Yeah, there was one of them glinty balls that reflected spots of light all over the auditorium. And on special occasions, the nuns would fire it up. You know, it was like something out of the Roaring Twenties. That’s because it was something out of the Roaring Twenties. Today we call them Disco Balls, but there wasn’t no disco in 1917 or so when the thing was designed. That’s because Woodrow Wilson didn’t boogie down. Or if he did, only his paramour (he apparently had one according to Arthur Link, one of my grad school professors, who called Wilson’s sexuality part of his “eclat.” That’s a direct quote. I couldn’t possibly make that up. Yeah, so aside from being a phenomenal bigot even for his day, Woody Woo was a horndog) knew for sure.
The question is what on Earth was this thing doing in the auditorium of a parochial school in the 1950s, the school in question being Saint Donato’s (“Hail to the Blue and Gold, Colors So True”) operated by Cabrini nuns who looked more like they were outfitted for a Sharia koffee klatch than some flapper’s fling of reckless abandon. Yeah, the Taliban would have gotten them, for sure.
Anyway, my Dad, Lou Larkins, the one real hero in my life, would have known, cause he was a students at SDS (Saint Donato’s School) in the 1920s. I even have a picture of him standing out in front of the “old school” (the original school, as opposed to the 1954 red brick addition) with his class under the watchful gaze of a Miss Piselli, to whom he was no doubt some kin, ’cause his brother Tony married a Piselli, aka, “Aunt Edith.”
SDS was no ordinary parish school. The parish was founded in 1910 (the parish school in 1912) explicitly to serve the needs of the Italian immigrant community (hey, that’s us), although the the man parish church was not dedicated until 1922. It was a big deal when it was. The church was designed by Francis Ferdinand Durang (1884-1966), “the son of one of Philadelphia’s most successful architects of Catholic projects,” Edwin F Durang. Since Edwin passed away in 1911, we can be pretty sure that Saint Donato’s was Francis’ handiwork. The Church was dedicated on Christmas Day, 1922, with a solemn high mass celebrated by Dennis Cardinal Dougherty. We’re talking Philadelphia Catholic royalty here, so pay attention. Preceding the exercises, we are told, more than 1000 members of Italian societies paraded in celebration through the streets around the parish accompanied by bands. The building reportedly cost $160,000. A realistic modern estimate would say that looks to be about 6 to 10 million dollars now, so you can understand why the school had a reflecting ball. We’re talking serious ethic pride here. Too bad we have no moving pictures from back then…..On the other hand, I am willing to bet that what my paesani in San Donato Val di Comino (Abruzzo) do on the annual feast of the the Saint must couldn’t have looked all that different in 2013 from what people saw in 1925. So take a few minutes and watch this exceptional video, and then we’ll go on. Mutatis mutandis, this is what folks saw, and I’ll bet a few of their descendants are in this video
The bottom image after the video is of the interior of Saint Donato’s church after it was rehabilitated in 1956 (I believe) by then rector Monsignore Pasto (not Pasta, please). The patron, Saint Donato, is over to your left in the corner. The same icon you see in Italy, sans threads. Over to the right hand side is Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini, of whom more anon. Behind the main altar is a very impressive mural of Cavalry and the Crucifixion. Believe me, everything in that place said “This is serious, kid. No fooling around. Your immortal soul hangs in the balance.” Pre-Vatican Catholicism, and I was born into it. None of this granola-kumbaya stuff.
Maria Francesca Cabrini, Mother Cabrini to us, and St Francis Xavier Cabrini to the medeganz, was born in 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano in Lombardy. She was one of 13 siblings, only 4 of whom survived. She was frail and pretty, not the stereotypical battleaxe some of us would have you believe all the nuns of her order were.
In 1880, still in Italy, she founded an order known as the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When she came to the United States later to work with immigrants, became a citizen in 1909, and spent some time in West Philadelphia in 1912 organizing the convent and orphanage that were then part of Saint Donato’s on North 65th Street. There was, even then, a basement Church, which is where she attended Mass while in West Philly. She may not have been canonized until 1946 (she died in 1917), but the entire parish is a kind of kind of second-class relic as a result. Since the Archdiocese has not been very scrupulous in its demolishing churches or selling them off in its quest for liquidity in the light of the judgments against it which shall not be mentioned, I’d strongly encourage them not to mess with St Donato’s. It’s not nice to fool with Mother (Saint Francis Xavier) Cabrini, first “American” saint.
Any event, I started school at SDS in 1956, I think. I vividly remember my first day of kindergarten. My Grandmother took me to the morning session and left me off. I was none too happy, as I recall, but at least I wasn’t wailing the way some of the kids were. I wanted to, but for some reason, I held off, sitting in a a little chair. Badass from the beginning. My teacher was Mother Cecilia. She was nice. I remember my report card, studded with a few gold, some silver, a lot of green, and, oops, a couple of red stars. Sort of like a Christmas tree. I was, I fear, no angel.
