Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Catholic School Days

With the recent passing of Pope John Paul II and the just-announced election of Pope Benedict XVI, I am reminded of my relationship with Catholicism. I went to a Catholic school from Kindergarten all the way through 8th Grade.

I was briefly enrolled in public school when I was five years old. From what I remember my mom telling me when I was older, the school district thought I was "special." Knowing that I wasn't, my parents took me out of public school and enrolled me in what was then St. John The Baptist School, named after the parish that it was affiliated with. A year or two later, the school was renamed Mary of Nazareth School.

Mary of Nazareth was a very small, urban school located in Harvey, IL. There was only one classroom for each grade, if that. In fact, I was in a double grade class (as in grade 1 and grade 2) every single year I attended. There were only about 200 or so students total across K-8. The majority of the students were either black or Latino (Mexican) although there were scattered Polish students because many of the parishoners at St. John The Baptist were Polish. In an interesting demographic note, most of the black students (including my sister and I) were not Catholic.

The school day started at 8:05 a.m. and ended at around 2:10 p.m. In addition to the regular school subjects, we had a Religion class everyday. We also had to attend a weekly Mass every Tuesday morning that started at the same time that school normally did. We had PE once a week at the Harvey YMCA (or outside on the school grounds when it got warm) and had a music teacher come in once a week as well.

We had to wear a uniform everyday. Boys wore a white polo shirt with navy blue or black pants. Young girls wore a jumper with a tie while older girls wore a white blouse, tie, and skirt. For most of my time there, the jumper and skirt were this gray and maroon "plaid" color of sorts.

During my time there I did a few things. I was a patrol boy, a crossing guard who would help kids cross the street while wearing a bright orange belt. I also was a lunch boy which had me taking the hot lunches to the various classrooms. At one point, I was on the Bell Choir before I gave that up.

I have a lot of fond memories of that school. Being in a school that had such strict rules always made me and my friends want to be "bad." I cussed up a storm when I was in Mary of Nazareth. Every chance we'd get, my friends and I would laugh, curse, and do random stuff (although I rarely did the random stuff). My times at Mary of Nazareth were probably some of the best of my life. I was pretty happy then even though I was kind of a nerd who got good grades and was a little slow to catch on to certain things.

The one thing that going to Catholic school didn't make me want to do is to become Catholic. Even though I learned a lot about the Seven Sacraments, The Rosary, and prayed everyday in school, I never even entertained the thought of becoming Catholic. It was just a fact of life for me that I would always have to sit in the pew during Communion because I was a Baptist or how I'd kneel when everyone else kneeled because they did (and not because I was actually engaging in the prayer that was happening at the time). Catholic services seemed so alien to me compared to the services I was used to. The Tuesday Mass we had to attend was usually only about 30 minutes long. In comparison, the 11:00 a.m. service at my church, Beth Eden Baptist Church, usually lasted about 2 hours (or more). The Catholic service was never entertaining while my church's services sometimes were. The whole service seemed so rigid in comparison to what I went to see on Sundays. I know that all Catholic churches aren't alike but to this day, I've never been to any other Catholic parish other than the one I went to every Tuesday during the school year for nine years.

With all the current controversy about sexism in the church, Mary of Nazareth School and St. John The Baptist Parish were shining examples of women being active in the church. Both principals of Mary Of Nazareth School were Sisters: Sister Marcella and Sister Rose Marie. I had quite a few Sisters as teachers: Sister Martha for Kindergarten, Sister Eroteis for 3rd grade, and Sister Angelitta for 4th and 5th grade. Most of the other teachers were laypeople and there was only one male teacher of note, Mr. Madrigal. However, the biggest thing that the parish did that I'm not sure many other parishes did was that they had altar boys and altar girls. I don't know when (or if) altar girls were officially approved by the Vatican, but the parish I went to allowed altar girls for as long as I could remember.

There were three priests that I remember from St. John The Baptist Parish: Father Jack, Father Ed, and Father Joe. Father Jack was by far the favorite of all the kids at Mary of Nazareth. He was a really nice guy who had the best homilies. He eventually retired and became Pastor Emeritus of the parish. Father Ed will always stick out in my mind for two reasons. First, he was Polish (I believe) and had a thick accent that sometimes made it hard to understand him. Second, he was the priest who always begged parents for more money whenever the school needed to raise tuition or do fundraisers. Father Joe was the youngest of the three priests and I can't say that anything really sticks out in my mind about him.

I remember how the school would do various events to raise money. We'd have bake sales, sell pizza and chocolate candy and so on. However, the best event was always the Walk-A-Thon. There was a big field across from the school that, on good days, we'd go to play at for recess. This was usually the site for the annual Walk-A-Thon. My parents, my sister, and I would ask relatives for either flat donations or per-lap rates. It would be a lot of fun as various grades would do the Walk-A-Thon at different times during the course of the day. We didn't have to wear our uniforms (which was always a plus) and we got free ice (that's right ice...not water) as we walked. The Walk-A-Thon was something I always looked forward to every year.

Mary Of Nazareth School closed its doors about three years ago (if I remember correctly). It was one of the schools that the Archdiocese of Chicago has closed over the years because they were losing money. I've lost touch with most of the people I went to Mary of Nazareth with over the years, although a couple of friends of mine also went to the same high school I did. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the various teachers and friends I had at Mary of Nazareth. Every time I see things about the Catholic Church in the news, it has a weird effect on me because although I am not Catholic and never have been Catholic, I sort of understand because I went to a Catholic school. I'm actually really glad I went to Mary of Nazareth School. My personality would probably be quite different if I had stayed in public school. I'm glad that my parents scraped up the money to send both me and my sister there. Despite all the controversy that will continue to surround the Catholic Church, they have done a lot of good...including running a small school in the middle of an urban area.


  1. Anonymous9:55 PM

    I went there also what happen to the computer teacher Mrs.Randolph?

  2. I attended St. John the Baptist from 1981 to 1987, from Kindergarten to the end of fifth grade. I have many fond memories there, of the nuns, the lay teachers, and the various events. I drove by there a few days ago, since I still live in the area. The church and the new hall are still open but the school and the old school hall are closed. The school property is in sad shape. A lot of the windows are broken, the lawn is unkempt, there are wasps nests in several of the window eaves, and the building that housed the first grade (which I learned was the original school building WAY back in the day) has rusted siding, the back steps that were our fire exit stairs are rotting away and one of the attic windows is open, leaving the building open to God knows what! It's so sad...but at least I have my memories...oh yes, and the convent was torn down several years ago!