Man, some stuff you never forget.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see it. There was this kid, a ratty little dude with short black hair. He was wearing our regs, maroon jacket and gray slacks. He was sort of bent over with his hands raised over his head as if to fend off an incoming blow. Which was real enough. Behind him stood an irate Sister of Mercy, who was in the process of bringing down a corkboard over his head. As she connected, the damn thing fragmented into three of four pieces. The kid went running down the aisle as if he had been shot out of a cannon. The rest of us sort of ducked to avoid the shrapnel. The nun was bellowing something about the kid getting a month’s detention.
Who knows what the Hell he did? Maybe he flashed Sister (known usually as S’ter) the Bird? All I can tell you is that at least two of my classmates ended up in prison, two ended up dead (there was overlap), and various others in adjacent classes got indicted, murdered, God only knows. And all of this in a nice suburban Catholic school that opened in 1954 and was gone by, I guess, 1985. Sic transit gloria mundi. Welcome to my grade school. A training ground for Vietnam. My theory was that parochial school was like prep basic for the Marines. That’s why so many Catholic kids enlisted in the Corps. How could it have been any worse?
You know, it’s really no mystery to me why so many Catholics of my generation have, as they say, “lapsed.” I love that term. It’s like the validity of product date somehow expired; having Sister Mary Godzilla only worked to keep the mojo going for so long. Then you’d stop going to Mass and taking the sacraments, unless something else intervened. Like, maybe, a Catholic secondary school or, even a university. Somehow I don’t think so. Even the lifers I know have mostly fallen away–another term of apostate art–when Agustine and Aquinas had ostensibly replaced the Baltimore Cathechism as the basis for your faith, or when you no longer thought about your immortal soul as a spotted milk bottle (mixed metaphors much?). Well, it seems not to have worked that way. PPSD–Post Parochial Stress Disorder is a powerful thing. It takes more than a few good Jesuits or Augies to cure it. Frankly, they sometimes suffered from it too, and their example only served to make your case worse. In my case, I’m not sure watching Phil Berrigan and Liz McAllister at a Villanova study date in 1970–did they or didn’t they, only their confessor knew for sure–much helped the cause. Or knowing the head of your secondary school, a tough as nails Hungarian, took off with his secretary the year you graduated (1969). You know, you were raised in this amazingly rules-bound culture, and clerical nookie was definitely breaking all the rules. It didn’t help strengthen your faith, even if it really had nothing to do with it. Huh? The 60s didn’t help? No, they certainly didn’t, especially when you started out in the pre-Vatican system.
In any event, parochial school–Prisontation ICBM, I called it–surely didn’t help. Nor did the Sisters of, hold my beer, Mercy. I started life as a child of Saint Donato’s, 65th and Callowhill, which was Italian and familial and stuff, even if the Cabrini nuns belted you if you spoke Italian. That really wasn’t an issue for my assimilationist parents, so unlike Lino Gruglio, who may have lost a set of canines in my presence for swearing in Tuscan, I never got whacked. I can still recite the St Donato’s song, word for word. I won’t try your patience, but “Hail to the Blue and Gold, Colors So True”. Prisontation had a song, but I’ve represssed it. Louie, Louie tends to come to mind, cause we thought it was dirty and chanted it to the Girls’ Choir practice when the minders were distracted. Honest to God. It goes well to the melody of Tantum Ergo. Try it some time.
Now, I’m not really sure why Prisontation was such a nasty place, although I think that it was cafone had something to do with it. Now, cafone is not a nice word among Italian Americans of a certain generation: it literally means “peasant” or something close, but to me, it meant loud, vulgar, ignorant, probably nouveau, stuck up, and, God forbid, maybe even some mixed Irish-Italian family suffering from terminal identity disorder. There were a lot of nasty cafone kids at Prisontation, many with serious behavioral disorders. For some reason, a lot of them were the offspring of builders’ families, probably because they had a few bucks and could afford to live in Greenhill Farms rather than Penn Wynne, the other side of Haverford Road that was once part of, I believe, the old Morris-Wister estate. They, as my Mom said “put on airs.” The girls thought they were too cool for us (the opposite of the contemporary “hot”) and their brothers were bound for Malvern Prep, Notre Dame, or prison. Sometimes all of the above. A few were genuine thugs, and one got rubbed out in what I’m sure was probably a drug related collections problem.
The ones who weren’t thuggish were generally not too bright. There was one kid, known as Hornet, who came to a very bad end. Poor guy. When we were having open review for “Diocesan Exams” once, there was a question about William Penn’s religious affiliation–Philly, right? The guy sitting next to Hornet slipped him a note telling him Penn was a Member of Tribe (of Israel). We had a lay teacher that year who scared the Hell out of most of us. Well, she asked Hornet, right, and he pipes up with “A Jew.” William Penn. Oh, man. She hit the roof because she thought Hornet was being deliberately disrespectful, and not just ignorant, and started yelling at him and threw him out of the room. This also happened when another kid (deliberately, I think) mispronounced Chicago as “Shee-Cah-Go” (accent first syllable). Another bold, brazen article who got banished, loudly. Of course the rest of us were laughing ourselves silly, and when you got 43 miscreants in a room, things will get out of control. This warder went around whacking kids with a yardstick until a respectful silence prevailed. This was about 1963 or 64, and that’s the way they rolled in those days.
