Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Our Lady of the Divine RSS Feed. Part 1 in a Series



Today is the first day of school here, so school is what I’m thinking about. My seven year old son attends public school in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I dropped him off this morning for his first day of second grade. His school building was built in 1969, and is very typical of suburban schools at that time; one level, with a huge, grassy yard, floor to ceiling windows, and “open” style classrooms. He loves to visit my mother’s house in Philadelphia; a highlight is a drive past MY elementary school, which looks to him like something straight out of Dickens.

Pictured above is St. John the Baptist church and school, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This picture was taken maybe 5 years or so ago; I downloaded it from the web. The church, on the right, looks exactly as it did when I was a student at the parish school in the 1970s, and I’m sure it looks exactly as it did when it was first built about 20 years before the Civil War. You’ll notice a smaller stone building to the church’s left; that was the primary school building for many years, and the larger building to its left (not seen) was the parish girls’ high school, from which my mother graduated in the last class (1962) before it closed (The parish boys’ high school, attended by my dad and uncles, was located about a mile away; it also closed in 1962). After the high school closed, the primary school was spread out between the two buildings; grades 1-4 in the old primary school building and grades 5-8 in the building formerly known as the high school. I spent all 8 years of primary school here; so did my mother and grandmother, and so did my brother and older sister (younger sister attended a different parish school, now closed. St. John’s is also now closed; its last eighth-grade class graduated in 2005).

Maybe you can’t tell in the picture, but Rector Street is a steeply pitched hill, one block long, that rises up to Tower Street at about a 40 degree angle. Cresson Street, bordered by a wall separating it from the train tracks, is at the bottom of the hill. Icy winter mornings were treacherous here. Across Rector Street was the Rectory, where the priests lived. I never set foot inside the Rectory and I don’t know anyone who did. Around the corner from the church on Cresson Street was the Convent, where the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart who taught us lived. I took piano lessons in the Convent, and nearly everyone visited the Convent at one time or another. The Convent kitchen was where you ended up if you forgot your lunch or lunch money; a nun would fix you a sandwich and some Campbell’s soup, which you’d eat in the hushed Convent dining room along with 3 or 4 other kids from different grades who’d forgotten their lunches. The Convent was where you’d be sent if there was some family emergency and there was no one to watch you at home. I remember a lot of heavy dark wood furniture, polished to a high sheen, and lace doilies and runners adorning the tables, the backs of chairs, and the top of the piano. According to my mother, rebel girls in the high school were punished by forced labor; they were dispatched after school to the convent to scrub floors or to wax the heavy antique dressers and tables. This was no longer the practice when I was at St. John’s, and it’s possible that this was one of my mother’s many “six miles in the snow, barefoot and uphill both ways” stories. Behind the convent was a graveyard, with headstones reading Quinn and Murphy and O’Brien and dates of death in the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the graveyard still exists, no burials take place there now (nor did they when I was in school there). Just outside the graveyard on the Rector Street side (Rector Street is separated from the graveyard by a stone retaining wall topped by a wrought iron fence) is a grotto with a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Other than in the graveyard, you won’t find any grass anywhere on the grounds; the landscape consists of worn but durable hardness; cement and stone and iron and flagstones and marble offer permanence but little ease.

