Parents once believed it was the job of Catholic school nuns to "teach their child about religion." Catholic scholar Robert Orsi said sisters “provided an indelible religious foundation and helped transform Catholics into one of the most educated, most successful segments of American society.”
Orsi, who holds the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, focuses his research on Catholic children between 1925 and 1975. Catholic children, especially those taught in Catholic schools, tended to be disciplined and extremely well-versed in their faith. The seven sacraments were essential, and children must understand complex theological concepts at an early age.
Today, those long-ago children are adults. Often, they like to emphasize the distance they have
traveled, intellectually and spiritually, since they memorized the questions and answers of their little catechisms. Still, they received a priceless gift. Thanks to adults who taught them their faith, Orsi said, “the world made sense.”
I was baptized Catholic. My first memories of mass are being left behind in the pew during communion. My sister and I offered each other Necco wafers while the adults were kneeling at the altar. We'd cup our hands, bow our heads and pretend to say something solemn.
I was sure doors to the confessional were the entrances to Hell (my dad told me that so I would behave). When the red light went on over the door, I thought another person had been sent to Hell. I was horrified when the nuns said we were to go through those doors to make our first confession.
Fluffy, pouffy layers, white gloves and a hat made Easter special. During the rest of the year, no one entered church without a chapel veil or hankie bobby-pinned to their head. If you lost it, you could purchase one from the nuns for a nickel.
I was nervous about my first confession. I was 7 and didn’t have any sins to tell, so I make up a story about stealing candy from a store. One boy thought it would be cool to say he’d broken a commandment during his confession. He told the priest he’d committed adultery! Most of us received an Our Father, five Hail Mary’s and a good act of contrition, and I swear, I heard chuckling through the screen that day.
For my First Communion, I wore a beautiful white lace dress, shiny patent leather shoes and a veil with a crown of pearls. I wore it long after mass was over and wore it again for the May Day Mass to crown the Virgin Mary.
Now “professional” Catholics, my sister and I frequently held Mass for the neighborhood. No one questioned a girl as the priest. My first communion missal had the prayers and hymns we needed, and it opened perfectly on the cardboard box altar. Mother’s candy dish wih the four-inch stem was the perfect chalice for Necco wafers. A creamer served as the vessel to turn water into wine. My priest’s garments were a lace tablecloth around my waist and a long tunic.
Confessions were heard in a large refrigerator box where I sat on a stool and listened to neighbor children tell me their sins. A window cut in the box and covered with a doily served as the screen.
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At church, my family sat in the same pew every week, and I dreamed about being in the front row. That’s where the Gilbert family sat. There were 21 children in the family, and they always arrived late in three station wagons and sat in two pews in front.
I couldn’t imagine wearing anything to schol other than a brown checked skirt, white shirt with Peter Pan collar, a brown sweater, white ankle socks and white saddle shoes that required polishing on Sunday nights.
I remember every nun who taught me in school – Sister Loretta Marie, Sister Marguerite, Sister Genevieve, Sister Joan, Sister John Martin – with lovely, long rosaries that clicked as they walked down the hallways in their black, flowing habits with starched white collars.
Most of us have dressed as angels, sheep or shepherds at least once for a school play and have lovely memories of Christmas pageants. Even now I visualize an angel choir or cherub nuns with their gorgeous voices and chants when I hear Immaculate Mary.
If you grow up Catholic, you never fail to genuflect when entering any pew whether in a Catholic or Protestant church – or any room with a pew. You can’t stop yourself from kneeling or looking for holy water to make the sign of the cross.
Nuns taught us to be great fundraisers, too, offering coveted prizes like holy cards, medals or glow-in-the-dark Blessed Virgin plaques.
Then there were the communion hosts. Nuns instructed us to never chew or touch it with your hands, but they always stuck to the roof of your mouth. Drinking wine was not an option.
In high school, we knew what the nuns meant by “leave room for the Holy Spirit” at school dances. One foot apart with only arms touching was the way to dance and keep Jesus happy.
And we dreaded Stations of the Cross day. It was long, we sat on hard pews and usually couldn’t hear the person speaking.
So we sat there. For all eternity.