benediction.

From the balcony the altar seemed tiny, like dollhouse furniture. The priest, more often than not, wore black vestments over the alb, because the Masses were usually Requiems or Masses for the repose of the souls of the dead. Seated in the pews were hundreds of children. It was easy to see who was fooling around from the aerial view. A Sister would occasionally have to get up and admonish someone.

The balcony was close to the ceiling. I like to look up at the rafters, beams, and struts that supported the roof. They looked like giant "M's," which I decided stood for Mary. How I wished I could fly from the balcony and soar through the church and perhaps land, like a bird, on a beam.

Doubts about God
As I looked at all these things I went through a period of wondering about the reality of the existence of God. Was God real or was this a hoax perpetrated on us children by adults to get us to behave and obey them? My behavior was not always exemplary. I felt guilty for having such thoughts, though. In time I resolved my doubts about the existence of God. It occurred to me that there were too many intelligent adults who, themselves, did believe in God for the whole thing to be a trick.

English Class Challenge
One day in English class, we were studying descriptive paragraphs. Our textbook, Voyages in English, had a descriptive paragraph about a school building which Sister Dominica read aloud to us. When finished she asked, "Is it a good paragraph?" I boldly responded, "No, it stinks!" To which she countered, "Then YOU will write a better one." To save face I said I could. So that was my challenge.

That evening I sat on my bed pondering what to write. I decided to describe my bedroom. I carefully observed the walls, bed, dressers, bedspreads, bookshelf, and curtains. Desperately I tried to think of word imagery that would convey a picture of my room. I stared at the plaques of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that hung on the mint green wall. I kept starting over. Nothing I wrote seemed good enough. Why had I ever opened my mouth like that? Time was ticking away and I would soon have to go to bed. I finished at last. But was it good enough? Was it better than the paragraph in the book? I had doubts.

Next day Sister called on me to read my descriptive paragraph in front of the other 55 children. I did. There was dead silence. Then everyone started clapping! Sister was smiling. Everyone thought it was good, and Sister said it was better than the one in the book! How relieved I felt. And I learned a lesson is self control as well.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #8: Fourth Grade

Sister Mary Alma, a tall, soft-spoken woman, was kind and loving. She had a gentle smile, and she would call me "honey." In my fourth grade catechism class I simply admired her. There was a regality in her bearing, which mesmerized me. I couldn't take my eyes off of her.

Also, there was something different about Sr. Mary Alma. She was a convert to the Catholic faith. This is a fact she shared with us and I was amazed that a person could change religions. I felt sorry for her that she had not been a Catholic from childhood.

She informed us of one short-coming of being Catholic. We didn't know the Bible. Sister related how, in her former religion, which I think was Lutheran, she was required to know the Bible books and the chapters and verses. To me that sounded incredibly difficult, so I was glad to be Catholic. I guess Sister was too!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #7: Third Grade

Sister Mary Noreen was my third-grade catechism teacher. She was pleasantly plump and had a sense of humor. I liked her once I got used to her.

The structure of catechism classes changed that year. With Sister Mary Luke catechism had been like a one-room schoolhouse with children from first through eighth grades together in one classroom. But with Sister Noreen we third-graders were together. What happened at the other grade levels, I don't recall. Also, by this year my brother John was going to catechism classes too. But, he was not in my class, as he would have been if the structure had not changed,.

I believe that the change happened because of the Baby Boom. My cohort was actually on the cutting edge of that group. I suspect that, as it became apparent to the school administrators that class sizes were increasing, they could no longer fit all the children of all the grade levels together.

This was the year that those of us in public school were allowed to receive our First Holy Communion. We were required to wait a whole year longer than the children who went full time to Catholic school. Then, I felt it was unfair. Now, I think it was wise. The exposure of public school children to religious instruction compared with Catholic school children is very minimal. I had the advantage of my father's interest and encouragement, which I think gave me an advantage. He had been a seminarian and knew the Catholic faith inside-out.

When it was time to prepare for the ceremony, we practiced interminably---or so it seemed to me. We went to church with the second grade Catholic school children and were seated by size from smallest to tallest; boys on one side and girls on the other. Being a year older than most, we third-graders were nearer to the back. I know I was, and I didn't like it.

We learned certain hymns. We practiced kneeling straight and walking in synchronization with partners for the entrance and exit processions. Our hands had to be folded just like one sees in pictures of "The Praying Hands."

We were allowed, on this occasion, to enter the sanctuary, a unique privilege in those pre-Vatican Council II times. There was an emphasis on form and being just perfect. It was mercilessly tedious and monotonous! In a way, though, the toughness of the preparation that we endured made the reception of the sacrament seem very, very important.

