Growing up Catholic in Old Saint Paul was simply a part of who I was, and in some very strange way, who I still am today. The label isn’t there and never will be. Nor the accouterments of pomp and ceremony that some Catholics still cling to. I’ve graduated from that part of my life but am still grateful for the experience.
Memories cloaked around vestments of gold and silver are hard to erase. Seven-Thirty mass every morning before school began. Altar boy duties on Sunday at the Eleven O’clock mass. Routine, mind-numbing religion class for the malleable mind. All of my teachers were draped in black; the nuns in grade school and the Christian Brothers in high school. Even in college, there would be an occasional religious figure at the head of the classroom. That was simply the way it was back in the fifties and sixties.
None of this is surprising when one considers my background growing up. My mother had a sixth grade education and yet was wise to the ways of the big city. Despite coming from a farming background, she somehow understood the value of an education and was thrilled that my sister and I were able to attend St. Louis Grade School, the ‘little French’ school downtown Saint Paul.
There was trauma and drama in our family that escaped me at four and five years of age. Our father left us destitute and then died after an absence of several years. There had been a divorce, an annulment of their marriage and a family left homeless for a period of time. That probably explains why my mother faithfully attended novena at St. Louis Church every Monday afternoon for the rest of her life. I assume it was payback to God for surviving that mess and it seemed to work.
We moved from a duplex then through a period of homelessness in the boiler room of an apartment building. Then we lived in another rundown apartment building until finally my mother built a real home in Highland Park with the help of her brother.
My sister and I graduated from streetcars with wicker seats to buses on our daily ride to downtown Saint Paul. It was a daily rush out the door, jammed into a crowded bus and ‘don’t you dare sit down if an old person was still standing.’ The evil eye from either my Mother or the cranky senior was enough to get me back on my feet again.
There would be the occasional foray to Woolworths for a nickel coke amid bins of (shocking) ladies underwear on sale. The Golden Rule had dime malts but who could afford that? On a rare occasion we might venture to the Riviera or Paramount Theater for an afternoon movie after school. The one spot I fondly remember treading through was Saint Paul Book and Stationary with its tables piled high with books and clerks who got very uncomfortable with kids handling their merchandise.
The religious propaganda I was fed at St. Louis Grade School and Cretin High School never challenged me to think for myself. It was a rote-routine of religious teachings and lessons that never challenged alternate facts or feelings. A few religious classes at St. Thomas College reversed that trend and got me thinking about fairness and justice for all. The drama of the Sixties certainly played a key role in my self-examination and questioning of all that I had been told and taught.
Working since Seventh Grade and growing up hungry (not in the literal sense) gave me the foundation for a successful career in television and writing. Those stern penguins in black force-fed me their religious principles and values. And it seemed to stick.
I went from Questioning Catholic to Cafeteria Catholic, and after the Neumann Center on the U of M campus, to a Christian in spirit with no discernable religious label to hang on to. Yet I am eternally grateful for the values and standards of the Catholic faith that I had been exposed to for sixteen years in Old Saint Paul. It was my Mother’s religion. It wasn’t mine. Yet I have held fast to those basic tenants of fairness and justice and equality for all.
No one has a corner on the God market, not the Catholics nor the Jews or any other faiths of our time. But the Catholic environment of my old community clothed me with an attitude of basic decency and acceptance of all kinds of people that remains to this day. I want to pass that legacy on to my grandchildren.
I can thank Old Saint Paul for that.