Jack ( "eyes") Kelly's article May 1973 Boston Globe
The Sisters and the Kids
Some fond memories of a parochial school education
by Jack Kelly
Beginning next month, the Sisters of St. Joseph will start moving away from the Boston schools they've been teaching in for 100 years. The problem is one of declining vocations but that is not the subject of this writing. It is enough to note that for some reason, the relaxing of old and tired disciplines has had a direct effect on the number of young women who choose the religious orders as a way of life. The reasons for the vocational drop-off might better be explored by a Vatican commission on vocations, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy or the Boston University Graduate School of Dentistry.
What I am about is making it quite plain that the Sisters of St. Joseph will be remembered fondly by many who, like myself, spent the better part of a grammar and high school educational period driving the kindly nuns into the Old soldiers' Home. For the first four grades back in those days, the Sisters had a reasonably mild time of it. With all the talk of black marks on our souls, it wasn't too tough a job keeping us all in line.
In Grade 5, however, control of the class was beginning to become a matter of contention. Having 80 years experience teaching in the Boston schools, the Order of St. Joseph had already spent many careful hours in strategy sessions coping with this problem and, on the first Thursday after Labor Day of 1953, we walked to our battle stations, manned the inkwells and stood smartly facing Sister Mary Davida, the 5 feet 7, 220 pound running back from the Framingham Novitiate. Sister Davida had what could undoubtedly be termed an uncanny sense of judgment in dealing with classroom unrest. The first day of school seating was arranged according to height and, being tall, naturally I occupied a seat in the back of the room. That occupation period made the Six Day War, as yet unfought, look like a lengthy historical epic. In less than a week, there I was, fourth row front seat in easy reach of Sister's long wooden pointer from a sitting position. Ohhhh how that stung but ahhhh, how well I learned my geography. I can't even begin to number the parties at which I would have looked a complete buffoon had I not been armed with the knowledge that llamas are found chiefly in Peru and that Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay. Factually speaking, that pointer taught me even more than I could have ever hoped to learn in geography. It was my first experience with survival training. I learned to recognize, most usually with my head turned, the customary whistle that preceded the wooden shaft's painful descent to my right or left hand. Soon I became so adept at perceiving that sound that, on one occasion, Sister Davida tore eighteen pages from my arithmetic book thanks to my newly discovered machine-gun reflexes. It took one solid week of paper route earnings to replace a book, I almost always resisted opening in the first place.
The balance of the following summer was totally destroyed by the August letter that informed me I was to report to Sister Salvator's 6th Grade class in September. To this day, I think that letter was addressed to my mother because there would be no way I would have ever shown up were it sent to me. Too young to become a merchant seaman, I simply faced the reality of my impending demise. "Sally", as we so disrespectfully referred to the tutorial terror of the entire grammar school, was the sentence of death. She had the consummate gall to persuade students to learn. The first Thursday came again and we filed into class, heads bowed. As if to demonstrate coming attractions, Sister Salvator started things off by covering the clock. Suddenly by mistake, miracle, or attempt at reverse psychology, I was transferred to another 6th Grade class. It was a feeling not unlike that experienced by Rocky Graziano after leaving a life of trouble in the ghetto to become middleweight champion. The shock was so overwhelming that all through that school year and, to this day, I cannot remember, nor do I think I ever knew the name of the Sister who taught me whatever it was that I learned in the sixth grade. The Sisters of St. Joseph were having enough trouble putting knowledge into my head but, I am sure, that they banished from the Order whoever it was who allowed the new kid in the neighborhood into St. Columbkille's School. The infamous Moon Paine, so named because of his facial resemblance to our nearest planetary neighbor, quickly returned us all to the amateur ranks in the 'Great War of Wits' with the Sisters of St. Joseph. Moon was the very first in classroom history to drive a nun to such angry distraction that she ripped the shirt right off his back. Being wiser the ways of the world than most of us, Moon immediately attempted to file suit in Suffolk Superior Court but a settlement was reached, through a special collection at Sunday Mass, and Moon bought himself a white button down oxford as a display of purity and innocence. It wasn't long before the strategists in the Sisters of St. Joseph War Room developed a plan for dealing with Moon Paine. In order to give the new member of the St. Columbkille student body an even break, the good Sisters decided not to expel him from school. Moon merely spent most of his sixth grade time expelled from the class, sitting in the coatroom. The plan worked exceedingly well until Moon learned enough about the piano in the coatroom to distract the entire floor of the building with renditions of "Rock Around the Clock" and "Love Me Tender". Several years and several nun notches on his verbal gun later, Moon Paine was expelled and was forced to serve the remainder of his secondary educational time at Brighton High School.