Our pastor, Msgr. Schmidt, came to one of the final practices. He asked that each of us say a "Hail Mary" for him after we received Jesus for the first time. He told us that our prayers on the occasion of our First Holy Communion would be extra special. I remembered to say that prayer for him, as well as other prayers for which we had been prepared.

I do remember the actual day of my First Holy Communion. It was important to me. I tried to remember everything we practiced. I remember the moment of walking with my partner into the sanctuary, turning, taking my place, and kneeling. I remember receiving Jesus for the first time and being very happy about it. I remember leaving the sanctuary and returning to my place, as we had practiced. I remember praying.

Sadly, I have no photos of that day. NONE! I remember that sometime afterwards my mother had the dress dry cleaned and placed in a special box. She wrapped it in blue tissue, which she said would preserve the whiteness of the dress and veil. That's my mother, the scientist! But, although I noticed the box in our basement for many years, I don't know what became of it in the long run.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #6: More Fifth Grade Memories

So many things about fifth grade appealed to me. We learned fractions. I was a whiz at fractions because I had already learned them at Palmer School. When others struggled with reducing and lowest common denominator, I could do it in my head. Sister Mary Magdala was impressed with my precociousness. I enjoyed the attention.

I loved learning American history. Geography was interesting. But the best part of fifth grade was the invariable homework assignment that Sister gave daily. We had to compose an original paragraph on an assigned topic. This was the only homework I liked. Writing seemed to flow from my pen. It was fun for me. Sister often read examples of good paragraphs from the work that we did. The paragraphs had to make good sense, but spelling and handwriting also counted. This was good discipline. I discovered I could say things in writing that I couldn't say aloud. I had an inner voice.

In our religion lessons Sister Mary Magdala taught us the structure of the Mass. Prior to these lessons the Mass seemed like a long, holy event with words I didn't understand and actions that I did just because that's what everyone did. I tried to be quiet and reverent, because I knew it was all about giving honor to God; but, I was more inclined to hope it would end soon. I prayed what prayers I knew when my mind wasn't wandering. And I looked forward to receiving Holy Communion for three reasons. At communion time I could stand up and walk. It was special to receive Jesus, and I really sensed that. And it also meant the Mass would soon end and we could leave.

Sister Mary Magdala's lessons enlightened me to the deeper meanings of the Mass. She told us that the Mass had parts and each part meant something. The first part was the Mass of the Catechumens, now called the Liturgy of the Word. The second part was the Mass of the Faithful, now known as The Liturgy of the Eucharist. On the blackboard, Sister drew a diagram that had steps, and on each step was a sub-part of the Mass. I came to know and understand words like Kyrie, Introit, Collect, and Consecration, to name just a few. After Sister's Mass lessons I was better able to be attentive at Mass, use a Missal, and have some understanding of what the priest was doing and why. This knowledge made daily Mass attendance less of an ordeal for me.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #5: Sister's Embarrassing Mishap

There were fifty-five children in our fifth grade class, so we could, at times, create quite a commotion. Sister Mary Magdala was trying to quiet us down one afternoon, but we weren't responding to her pleas. So, in a last ditch effort to get our attention, she took a textbook and pounded it on her desk. Unfortunately, the desk top was glass, and it shattered!

There was instant silence as Sister's face turned from red to purple with embarrassment. You could have heard a pin drop. We stared at Sister in anticipation of what was next. Simultaneously I felt so sorry for her. I was imagining that she would get in just as much trouble as I would have, had I done something like break something expensive. I also felt guilty for not having cooperated in quieting down.

But, intermingled with those sentiments was the thought that it was a comical scene. Part of me wanted to laugh, but I didn't dare. There were certain boundaries that children didn't cross, and not one of the fifty-five of us did.

Sister composed herself and carried on. We, for our part, were very attentive for the rest of the afternoon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Growing Up Catholic #4: A Typical School Day at St. Edward

The daily routine at St. Edward School followed a pattern.

Morning Mass
A typical school day began with Mass in Church. After walking from home to school we gathered informally with our school friends outside church. When it was time for Mass we sat with our classmates and teacher in an assigned part of the church. We genuflected and entered the pew. Girls had to wear chapel veils in church. These were white, doily-like circles of lace that we pinned in place with a hairpin. When not in use we kept them in a plastic container that snapped closed.

All children who had received their first communion were expected to be at morning Mass. The church was full, because there were a thousand students in St. Edward at the time. So excluding the younger children, there must have been about 800 children, maybe 16 teachers, and other adult parishioners. One clear memory of mine is how much my knees and back always hurt me by the middle of Mass. It was quite a discipline for me to kneel so long and to contain my naturally active nature. Nine times out of ten the Mass was a Mass for the Dead, called a Requiem Mass. In pre-Vatican II days the priests wore black vestments for these Masses.

