Nun stories, and then some Catholic School Week: Here's to good times (and bad moments too)


If wearing patent leather shoes makes you feel slightly sinful, if you wake up Fridays with a strange hankering for fish sticks, if you still divide your transgressions into venial and mortal, it can only mean one thing:

You're a survivor of Catholic school!

And this is your week: Yes, that institution responsible for equal amounts of guilt and hilarity, repression and rebellion among its graduates actually has its own national week (officially, Catholic Schools Week, which began yesterday). But a mere week probably isn't enough time to commemorate the lifetime of unique memories among those who can still feel the wrath of a nun's ruler on their knuckles or the pinch of a waistband rolled up to shorten a uniform skirt.

"I feel whenever I meet other people who went to Catholic schools, we want to give each other high-fives," says Liz O'Neil, a WBAL (Channel 11) newswoman and proud graduate of St. Dorothy's elementary and Cardinal O'Hara high schools in Philadelphia. "You have these shared stories."

The nuns, of course. Those fearsome yet somehow vulnerable women in full penguin dress and giant, clacking rosaries. First Communion. Altar boys and altar wine. Confirmation names. Impure thoughts and the Act of Contrition. Writing "J.M.J." for "Jesus, Mary and Joseph" at the top of your schoolwork. The Baltimore Catechism ("Who made us?" "God made us." "Why did God make us?" "God made us to show forth His goodness . . ."), permanently drilled in your memory.

Indeed, if you went to Catholic school, you have something in common with everyone from Madonna (Holy Family Regional in Rochester, Mich.) to Tom Clancy (St. Matthews and Loyola in Baltimore), from John Waters (Calvert Hall in Towson) and MTV comic Denis Leary (St. Peters in Worcester, Mass.) to sportscasters Jim McKay and Vince Bagli (both Loyola Dons). And don't forget U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (Institute of Notre Dame in Baltimore) and Babe Ruth (St. Mary's Industrial, now Cardinal Gibbons, in Baltimore).

Ask such alumni to tell tales out of Catholic school and you tend to get a lot of laughter, some residual resentment, a good dose of affection and, in the end, usually, a sort of gratitude -- grudging or otherwise -- for how the school shaped them as adults.

"I was discouraged in everything I was interested in -- film, writing, books, all the things I do today," says John Waters, who graduated from Calvert Hall in 1964. "I wish I had left when I was 16; I would have made two more movies."

Mr. Waters somehow managed to escape Catholic elementary school, but attended CCD ("Confraternity of Christian Doctrine") classes for public school students. He claims to have been taught CCD by "Sister Mary Ilsa, she-wolf of the Catholic Church."

Still, even the outrageous filmmaker has something positive to say about his Catholic education: "All that mental lunacy ended up shaping the warped sense of humor that I make my living from."

Others are decidedly more upbeat about their schooling. But then, Baltimore has a rich Catholic tradition. In addition to being the home of the famed catechism, which is derived from a meeting of bishops here in 1884, this is where the Roman Catholic Church was first organized in the United States. Catholic schools, which make up the largest non-public school system in the state, have been growing in enrollment in recent years, with many non-Catholic parents viewing them as alternatives to public schools. The Baltimore Archdiocese's 100 schools currently have 32,000 students enrolled, a 3 percent increase over last year.

"They have the best teachers in the world," author Tom Clancy says. "You had to follow the rules, and if you didn't, you paid the price for that. Teachers had the ultimate weapon -- they could call home to your parents."

If there is a starring role in just about everyone's memories of Catholic school, it belongs to nuns. When Mr. Clancy sees grammatical errors in print, he wonders what Sister Mary Charles would have done to such a writer (bruise a knuckle, probably). Even that most anti-nun of all, Madonna, has said she was "obsessed" by them. "They seemed all-powerful and perfect. Above everything. Superior. . . . They never wore any makeup and they just had these really serene faces. Nuns are very sexy," she has been quoted as saying. "When I realized that nuns didn't have a sex life, I was incredibly disenchanted."