By first grade, they had us in unis–white shirt, blue tie with gold SDS insignia, black shoes. The classes were huge–some as large as 100, although I can’t honestly say I remember that. Man, can you imagine classroom management of 100 little savages by some half pint nun like Mother Gennaro, who must have been all of 5’6″, but packed an Italian inflected wallop? She taught first grade, but all I really recall was her singsong version of the Rosary, which I guess I could record. Here she is, below.
Of course, this was all part of getting into the club. That involved memorizing the Baltimore Cathechism, a lot of which I can still recite. It went through a number of editions, so maybe our was 1953 and not 1891. But I guarantee it went like this:
Who made us? God made us.
Who is God? God is the Supreme Being that made all things.
Why did God make us? God made us to show forth His goodness, and to share with us the everlasting happiness of Heaven.
You know, even if you ended up in Catholic university with Theilhard de Chardin and Bernard Lonergin in Thoeology class, you NEVER got that out of the scaffolding of your consciousness. You could make jokes about it, but, believe me, they were dubious jokes. The Guy in the Sky always accompanied you in process theology, watching, waiting for you to louse up. In my case, the journey started at SDS. Talk about schizophrenic. Some guy told me I was a PhD with a 3d grade Catholic mentality when I wouldn’t eat meat on a Friday in Lent. But then he was a Jesuit product, so what would you expect? All heretics.
Not that it was all bad. There was a young novice, I guess, Sister Elizabeth Ann, who was entrusted with getting the heathens ready to make their Communion, usually at age seven. She was very sweet, and patiently explained to us how our milk bottle souls worked. See, the soul was like a milk bottle (we got milk in bottles in the 1950s). If you were full of grace with no sin (warning: mixed metaphors on the way), you had a full bottle of milk. If you had committed some minor infraction against God’s Law (like taking a swing at the obnoxious public school kid who lived down the street and said something about your Mother), you were guilty of a misdemeanor, i.e., “venial” sin. Now your milk bottle had a black path (these were chalkboards, remember), and whether that was tainted milk of some miraculously empty space in an otherwise full bottle nobody (except some kid who ultimately went to MIT) bothered to ask. But that was ok. You went to confession (we’re coming to that), got absolved, did a little penance, and went on your way. You could even take Communion with a venial sin, although nobody encouraged it. BUT–big but–if you happened to die with a venial sin (hey, man, this is what I got out of it), well, then, you had a problem.
We were taught you ended up in this place called Purgatory (which a lot of dopey kids spelled Perkatory, as if it were a variety of Maxwell House Coffee). There were a lot of souls in Purgatory, and you spent half your life praying for them. If you hit the day’s number (humor), you ransomed one (maybe more), and they got to go to Heaven where they would see the Beatific Vision (I always wondered in this was somehow related to Beatrice in Dante’s Paradiso once I got to that). The Beatific Vision was you got to see God. Exactly what that meant no one was too sure, but it was evidently pretty cool. It involved music, and nine choirs of angels, and stuff like that. “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of Man all the wonderful things God has prepare for those who love Him.” Sorry about the sexist language, but this was 1957. There were still only 48 States in the American Union and no Walt Whitman Bridge in Philly. I generally worked on my deceased relatives. No use wasting your breath on total strangers who probably would never return the favor if they were in some sort of state of Ecstasy. At least my Great Grandmother knew who I was and gave some signs of actually liking me.
But wait, there’s more. Talking back to your Mom was one thing. Committing adultery, for example, was another. That, dear friends, was a MORTAL sin. Oh, oh. Now you’re in deep trouble. A mortal sin was a serious offense against the Law of God. Should you happen to check out in a state of mortal sin–you were, as they said–no longer in a state of grace, you were in deep do-do. You didn’t even, it seemed, get the customary interview with St Peter up at the Pearly Gates (admittedly, they were vague about this, so you had to use your imagination…..). You just went straight to. Well. HELL. Ho boy.
What the nuns, probably even Sister Elizabeth Ann, told and showed us about Hell would have made Jonathan Edwards soil his britches. I mean, dude. Eternal fire. All these assistant Devils with red eyes, fiery breath and bullwhip tails sticking you with hot pitchforks, probably in your tender parts. And then Satan himself, who looked something like the Creature From the Black Lagoon (the movie was out then) who apparently kept the entire place in flaming effulgency when he wasn’t out “prowling the World seeking the ruin of souls.” You got no food. No water. No relief. No break. You just burned. Forever. And ever. And ever.
