Friday, March 13, 2009


The Irish priests were devout or lax, but always arrogant.

Originally the school & convent were housed in one huge mansion.
But long ago, after the brick school was built, some pastor had evicted the nuns to a small house (2 or 3 nuns to a bedroom) while he and his assistant rattled around
In the mansion. No subsequent pastor thought to give the mansion back to the nuns.
It was 1950, I believe, before that order of nuns left town in a fury—
the replacement order demanded a proper convent before their arrival.
(now of course there are no nuns.)

My uncle was a well-known lawyer, and chair of the parish financial committee.
He once refused to sign the pastor’s version of the budget.
“Sign that paper,” thundered the priest, “or I’ll denounce you from the pulpit!”
“Do that,” said my uncle, “and I’ll call you liar from the church.”
All very well, said my father, but that uncle—a heavy smoker—died of throat cancer.

The people felt resigned resentment of the priests. We were taught that the efficacy of Mass & Sacraments did not depend on the worthiness of the priests. One pastor was a dotty saint—he tried never to use his right thumb & forefinger, which touched the Holy Bread,For any mundane task. These fingers got clawlike—but he did smoke cigars—held in his left hand. This same priest went into the burning church to rescue the Holy Bread—the bishop had to notify everyone that the eucharistic Christ could look out for Himself.

The nuns were B.V.Ms:Sisters of Charity of the Bl.Virgin Mary. They wore a black veiled box around their heads. We’d say to a girl: “you should be a BVM—you’ve got the head for it.

When I went to the convent, 6 yrs old, for piano lessons—
There, right above the piano, was a 6-foot long photograph of a dead nun in her coffin: Mother Mary Clarke, holy foundress of the Order. Obscenely, she didn’t have on her head the box I thought was built into them—she has only a little nightcap over her presumably shaved head. My interest in piano wilted.

Mild violence was the order of the school day. Children were slapped, yardsticked, and thrown against walls.Many nuns were farm women right from Ireland: ignorant, unhappy and cruel. But being hit by a nun was like being hit by a cross old-maid aunt concerned for your welfare—however crazily conceived. Many stories were told of martyrs with hot lead in the eyeballs, of miracles, of lurid cases of diabolic possession. (That’s where I got my love of folklore.)

I was trying to convert a Lutheran woman. She has mothered 12 Catholic children whom she sent often to weekday Mass. Yet the nuns referred to her regularly as a horrible example of a mixed marriage.

One day after school I hurried over to find her ironing, as usual.
I related this miracle story: this Irish girl in Chicago faced an obviously
Threatening criminal. Instinctively the girl screamed, “Mary conceived without Original Sin--pray for us who have recourse to thee !” A cop appeared out of nowhere and hauled the villain off.

I waited for the woman to surrender. Wearily she looked up from her ironing and asked, “Wouldn’t the policeman have come if she just yelled HELP?”
I gave up on converting HER !

I remember ancient, scrawny little Sister Mary Uriel, who would cackle when asked her age,”I’m as old as my little finger, and a little older than my teeth.”
I remember how spryly she leaped up to slap a surplice across my face.
One of her maxims: “Sow an act & reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a character; sow a character and reap an eternal destiny.” A less dramatic maxim: “It’s better to wear out than to rust out.” I’m not sure she ever did either one.

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