(Joining the "Devil's Party," Lubeck, Germany, July, 2004)Catholic schools were legendary in my day for their strict, no-nonsense approach to discipline, and most of us remained properly intimidated most of the time. Not all of us, however, went along with the program. A couple of my classmates really fought the power (more about that anon), and by the time I left Holy Penance, Sister, as they say, had a “history of violence.” But our occasional set-tos paled in comparison to the sort of things that were popularly presumed to be going on in the public schools back then.
From where I stand now, I can see that public schools got a bad rap and that Catholic schools got much more credit than they deserved for academic excellence and for character development. We memorized too much and thought too little. What Milton says about not being able to “praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue” also comes to mind. Still, you have to hand it to the good sisters of old when it cames to social and moral conditioning. Some of the guys and girls who went through the Catholic school experience in that day and time have never quite gotten past the experience.
“Recovering Catholics” they call themselves. As for me, my saving grace is that I started late and that I never took being a Catholic all that seriously to begin with. I suppose that’s what enabled me, years later, to get off one of the best (if one of the cruelest) bon mots of my life.
At the time, I was long past Catholic school--already married, in a civil ceremony, to a protestant woman. My wife and I were visiting my mother when my Aunt Jerry dropped by. Aunt Jerry was Polish, and as the old saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope. She was a lifelong member and devoted supporter of St. Hedwig’s, the principal Polish parish in Wilmington in those days. St. Hedwig’s was set right in the middle of Hedgeville, a lower middle-class Polish neighborhood which began just north of Maryland Avenue. St. Hedwig’s was the cultural center of the Polish-American community in those days. Its parishioners celebrated their heritage and their ethnic identity. Aunt Jerry certainly did. So did Sister Casimir, who also happened to be Polish. She and Aunt Jerry never met, but through the Polish grapevine, Aunt Jerry knew of her and even claimed to know about the good Polish family from which Sister had come.
Even if Aunt Jerry hadn’t told me, I would certainly have known that Sister was Polish. Sister said it loud; she was Polish, and she was proud. At the slightest provocation, she would routinely lament the fact that, with one or two exceptions, our class was not Polish. I still remember some of those laments: “Polish children wouldn’t treat me this way.” “Polish children study hard and do their lessons.” And my personal favorite: “Polish children are religious.” Like most of us, I suppose, Sister needed illusions to live by.
Truth be told, Aunt Jerry too could be loud and opinionated, but she was also big-hearted, warm, and funny—especially when it came to her chronic lament, her husband’s hobbies. Uncle Jule was an avid bowler and a sociable sort who frequented the Polish Library—actually an after hours drinking club in Hedgeville that, for the sake of appearances, may have had a book or two. (I suspect it was started during prohibition.) But Uncle Jule’s real avocation was competitive shooting. He was a member of the Rod and Gun Club behind mother's house and often practiced there. The practice paid off, as he had won or placed highly in a number of matches, including the national competitions held each summer at Camp Perry, Ohio. Of course, maintaining that level of skill required constant practice—which, in turn, elicited constant bitching on Aunt Jerry’s part. And, truth be told, she was as accomplished in that as Uncle Jule was in shooting.
Aunt Jerry was in particularly fine form on that day. The occasion of her visit, as I recall, was that Uncle Jule had had some sort of shooting commitment at the Rod and Gun Club that morning, after which they were going to go shopping. And rather than wait for him at the club (which, again, was adjacent to my mother’s neighborhood), she had opted to be dropped off at my mother’s house, where she could defame Uncle Jule for the duration.
“If he isn’t bowling,” she complained, “he’s at the Polish library. If he isn’t at the Polish Library, he’s at the Rod and God Club,” she went on, oblivious to her own slip of the tongue.
I’m usually not quick about such things. Generally, like most people, hours after the fact I think of what I could have or should have said. But not on this occasion.
“The Rod and God Club?” I asked. “What’s that? St. Hedwig’s?”
This still ranks as the one and only time I ever saw Aunt Jerry rendered speechless. Her eyes narrowed, and she got tight-lipped. She just stared at me for what seemed to be at least thirty seconds before responding, “I wouldn’t be so smart if I were you.”
And, then, she just picked up right where she left off, rehearsing some more of Uncle Jule’s faults, just as if nothing had happened. What can I say, except what a sardonic friend of mine says whenever one of his one-liners isn’t well-received? “Some you’ve gotta do just for yourself.”
Speaking for myself, I have to admit that Aunt Jerry, on that day, gave me a handle on my Catholic School Experience. The fact is, I don’t really know about St. Hedwig’s. Maybe it was a kinder, gentler Catholic School than Holy Penance. Maybe it was worse. Likewise, I don’t really know what Holy Penance was like under any other nuns. I went there only for the seventh and eighth grades, and for both grades I had Sister Mary Casimir. (You can imagine our joy on the first day of eighth grade at discovering that Sister Casimir had been promoted along with us.) All I really know is that, under Sister Mary Casimir, Holy Penance was indeed a “Rod and God Club.” And that’s the way I’ve thought of it ever since.
I mean, hey, the Pope can take a joke, can’t he? --EFP