In wrapping up Catholic Schools Week, Word on Fire staffers and contributors share some memories and reflections of our experiences with Catholic education. Tyrannical nuns and uninspired uniforms? Hardly. Think inspiration, dedication and life-altering guidance, today on the Word on Fire blog.
Rozann Carter, WoF Creative Director: My first encounter with formal Catholic education was at the university level when I began my freshman year at Notre Dame. Transitioning from a graduating class of 47 members in a one-stoplight town in rural New Mexico to the sprawling metropolis of South Bend, America, meant that there were "holy moly!" moments occurring quite often for the 18-year-old me ("What? This movie theater has 10 screens? What are these things you call 'pedestrians'? Where is the bonnet store at this mall?"). However, the most significant of these were within this newly-experienced, Catholic educational setting.
Chapels in every dorm, the campus' Grotto constantly glowing with candles representing endless prayers and late-night-study petitions, students gathering for class Masses and small-group rosaries, discussions about things-of-ultimate-importance over a tall cone of fro-yo from the dining hall dessert bar—the environment at ND was the the perfect juxtaposition of the daily-ness of life, relationships, studies, and the task of growing-up, and the transcendent call to lift our hearts and minds to the things of God. Theology was a requirement there; Philosophy filled a couple of spots on every transcript. But, within this comprehensive educational context, theology and philosophy presented themselves as far more than simply disciplines. They infused our prayer, informed our service, gave meaning to our vocational pursuits, and provided the foundation for relationships that will last a lifetime (and one particular Relationship that will take us directly into the next). I'm so grateful for my Catholic education.
Peggy Pandaleon, WoF Marketing Director: Our children did not attend Catholic elementary schools. However, they did attend Loyola Academy, a Jesuit college prep school. The “hidden” value from a Catholic high school is that just at the time your kids are becoming independent and sometimes rebellious, Christian family’s value’s are reinforced by the whole environment of the school. Even though our kids have had questions, drifted a bit and are still making the Faith their own, they have never abandoned Christ.
Kerry Trotter, WoF Content Manager: Candles and Carols, the annual Christmas pageant, was a highlight of our year at Sacred Heart School in Winnetka, Ill. Not only was it a festive showcase of cute little songbirds dressed in our uniformed best, we got to miss class for practice. And the closer we got to the big night, the more class we missed. It was glorious. The lengthy practices eventually moved from the school basement music room to the adjacent church, the sounds of children singing about Jesus' birth filling every inch of the sacred space and infusing it with this energetic innocence, as though cherubim had been heaved in with fireplace bellows.
Then someone would throw up.
You could almost set your watch to the moment, it was such a regular occurrence. The week before Christmas is the apex of flu season, and inevitably some poor child would succumb in the middle of dress rehearsals for "Away In a Manger." A ghastly hush would fall over the group, standing on tiered risers and collectively cupping hands over mouths. The sound of a teacher's loafers on tile floor, hustling to find the wan child and gingerly escort them back to the nurse's office, would pierce the silence. Inappropriately timed peels of laughter would follow. Stifled at first, then expelled in raucous unity.
I recall a college professor of mine saying that all humor stems from incongruity; things happening when or where they shouldn't. I think this might be why some of the funniest people I know are Catholic, and more specifically, were educated in Catholic schools. We have a profound understanding of where things shouldn't happen, and that "where" is usually church. Think of a dog set loose during Mass, or someone vomiting. Unfortunate, yes, but also hysterically funny. Candles and Carols was as much a highlight for its beauty and reverence as it was for its potential for hilarity.
So as we were doubled over in laughter, we watched the janitor's insufficient sawdust treatment take place, and finally, barely audible over our howls, heard the music teacher's frustrated call to grow up, have some compassion, and to take it from the top.
And we would, the better-him-than-me relief kickstarting a new, rousing verse. "The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes. But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes...", the heady scents of sawdust and incense carrying us.
Dave Brenner, contributor: As a Catholic Central student, we learned to bleed blue & white. We were the Cougars, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT! Our annual football game against West Catholic (the only other Catholic school in the city) was the pivotal game of any season. Each team could go 1-9 for the year but if that one victory was against the other Catholic school, it was a good season.