The other thing about cafone kids was they didn’t take religion seriously enough, which I’m sure they got from their uber-cafone parents. And if you had to take anything seriously in Catholic school, it had better be religion. All the way from “Who Is God?” to “Why was Cardinal Mindszenty holed up in the American Embassy in Budapest.” I could write a book on the theology of parochial schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but it would be too depressing. Better I tell you about Hornet’s wisdom on Mindszenty. We were told by Sister that the Russians kept a car fueled and running outside the American Embassy, just waiting for the Cardinal to step out, since he had sought asylum there. So the nun asked us why it was they kept the car with the motor running (who knew)? Hornet’s bold sally: “To keep the heat on?” Holy God. You would have thought, well, God knows what, but once again teacher flipped on the poor kid, yelling something about this wasn’t a joke, this was a man of God, etc., etc., etc. So Hornet made the All Hall Squad again that day.
Now, by the time puberty struck, many things were getting, er, kind of touchy and if there was anything the Archdiocese liked less than Communism it was Sex, especially with women. Well, like who else were you going to have it with, other than a girl, right–or vice versa? At this point, let’s leave the horrible stuff out of it, because honestly, it never got anywhere near me, and I was truly shocked after years of being around priests to read the accounts. So, we’ll stick to the usual kind of vaguely risque stories–not the felonious assault part. Our class in Sex Ed consisted of Sister writing in HUGE letters on the blackboard (remember those?) “SEX IS SACRED.” Oh, oh. Now what? And she looked defiantly at us, as if daring some smart-ass to say something stupid.
Right. Count on Salvucci in a jam.
I don’t know what possessed me (this has happened several times in my life), but I turned to the young lady next to me, on whom I sort of had a crush anyway, and volunteered, “Do you want to go light a candle?” She burst out laughing, and, oh, you know, the “what’s so funny” inquisition began. When I repeated what I said, the nun got incandescent and threw ME out into the darkness, where I cooled my jets until school let out. Whereupon I was informed I was stuck with two weeks’ detention, and an automatic markdown on my conduct grade. I knew my Mom and Dad were going to be thrilled, although to tell the truth, I heard my father laughing as he repeated the story to a couple of his brothers the following Sunday morning at one of my aunt’s in West Philly. But to me, it was all business.
Some day I’ll tell you my State Department interview story. It’s even better. I didn’t get the job, obviously.
Of course, much of what sounds so ridiculous would not be viewed as amusing today. Sticking people with AHD in closets (where they continued to bop away and pretend they were airplanes) isn’t very funny. Pasting an asthmatic kid with an eraser loaded with chalk dust–we nicknamed one of the nuns Art Mahaffey because she really had an arm–as a way of maintaining order isn’t funny. Treating someone who couldn’t read aloud like a dunce when it’s quite possible the kid was dyslexic isn’t funny. Teaching by terror in general is really not a great idea.
And I’m afraid the whole idea of using religion as a method of immigrant social control under the guise of education really failed. People now tend to think that the Catholic Church’s problems in America started with birth control, and maybe they did. But I have to tell you, I can’t think of anyone I knew who was determined to stay in the Church who was going to let that birth control stop them. Sooner or later, if you looked around, you could find a confessor who didn’t think that, or any number of other ostensibly serious slap n’ tickle offenses was really a big deal. When you tangled with one of those types, you made sure you avoided them in aeternam. Believe me, you could. I could. And did.
But the damage was done, because unfortunately, there really wasn’t much substance to a lot of people’s faith. You know, you could have a PhD and maintain 3rd grade sensibilities about Catholicism, because that’s where they were formed. People fell away because they were losing nothing in a world that required SOMETHING. Their world view or system of ethics or even their sense of what was or wasn’t sacred had nothing to do with what they had been taught as kids. And once even educated people began to realize the games that the Vatican played with politics, sexuality in general, even with high finance, you weren’t likely going to scare them back into attendance by tales of fire and brimstone. Give a kid a physics book, and the odds were about 50-50 you’d end up with an agnostic, at best. Yeah, some people found the hand of God in mathematics, but they had to work at it. I may think self-creating universes sound a lot like Aquinas’ uncaused cause, but ontological proofs don’t get you through the night. I know. Faith does, and that’s an entirely different matter. I’m afraid what matters to me now is mostly self-taught and makes me a “cafeteria Catholic,” as if any sensible person could read the Syllabus of Errors and be anything but. Did any Vicar of Christ rescind the syllabus when I wasn’t looking? I didn’t think so.
Problem with the Church is that it always wants to “civilize” the heathen. The heathen usually have other ideas, and sooner or later, they act on them, or they die trying. Like Galileo said, “Eppur si muove.” If he didn’t say it, he should have. Si non e vero, e ben trovato. That I got courtesy of Saint Donato’s, not Prisontation ICBM.
4 thoughts on “Prisontation BVM”
A magnificent piece. One could change some names, change some stories, and set it out as the experience of any of us in any Catholic 1-8 school. Books have been written about these experiences. Excuses have been offered so many times to justify what transpired, or at least to ease guilt. If I ever write an autobiography — if I should live so long, because it would take quite a while — I would need several chapters to share what happened on the other side of the rail, where much was sacred yet some important stuff wasn’t. Standing up to nuns was one thing (and I rarely even need to do that), but standing up to a cardinal and diocesan officials, that was quite another thing. But that was after 1-8.
LikeLiked by 1 person
“People fell away because they were losing nothing in a world that required SOMETHING.” That’s really beautiful, Richard, and raises this piece ‘way above the traditional “The nuns were so tough. How tough were they?” set piece. A nonobservant Jew salutes you.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It was too serious to be left to the people to whom it was left
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is great, Salvucci. Imagine how many of these experiences were happening simultaneously all over the Archdiocese in those days! I have a theory that some orders were tougher than others when it came to punishments. But watch out if you were a “bold article.” Some of the educational rigor did pay off – I still remember a 19-year-old first-time-teaching nun introducing us to (new) phonics via the alphabet Sound Train in first grade. Loved it. And still remember it. Another favorite memory: Bob as altar server. – Wolper’s sister Mary
LikeLiked by 1 person