Now, classes for Grades 7 and 8 were conducted in a separate building called "The Institute". It was there that we were introduced to green blackboards and multicolored chalk. That and Sister Celeste's mustache kept us fascinated and out of trouble for almost of the entire year. The seventh grade saw for me one important development that greatly influenced the rest of my education under the Sisters of St. Joseph. It was just a simple request, a statement of condition, an utterance, but one that sent chills surging through my young body. It was in that year that Sister Celeste became the very first to force me to my knees with the works, "Bring your father to the convent". There were no merit awards or scholarships handed out at the convent and my father was more that aware of that fact. It was for me a somber opening to the longest running chain of convent appearances in parochial school history. They have in that convent a little room, plainly furnished with one potted plant. All around that room, the bustle of convent life prevails, but in that room, there is stark silence, and only three chairs. My father, in one chair, sits somberly. I'm in a straight back wooden chair under which I'm searching for electric current and Sister has strategically located herself in a velvet covered Chippendale between us. She is sitting on the edge leaning in my father's direction and, in almost a whisper, Sister Celeste is saying words that will cost me two weeks minimum in the house. "He has so much potential. If only he would try harder and stop distracting the rest of the class with his antics." So there I was right at the height of the Melia vs. Powers for State Senate campaign. Two weeks in the house and me, one of the chief Melia leaflet distributors. Needless to say, Melia lost the election and my father won a seat in the "Bring Him to the Convent" Hall of Fame.
Somehow, my convent cohorts and I made it to the eighth grade and through another round of "Visits with Father" over to the high school. It must be stated here that St. Columbkille's is not one of the schools that the Sisters of St. Joseph"s will be leaving. That is to the advantage of the school and its students but to the detriment of the fathers of pupils of my former caliber. The high school years were a whole new ball game. We were now seasoned combat veterans who were actually beginning to shave and smoke. But, the Sisters knew that, too, and only their best troops were dispatched to teach Freshman classes. It was Sisters Macarius and Octavia with whom we were forced to do battle that year. The names, taken from Roman generals, were not unearned. The very first day of class on the usual Thursday after Labor Day, Sister Macarius told Judy Kennedy, an import from Presentation Junior High, not to wear a tight sweater ever again. It was like telling a politician not to shake hands. The school uniforms were looking somehow different this year. All the girls wore them after the first few days of class but, this year, they seemed to be filling out at the top and hemming up at the bottom. Sisters Macarius and Octavia quickly became the unfortunate guardians of male morality in the Freshman class and more than a few mouths hung open when the latter publicly berated Mary G. for "advertising what she wasn't mature enough to sell". That's the way Sister Octavia was -- right to the point. Smoking in the men's room was one of her favorite points of argument. It was a practice strictly forbidden by the nuns who were, unquestionably, years ahead of the Surgeon General in their wisdom. Sister Octavia had a time proven method for discouraging smoking in the lavatory. You'd be standing in front of the urinal taking care of business with a cigarette in your mouth and all of a sudden, a woman's hand would start twisting your earlobe and you didn't even have to turn around to know who it was. The difficulty came in deciding which embarrassment to hide first. After being surprised that way on just one occasion, one usually confined one's smoking to other quarters.
Sister Octavia was "right on" to all the games that boys of fourteen knew how to play and she loved the battle as much as we did. She was, for instance, more than suspicious when the algebra homework submitted by Jim Squires and me surpassed markedly a first-year algebra teacher's wildest dreams. Yet, the classroom expertise wouldn't give credit to a fourth grader. It didn't take our Roman general long to discover that Squires was having an affair with a young lady attending a nearby college who was more than willing to take care of our math homework for us. The only occasion when I can remember getting one up on sister Octavia was during the last half of that Freshman year. It was at that time a requirement that a student absent due to illness bring a note from his or her mother explaining the absence upon returning to classes. From September to March, I carefully preserved the several notes Sister neglected to ask for, cut the dates off the top and submitted them, one by one, in the spring when the weather was nicer and I could use the time in a burlesque show in Scollay Square or a card game behind the caddy shack at the Commonwealth Country Club.
By the time we reached our Sophomore year, we were all feeling very grown up and had immersed ourselves very deeply into the preoccupations of football, basketball, baseball, and girls in that order. It was at this time the decision of the Sisters of St. Joseph to present us with a respite, a one-year suspension of sentence from the difficult task of learning. That break in the dark clouds was Sister Mary Gonzales, a teacher of the French language, who had long before left for Paris mentally and spent several months of the year there without ever leaving her desk. Sister Gonzales was the sweetest music this side of Chelsea. So well thought of was she by her students that Franky "Gipper" Bryson, the late "Butter" Hurley, and several others almost voluntarily remained in the Sophomore class two years running just for the pleasure of sitting in her home room. Now, "Gunzy", as we affectionately referred to her, was somewhat deaf and, as much as we all liked her, we found it necessary on occasion to take advantage of that handicap.