At lunchtime, Rector Street was closed to traffic so that we could have recess (5th through 8th graders had recess “out front”, while the first through 4th graders had their recess in “the yard”, a cement quad behind the school buildings, bordered by the Church, which extended for a distance along Cresson Street, the Convent, and the graveyard, separated on that side from the yard by another stone wall topped by another wrought iron fence. There were many alcoves and hiding places among the masonry and iron here; sets of stairs to the church basement, a space under the back stairs of the upper school building, an alley between the two school buildings with a fire escape, another stairway into the maintenance shed underneath the lower school. During recess, some boys would always have a game of “cards” going in this stairway, or in the alley. “Cards” had nothing to do with poker. The boys collected baseball and football cards with no thought of Ebay or memorabilia shops; they used them for an indecipherable game involving a card folded and placed against a wall; other cards were tossed against it and winners would receive losers’ cards. Most of the boys carried a ratty bundle of cards secured with multiple rubber bands. “Cards” was officially forbidden, but the rule was never enforced. Running, too, was officially forbidden, for reasons of limited space, but this rule was only periodically enforced. A kid would fall, or crash headlong into another kid, and then we’d all be scolded about the dangers of running in the schoolyard and the nuns would patrol recess for a day or so…eventually, recess anarchy would return. We girls played jacks, or jump rope, or Chinese jump rope. Each of these games came into and went out of vogue on a periodic basis; one day, we’d all have Chinese jump ropes in our schoolbags; the next day, inexplicably, Chinese jump rope was temporarily out and regular American-style jump rope was back.

So this is where I spent my childhood. I’m not sentimental or nostalgic about my years in Catholic school; I’m also not bitter. It was good and bad, for many reasons. This is the first in what I guess will be an 8 or 10 part series, in no particular order and on no particular schedule; I’ll just write about things as I remember them and as they occur to me.

24 comments:

Sauntering Soul said...

What a great trip down memory lane. I think your school has much more character than mine did. My elementary school opened in 1967 and was blah and boring. We had the open classrooms with accordian folding doors to separate them into two rooms, subway tile walls, tile floors, and that ugly avocado green on the outside with bright turquoise doors (who ever put those colors together??!?!?!).

liss n kids said...

I just wanted to say thank you for the nice email. :D I love reading your blog as well!

DCup said...

That's a beautiful church. I never knew that the convent would be part of the structure so to speak. See what I didn't know because of my lack of Catholic education?

My school was 1971 brand new and ugly like Sauntering Soul's.

I look forward to more of these posts!

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I think every thing about our old lives must look Dickensian to kids today.

FranIAm said...

What a lovely recollection...

Catholic Philadelphia, a place I know well, although I do not know your school and parish. No shortages of RC in Philly though.

Your description of the convent and the noons (I love to call them noons instead of nuns) was perfect. The furniture and the sheen, the doilies and the hush. I can transport myself there.

As you know I did not attend Catholic school, but we did things to help the noons, so I got to go to the "motherhouse" and visit with my parents.

Your words- I can see skinny, knob-kneed quiet girls, eating their Campbell's soup in the heavy silence. Slurp, pray, slurp.

All very evocative CDP, in your beautiful (or should I say in honor of PHL bee-YOOO-dee-ful)and rich.

Thank you.

~alison said...

Beautiful SCHOOL...maybe I would have enjoyed school if I had that to look at!

CDP said...

SS--see, now that color combination is totally cutting edge again (albeit still ugly)

Liss--you're welcome!

Dcup--I'm doing this just to convert the heathen. Bwah! Actually, the convent is a separate building just beside the church on the Cresson St. side.

Dr. M.--I know. I absolutely love telling 7yo about how people used to have to wait til they got home to make a phone call, since no one had mobile phones. And only 6 channels on TV!

Fran--thanks! Now I feel compelled to refer to the sisters as "noons".

Alison--it was actually rather spartan inside, but it's definitely impressive from the outside!

enc said...

Thanks for taking the time to write that. I really loved it, it took me away.

I did Chinese jump rope, too, and jacks. I got good at jacks, not so good at Chinese jump rope.

I was terrible at regular jump rope. I don't like to talk about it!

CDP said...

enc--Thanks!
I wasn't good at "regular" jump rope, either, and I was hopeless at Double Dutch. Still can't do that!

Matty Boy said...

Hate to get all mathy on you, cdp, but a 40 degree hill is an 88% grade, and that would be equal to the block on Lombard Street in San Francisco, a.k.a. The Crookedest Street In The World. No straight road could be built there because no car's brakes would work on it.