Can you remember how long 10 minutes seemed to you as a child. As in, “Are we there yet?” Well, think, “Hey, Satan, is it Eternity Yet?” Whoa. Your milk bottle was no only empty. It was gone. And what would you have done to deserve this? Well there was adultery, “As in Thou Shalt Not Commit….” You mean like if behaved like a grown-up with a job and stuff, I was going to Hell? Forever? Well, wasn’t that “adultery,” you know, behaving like an adult? Don’t laugh. That’s what I thought for quite some time. And when I asked my parents, they frowned and said, ask Sister. Who in turn said it was doing evil “things” especially impure ones. Like, going to work every day? Man, talk about confused. Murder I got. But what the Hell (you should pardon the expression) was this?
I particularly remember one Holy Week–which San Donato’s and the pre-Vatican Church did very well, when we got to sit in contemplation of the Crucifixion as Monsignore explained how we had put Christ up there, and how only we could get how down. Oh, man. How was that? By living according to the 10 Commandments and doing what the Church told us to do (especially when we became wage earners). If not, well, we got these little comic books printed by some company named George Pflaum (see below for a sample) that featured an usually ticked off Jesus separating the Sheep from the Goats and saying “Depart From Me Accursed Ones intro the Everlasting Fire.” Oh, man. Even the Italian kid next to me in the pew shut up for once. Believe me, if the point was to scare the Hell out of us, it worked. We were on the straight and narrow, for at least a day.
Talk about social control. And all of it lead up to making First Communion, which was the actual reception of the transubstantiated body of Christ in the form of the Communion Host, a little wafer which all of regarded with a mixture of awe and horror. I am not gonna try to explain Church doctrine here, other than to say no one was kidding around. Half of our pre-communion instruction consisted in being told how to swallow Communion without chewing on it, which was a sacrilege. When the day came–a big one in parish life then–you wore a new blue suit, carried a rosary, and stuck your tongue out at Father Desimone, who put Jesus on your tongue.
I remember thinking that this was going to be like swallowing cardboard, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth. I almost fainted, but the reflex must have done the trick, so me and Jesus had a heart to heart afterward (you got 15 minutes, supposedly, but no one ever managed to give thanks that long except some sissy girls who were already shooting for the convent). I was mostly relieved.
You also have to remember we did our first confession before this, on a Friday. I can’t imagine the poor priest locked up in box listening to tales of disobedience, sibling brawling, talking in church, sticking your tongue out at one of the teachers, or slugging little Tommy di Giulia out on the playground at least 100 times or more, but they did. I just kept saying that I did things “many times” which presumably accounted for everything I had done since the age of three to my confessor’s satisfaction. I can’t remember my penance, but I could rattle off the Act of Contrition, still can, and don’t need a cheat sheet (they provide them these days) like these wimpy millenials who can’t read cursive. Which is another story for another day. Febes. I can always tell when a priest knows he’s dealing on of the few remaining real Catholics of my era. Most of them seem grateful. Even if we finally had some clue as to what adultery was. Confession ultimately got to be a deal breaker for a lot of adolescent males of my generation, none of whom we real keen on detailing their weekend entertainments to a priest who knew exactly who you were. And that was, I fear, the least of it. Enough said.
I mentioned social control, or maybe socialization, and that’s what a lot of Saint Donato’s was. Remember, we were immigrants in a foreign culture, and the nuns knew that part of their job was to instill proper US of A values in us, which they promptly did. You NEVER spoke Italian unless you wanted to get clobbered. I saw that first hand in an old school assembly where my Dad must have watched the Disco Ball do its thing in the 1920s. You learned the words to the National Anthem. You learned the words to the Pledge of ‘Legiance (as we called it). And you learned to speak when spoken to, listen to the Safeties, line up, and never get out of turn. Or else. The else was not usually physically enforced. But you got a report card that divided up your record into academic stuff and behavioral, which included conduct, cooperativeness, effort and self control. Self-control. Hmm. The first couple never seems to be much of a problem. But I do remember “self-control.” Now what exactly I did to tick off my first grade nun was never clear to me, because I simply participated in the general give and take of a rambunctious collection of immigrant miscreants. But that was enough. I remember bringing home a B- in self control. At first we weren’t sure of the minus mark, but we concluded that’s what it was. I sort of remember trying to rationalize why this happened: remember, you were guilty until proven innocent. You know, “What did you do?” Not “Why Is Mother Assumpta Bruta so unfair to you?” It only happened once because it only had to happen once. I knew better than to do whatever it was I was doing, so I went silent for the rest of the year. It must have worked.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked St Donato’s. I liked the kids I got to know, and remember them very fondly. There were some real characters, including an Italian kid who, at age eight, sang an obscene version of the then-current Coasters’ hit “Charlie Brown” which included a chorus of “Why is Everbody always picking on me?” Which ended up as “Why are all you f++++ers always pickin’ on me.” Yup. Eight years old. His old man was a steelworker on the Walt Whitman Bridge, so you can imagine his vocabulary…..in English.
I don’t care. I was happy at St. Donato’s. Moving out to the suburbs and to Prisontation BVM was a big shock. Even today, I wouldn’t have recommended it. Too bad that world is gone.