After Mass concluded we again genuflected as we exited the pew and walked in straight lines, called ranks, to the school building and then to our classroom. We were not to talk, but most of us did a lot of whispering.

Our School Lessons
Before our first lesson of the day, we stood for morning prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Every day we recited The Morning Offering prayer. It was customary, when finished with the prayers and pledge, to say, "Good morning, Sister Mary________," in unison. And Sister always responded, "Good morning, boys and girls. Please be seated." That was our cue that "business" had begun.

Lesson began promptly, and religion was invariably the first subject of the day. After that we had lessons in arithmetic, reading, English, spelling, history, geography, and penmanship, although not necessarily in that order. We never had a science lesson, because it was not part of our curriculum. Physical education was just once a week my first year at St. Edward, but eventually it was phased out. "Art," taught once weekly, consisted in copying a drawing, usually related to the seasons or holidays of the year, that the art teacher brought. She rotated from classroom to classroom on that day. It was more of a rendering lesson than an art lesson.

Good behavior, attention, and respect were both expected and enforced. Our teachers had no qualms about correcting conduct that was out of bounds.

Recess was what play time was called. We had recess after lunch. Girls and boys had separate, assigned play areas on the campus, where we played only with those in our own grade. This was not a problem, because there were so many children in a given grade, at least a hundred. So everyone had a friend or several friends with whom to play. I don't recall any loners. We didn't leave anyone out, even if we didn't especially like someone. Everyone was to be included.

For safety, barricades, which were saw horses, were placed at each end of Sunnyside Avenue so not cars could drive through the area during recess. So the street was one section of the play area, as was the church parking lot, which was quite large. The Sisters took turns monitoring.

We played organized games, which we organized ourselves. There were rules for each game and we made sure our friends followed them. From sixth grade on some of us girls enjoyed playing softball. But there wasn't enough room for a full game, so we practiced batting and catching.

When the bell rang at the end of recess, we immediately stopped and stood still, like statues. When the second bell rang we walked to an assigned place were we formed ranks with our class. Our teacher met us there. Everyone recited the "Pledge of Allegiance to the Cross of Christ." Then we walked silently---although I was an avid whisperer---to our classrooms.

Classroom Design
The class photo on my previous post shows what all the classroom looked like. The photo was taken from the front of the room with the photographer near the window side.

On the front wall above the black chalkboard hung a crucifix. Elsewhere in the room was a statue of Mary, Our Lady of Grace, standing on a globe, representing the while world, and she was stepping on a snake, representing Satan, who had tempted Adam and Eve.

A speaker, part of the school intercom system, was located on a wall near the crucifix. The system was used by the principal for daily announcements.

Both the front and side walls were lined with black chalkboards, and right above them was a narrow bulletin board. These were decorated with religious quotations like, "Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God." The one in the photo that I mentioned says, "When you play, play hard. When you work, don't play at all." The Sisters always had fancy corners cut out of colored construction paper at the ends of the bulletin boards. Student work was always displayed on the side bulletin board. This would be spelling tests or art work. There was always a large, square bulletin board in the front of the room, next to the chalkboard. This was also decorated. In May it had a Marian theme.

In back of the room lockers lined the wall. You can see them clearly in the previous post. Winter jackets and boots were stored there along with our book satchels. No one used backpacks then.

Desks were arranged in five or six straight rows, depending on the size of the room and the number of children in the class. Desk styles varied from room to room. Some had separate chairs and others had chair and desk as one unit. Some were wood; others were laminated with Formica and had metal frames. The tops of some, like the ones in the photo, conveniently opened upward, but others were not adjustable and books were slid in and out, cubbyhole style.
Regardless of the type of desk our teachers expected them to be kept neat and orderly. At the end of each day a student passed the wastepaper basket so we could discard old papers. Also, at the end of the day we aligned our desks. If the chairs were separate we set them on top of the desk so the janitor could clean the floors more easily.

Our school days were long. To me they seemed interminable. For the last half hour I had my eye on the clock, which meant turning around as stealthily as possible to look at the time. Time seemed to stand still those last 30 minutes of the school day.

But when it was time to go home, the teacher waited until everyone was quiet and ready. We said a final prayer, The Act of Contrition. We stood an waited for our teacher to dismiss our row. If anyone in the row was misbehaving or not ready we all had to wait for that person. If things were really bad, the teacher would tell everyone to sit and we could be kept after school. This was not common, but it was an option, so we really wanted to cooperate. Needless to say any student, friend or not, who kept us waiting longer than necessary, heard about it from everyone when we finally were outside.

The Sisters actually didn't just open the school door to let us go. No, she walked us to a particular street corner and watched us as we set out to go home---no pushing, no running. And we gave Sister a friendly good-bye.