If one of us was not prepared to recite a French lesson, the entire class would become silent. The student scheduled for the recitation would simply move his lips without making a sound and Sister Gonzales placed the blame on her hearing aid, ending the recitation for the day. "Gunzy" was a sports fan though, and if you played any of the three available you could pass without strain. In fact, many Monday morning religious lessons were spent recounting the events of Sunday's football game which, because of convent disciplines, she could never attend. Unfortunately, Sister Gonzales gave no points for part-time work in the A & P after school and so decided she should teach me first year French three years in a row. 'Le boit est sur le table' is, to this day, is the extend of my French vocabulary. Needless to say, it was no language of love for me. We walked away from that field of flowers named Sister Gonzales with smiles on our faces, totally unprepared for the war strategy of the Junior year.
That strategy was delivered in the person of Sister Mary Paulita whose philosophy on dealing with students was slightly to the political right of Adolf Hitler. Once again the barricades, almost forgotten by our sophomore experience, had to be replaced. Sister Paulita taught English and, personally, it was my favorite subject. A more important calling was at hand, however, and the battle lines had been drawn. Our decoy for distraction that year was one David Cedrone. Our tactical abilities had matured considerably and, instead of confronting the enemy head on, we decided to sacrifice fellow classmate Cedrone to the cause. Surely, by driving him into psychiatric treatment we would be able to cause Sister Paulita at least a nervous breakdown. Remember those wooden shaft, sharp-pointed pens that were around in most schools just to make inkwells purposeful? Well, every time Sister turned to the blackboard , one of us would manage to launch one of those pens into Dave Cedrone's back causing considerable moaning and writhing on his part and, of course, the thorough distraction of the English class. At first, Dave, through admiration of the cause, went along with the program but, by January, devastation we were visiting of his back caused a distinct change in his personality. David was a weightlifter and had, by this time, decided to meet a pen in the back with a punch in the mouth. We on the War Council, had anticipated this and, quite naturally, had a plan at the ready to deal with it. When Dave whirled his burdensome muscles around, aiming a menacing fist at my face, I would innocently raise the desk cover causing a horrendous crashing of knuckles and more moaning and writhing. It wasn't long before Dave was sitting face forward biting the skin off his hand and mumbling to himself, waiting for the pen in the back that was no longer necessary. The plan was effective. Sister Paulita seemed to surrender halfway through the simultaneous reading of "Macbeth" and "The House of the Seven Gables". Sister had an ace in the hole thought. I was banished to summer school in Cambridge with none other than David Cedrone.
It was now 1960. There was a Kennedy going into the White House and we were all in the Senior class at St. Columbkille's High. These were happy times in both places. The senior member of our class, Jim "Red" Lovett, had to be let out of school on election Day to vote and the good Sisters found this perplexing because they couldn't remember having kept him back that many times. We were now feeling very adult and able to pronounce big words so, Sisters Anata, Ethenia, and Louise Mary were appointed as our mentors for the homestretch.
These were kind women who understood the cruel world that awaited us and, consequently, allowed us great latitudes. In addition, our prowess in classroom carrying on had reached such a point of refinement that even the Sisters of St. Joseph found the performance worthwhile....sometimes. The long shades that covered the fifteen foot high classroom windows provided one such sophisticated diversion. When the shades were down, the cords were quite lengthy and a safety pin attached to the cord and to the hem of the dress on the girl in front of you created a tremendously entertaining diversion when the young lady in question stood up and the cord was let go. The shade went up, her dress went up, and Sister's blood pressure was elevated as well.
This was also one of the several years when the school decided to launch a crackdown on disciplinary problems. For one solid week, St. Columbkille's pastor, Monsignor Daly, positioned himself in the Sister Superior's office and anyone who the Sisters in the classrooms sent to the office that week was automatically sent home with a suspension.
The Monsignor started his little project on a Monday morning and five of us were gone by Tuesday afternoon. Fortunately for us, Angelo DiBiasi, one of the infamous five, had a pool table in his cellar, so we were able to keep up with our studies during the suspension. As an added bonus, we were not allowed to participate in the May Procession, which, of course, was a severe blow to us all and we were forced to spend the entire day at Nahant Beach. Thirty-seven submarine sandwiches, a substantial tan, and 52 racks of pool later, the Sisters decided our punishment had been sufficient and we were readmitted to classes in plenty of time for graduation.
There are now 23 Boston area schools scheduled to lose the benefits of an education under the Sisters of St. Joseph and it's unfortunate because Boston is in such serious educational trouble already. It's also unfortunate because the Sisters made obtaining an education in Boston's parochial schools something worthwhile and worth remembering. And finally, it's unfortunate because to these fine ladies, teaching was not just a job or even a profession, it was a life of complete dedication and even those of us who sometimes made that job most difficult appreciate the effort and the education.