It's actually pretty remarkable how non-steep roads are when you compare them to stairs. 17th Street in San Francisco rises up from Market Street at at 17% grade, which is less than 10%. It feels a lot steeper when you are on it.

Matty Boy said...

Oopsie. I wrote 10% when I meant 10 degrees in that last paragraph.

Jess Wundrun said...

One part of my grade school was built in the 1870's. The rest was built in the fifties or so. The whole thing was closed in the late seventies. Now it is a bar.

I can have a tequila shooter where my fourth grade classroom used to be.

I loved your story. So well written!

CDP said...

Matty--you know that I just took a guess there, and I had a feeling you'd let me know how close I came! Anyway, it's pretty darn steep. There are many very steep streets in my old neighborhood in Philadelphia (the neighborhood is called Manayunk), including Levering Street, Hermit St. Green Lane, Leverington Avenue, etc. Green Lane, like Lombard Street, winds and curves many times because it's built on far too steep an incline for a straight road to have been paved. There are many sets of stairs built into cliffs in Manayunk to allow for pedestrian traffic; most of them are closed now, but a few are still open. I used to take the Roxborough Avenue steps to school. A fun trip down, not so much coming up (about 120 steps or so, but a significant shortcut). Sorry, very long comment response!

CDP said...

Jess--thanks! I don't know what they plan to do with the school buildings now that the school is closed, but the church is still open, so I don't think they'll open a bar. Who knows, though? Drinking and Catholicism have never been mutually exclusive.

Falwless said...

I love this. It reminds me so much of my childhood. I, too, spent all of primary school years at Catholic school, as well as my high school years. As much as I poke fun at the religion itself, it sure was an excellent educational experience. I loved it. And I would, in a heartbeat, send my kids to private school today. We were never rich by any stretch of the imagination and my parents really sacrificed to be able to send us there. It was worth it. Thanks for the memories!

CDP said...

Falwless--thanks! Stay tuned, I will be discussing uniforms soon...

Suze said...

Oh I used to love to play Chinese Jump Rope. I could totally kick butt with Kneesies :)

The Lady Who Doesn't Lunch: said...

We didn't go to church and I went to elementary school in one of those modern 1970's buildings, but I envied the Catholic kids for their fancy, gothic looking church and school - it seemed very exotic and mysterious to me.

Very cool post.

Michaéle said...

My oldest kids went K-8 in Catholic school and my baby is a 7th grader this year. Even though I grew up Catholic, I never went to parochial school but for some reason felt I wanted my kids to. Best. Decision. Ever.

Right after my son graduated from 8th grade there and was entering public high school, I remember just feeling completely, utterly overwhelmed at how grateful I was he could spend his entire childhood there, not to mention their "fair share" tuition program that was the only reason we could afford it.

Thanks for the memory jog. My kids start Tuesday. What, the district couldn't give us one day after Labor Day to recover before diving right into normalcy again?

Michaéle said...

P.S....I still can't get through Mass without throwing in a few childhood substitutions during prayer..."Lasagna in the highest..." is way funnier and entertaining than "Hosanna in the highest." No, I actually don't say it out loud!

CDP said...

Suze--I loved Chinese jump rope, much better than regular jump rope!

Lady--thanks. I've often heard that from people, that they thought that Catholic churches and schools were mysterious and exotic.

Michaele--"Lasagna in the highest" is hilarious!

BeckEye said...

What a nice little piece of nostalgia.

Although, for some reason, when I read "Across Rector Street was the Rectory," I started laughing like an idiot. I don't know, it must be because I had so little sleep last night. That just struck me funny.

pistols at dawn said...

Rectory? Damn near killed 'er...y.

Damnit. That always works out better in sitcoms.

CDP said...

Beckeye and Pistols--of all of my readers, I expected at least one of you two to ask if "Rectory" is a Catholic word for proctology clinic. Funny comments of course, but a little short of the high bar I set for you...still, nice work!

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