As a player on the team, it would have been impossible for me to think about that game in more extreme terms – those 4 quarters were a cosmic battle of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. We were playing for everything that was good and holy. Certainly this was as important as the GIs storming the beaches at Normandy. The pep rallies before those games were raucous. Coach T’s entrances to kick off the event were legendary: Riding into the gym with Hells’ Angels on a Harley (not seeing the irony at the time), repelling from the ceiling (how did he get clearance to do that?) or driving a ’66 Chevy Corvette (are you sure it’s a good idea to have students sit on the hood?). The spirit of those games embodied an uncommon devotion to excellence – in sports certainly, but also in academics, in spirituality and in life.
The more I understand what being an adult is all about, the more I marvel at the breadth of talent on that faculty and the career choice they made to form us as Catholic men and women. And, in a move that is uniquely Catholic, when the cheers of the pep rally were done, and the smoke had literally cleared from the gym, I remember what it felt like to have 900 students take a knee and pray the Memorare for our intentions.
Joe Block, contributor: Sister Geralyn, the first grade teacher at my Catholic elementary school was excellent in teaching arithmetic, reading, and writing, but more importantly, she was an outstanding teacher of the Catholic faith. Insisting on memorizing and reciting prayers regularly throughout the school day, she instilled into me a habit of prayer that has remained with me throughout my life, in moments of religious apathy and devout discipleship alike.
Because of her, I prayed the rosary. Because of her, I read the Bible. Because of her, I began a devotion to the Saints. Her example of piety and love of the Lord has had a tremendous impact on my life and relationship with God and His Church, and for that, I will always be thankful that I was taught by a wonderful religious sister at a Catholic elementary school.
Ellyn von Huben, contributor: I wish I could find the picture of the very young me in my nun’s habit (the veil being a witch’s cape that my mother made from an old turtleneck of my father’s, repurposed for a higher calling). There were two types of nun’s that I aspired to be: the nursing sister, such as those at the Catholic hospital where I was born and hospitalized for various childhood maladies and the teaching sister, who was formed in my imagination from the tales of my friends who went to our town’s Catholic school. I was a public school kid - and a Lutheran public school kid, at that. I was fascinated by the stories my friends told of their classroom experiences and the sisters who taught them. No rulers on knuckles or any such thing. Some sisters were “really mean” and some were extra nice. So were the teachers at my school. The school and the sisters were endlessly fascinating to me.
Even with my child’s understanding, I knew there was something different going on at St. Cecilia’s. Something that I wanted so badly that I wanted to emulate it in my dress-up and make believe play. Up to the age of 8 or so I wasn’t even Lutheran. Church was something I asked for...and my parents were willing to provide, though my mother had her reservations about the Catholic Church. Sunday school was fun, but there were no nuns. I had to nurture my curiosity with the details of my friends’ firsthand experiences (and any available viewing of “The Song of Bernadette” on TV).
Fifth grade was one of the best years in my school career. Especially because of our teacher, Mrs. Cramer. In the 1960’s public school teachers did not need to be particularly cautious about relating religious information and Mrs. Cramer, not just a Catholic but also a mother of ten children (another reason for my adulation), regaled us with the most marvelous anecdotes of her own childhood and schooling; of course in Catholic schools. She was not setting out to teach us religion, but it came through. And, through Mrs. Cramer’s excellent teaching in all subjects, we were the collateral beneficiaries of Catholic education.
It was amazing coincidence (or providence?) that I later found myself at freshman orientation, at a small Sacred Heart college near Chicago, running into a junior helper who was one of Mrs. Cramer’s daughters. And that is when I found out that my teacher had been a member of the school’s class of ‘48. If I had harbored any doubts, I now knew that I must truly be in the right place.
Years later, now Catholic, I took a job in the office of my parish. One of my favorite responsibilities has been the recording of sacramental records. Years of handwriting practice that had seemed pointless at the time have paid off as I have printed many lines in the baptismal, marriage, death and other registers. A priest from the Archdiocese is to examine our books from time to time to verify that all is being done in prescribed fashion. When all the books had been examined and stamped to show approval, Father handed the last one back to me and said, “Your printing is very legible - the sisters who taught you would be very proud.”
As I basked in the glow of the praise, I did not jump in to tell him that no sisters had been involved. Now that I think of it, they had been involved, especially through my teacher who brought the fruit of her Catholic education to her classes, especially in her emphasis on discipline and practice, practice, practice. There was a certain symmetry there; something of a circle had been completed.
That is something else to consider when you think about Catholic schools - you’ll never know how far and how well the good done in our Catholic classrooms is going to go.