"There was one nun who was the nemesis of the 11th-grade class," Ms. O'Neil recalls. "She once put on the bottom half of our uniform -- knee socks and saddle shoes -- and stood in a stall in the bathroom. When we went in there to smoke, she burst out of the stall and gave us all 10 demerits each. I didn't even want to smoke, and I never smoked after high school, but there was something about Catholic school that made you feel you had to color outside the lines."

For many Catholic girls, teen-age rebellion took the only form it could -- smoking or hiking up their pleated skirts to racier levels.

"At Towson Catholic, the boys were allowed to smoke, but the girls couldn't," says Christine Rusk (Immaculate Conception and Towson Catholic), marketing and public relations director for Baltimore Catholic schools. "We were ticked off. This was in the 1970s; women had burned their bras and we couldn't even smoke. And, of course, you couldn't wear patent leather shoes -- they reflected up."

Others -- men usually -- remember nuns for the way they controlled their classes: physically.

"I had a few who were really tough. One of them smacked a kid across his jaw, he hit the blackboard and she got him on the rebound, too," says National Public Radio host Bob Edwards (Our Mother of Sorrows and St. Xavier in Louisville, Ky.). "They were tough but good, and you learned. I wouldn't be here today without them."

Mr. Edwards, on leave from his show, "Morning Edition," until April to write a book about his late friend, sportscaster Red Barber, credits the nuns and brothers with preparing him not just for journalism, but for the Army. "It was nothing compared to Catholic school. It was wimpy," he says.

Thomas Brown, director of development and marketing for the Cardinal Shehan Center in Towson, perhaps has a more sympathetic attitude toward Catholic school teachers than most alums. He returned to his high school as a teacher.

Mr. Brown (St. Francis of Assisi and Mount St. Joseph) says his favorite, and more printable, "Catholic" memories come from his 10 years of teaching at Mount St. Joe's, especially the off-campus retreats that the boys attended for reflection.

"We were in a chapel, and it was a real solemn moment. We had been listening to a long tape of music that was supposed to make you reflect on what you were thankful for. Students started saying, 'I'm thankful for my parents,' that sort of thing," Mr. Brown recalls. "Then all of a sudden, from the back, we hear a voice going, 'I thank God for rock and roll.' "

WBAL Channel 11 newsman Rod Daniels (St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem and St. Anselm's in the South Bronx), attributes somewhere near 100 percent of his career success to his schooling.

"Without a doubt, my education in Catholic schools is the main factor in my success," says Mr. Daniels, who like other local celebrities such as Olympic swimmer Anita Nall (Towson Catholic) has taped radio commercials lauding Catholic schools. "We lived in a war zone, and I remember walking past all the alcoholics and the heroin addicts shooting up to get to school. It was a regimented system, but it was the kind of system I thrived in."

Many believe Catholic schools today are not the Catholic schools of the past, having loosened up in the post-Vatican II days as the church itself has. Most Catholic schools today have more lay teachers than nuns -- who usually don't wear the full habit anymore -- and students today are as likely to raise money for relief efforts in Somalia as for the "pagan" babies of the past, who not only got your nickels but the name you chose for them from "Lives of the Saints."

Similarly, Catholic school survivors continually revise how they remember their school days.

"I get a little miffed at the revisionist history among people of my age when it comes to Catholic schools. They make the nuns out to be Idi Amin in long black dresses," says Stephen Vicchio (St. Joseph Monastery and Mount St. Joseph), a writer and chairman of Notre Dame College's philosophy department. "I think I got a very good education. I can still diagram sentences like a madman. I was a dumb and uncooperative kid, and they were still very good to me."

Of course, Mr. Vicchio, who was an altar boy until he got caught sampling the altar wine, might be saying that just in case the nuns are still keeping track of him.

"Remember," he asks, "your permanent record?"

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