Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Catholic Education

St. Louis Grade School - St. Paul, MN

My mother was a devout Catholic so I had little choice in the matter of my education.  Back in the early fifties my sister and I attended St. Louis Grade School in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. The old relic has long since been torn down but the memories linger in black and white. Attending school there meant a half hour ride to and from downtown for eight years. First by streetcar with their woven mesh seats and no heat (anyone remember those?) then by city bus.

The nuns were strict and mean and very old school. But their approach to education worked and I got educated. Unlike some of my unruly classmates I never got smacked across the head or hit with a ruler. Although once in second grade I got busted after sneaking peeks at my Daniel Boone comic book hidden in my desk drawer. The imposing rotund nun made me stand in front of the entire class and throw it into the wastepaper basket. That hurt!

I’ve always assumed my mother got a discount from the nuns because she certainly couldn’t have afforded full tuition on her meager restaurant salary. I’ll give the nuns that. They did have compassion for a single parent with two urchin’s under tow. There was the free lunch at noon and at times donated clothing that could be picked over after class. Those nuns were tough but classy. It was the Catholic way.

Cretin High School Scrapbook Page

Cretin High School cost four hundred dollars a year paid for out of my paper route plus odd jobs during the summer. Cretin was an ROTC school run by strict Christian Brothers with their no-nonsense approach to life and education. At our fiftieth anniversary we alumni compared jobs and lives; subtly of course. Seems like that educational approach worked pretty well for my comrades and I in our careers as well as in life.

Graduation on May 31st, 1961 was the launch of my ‘lost years’ although I didn’t know it at the time. It was the beginning of ten years wandering through the wilderness of a young life spiked with bouts of education and life-altering experiences. Back in the sixth grade my belief in Catholicism had been badly wounded by the Baltimore Catechism. Now all those simmering doubts and questions grew in intensity as I experienced real life on yet another level.

For some reason this photo of the quadrangle on the campus of the College of St. Thomas says it all. It’s the winter of 1961 and I’m freezing my ass off cutting across campus. What I remember most of that period were the blustery winter winds sweeping across campus and right through my light jacket. My most poignant college memories don’t cluster around classes or the cafeteria or my girlfriend at the time. It wasn’t the work after school or the hard studying just to keep my grades afloat. Instead it was the bone-rattling cold that nipped at my fingertips and bit into my ear lobes. Funny how some school memories can do that; lose the true essence of the collegiate experience amid the discomfort of a bitterly cold winter’s day.

But St. Thomas never was a smooth fluid experience for me. Instead it morphed into two separate life journeys distracted with interruptions from the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Army. By then Catholicism wasn’t even on my radar any more.

The Presidio of San Francisco opened up a whole new world for me. It released possibilities and dreams after my educational collapse at the U of M. The Army proven to be a macho world where I explored life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness all the while trailing other lost souls as I stumbled forth. For two years it carried me around the country and across the border. Then it dumped me back into the welcoming arms of Saint Thomas after an early release.

College of St. Thomas Yearbook Staff

Thanks to the G.I. Bill there was less stress to find work and more time to write for the school yearbook. I had a nest in my basement at home where I could sequester myself and focus on learning to learn. I got two things from that experience; a college education and ‘Love in the A Shau.’ Not a bad ROI for two thousand dollars per college year.

Denmark made me a stranger in a strange land. There were new attitudes toward life and love and self. Religion continued to be this strange ritualistic practice performed by my mother but rejected by my colleagues and me.

After Europe (Snow White and the SevenSeekers) this ex-pat came home and found a dump
to live in and a Sunday sanctuary full of song and fellowship. The Newman Center for Catholic Studies had gone all hippie and folk-like with its mass, its litany and communal singing. It was a haven of peace and friendship and sharing. It hinted of something wonderful but we never labeled it Catholic…just community.

Susan was there with me to share that skeletal existence, career explorations, the Triangle Bar and the poetry readings. She was just another road warrior searching for her future as I was searching for mine. We were like two literary hobos riding the rails of life’s jumbled journey but steeled by our dogged determination to succeed. She was like an elixir for my mind on Saturday nights and for my soul on Sunday mornings.


‘Suzanne’ was our national anthem, our rallying cry and our homage to the visceral pictures painted in our minds. It was Sunday morning sunshine after the thought-provoking Saturday night salon of the Triangle Bar. Leonard Cohen was our hero and our pied-piper even as the church dared label him our Svengali.

A lot of my life history was left back there. I’ve tried to capture the essence of that period with Love in the A Shau and blogs like Looking for Susan’s House and I found Susan’s House among others.

Back then, I was still wading through the flotsam of those early religious years. The Newman Center showed me another side of Christianity. It was love and compassion and caring. It was exploring one’s mind as well as one’s soul. It was questioning and challenging and accepting. It was finding comfort in who we were and the strength to believe we could be more.  

Then it was all gone. I moved on. Susan moved on. Life carried us both away.

Now years later I’m trying to fashion stories out of those mixed religious experiences. I have wrapped myself in a coat of many colors and tried to decipher the coded messages from the real ones. What truth, if any, was to be found in the Baltimore Catechism? Were there really mess-ages in all those rambling, repetitive boring eulogies on Sunday morning? Is there a commonality among religions despite repeated claims that each is the only one? I wander through this religious wilderness seeking the truth that, in fact, lies only within me. So I let my mind dance across the keyboard and stories come to life.

‘Cafeteria Catholic’ is a play which examines the relationship of an agnostic who finds himself attracted to a devote Catholic. It’s a paradox I find intriguing enough to write a play about it.

‘Frenchy’s Eats’ is a play which examines the dysfunctional and yet poetic relationship between
a man and a woman, an intrusive Catholic church and a father the author never knew. It’s a complicated play in its rag-tag juxtaposition of elements and explanations that danced between my parents, their divorce and the mysterious Canadian legacy that still lurks far back in my own ancestry.

‘Love in the A Shau’ is a trip back in time when a young man was struggling to stay afloat in an Ivy-league world he never knew existed, the tantalizing taste of first love and class differences that he let define him.

My blogs often wander back through that period to rummage and rifle through old memories; both good and bad. I suppose they’re really memoirs of a sort in case a future generation cares to examine their grandfather’s life lived back then.

Because of my Catholic education I learned the intrinsic value of working hard, helping others, being fair and trying to be a good man, a good husband, a good father and grandfather.

Despite my Catholic education I learned the value of self.

Truth be told, I’m a Christian before I’m a Catholic. But I could just as easily be a Buddhist, a Muslim or a Jew. I’m not a religious person but I believe in religion; whatever flavor people may chose. It’s not a bad combination; a double-edged sword to combat the challenges of life while accepting responsibility for what comes our way.

Perhaps way back then those wise women dressed in their penguin attire did teach me something about religion after all. It’s been a long journey.

Guess I’ve circled back now to where it all started.

No comments:

Post a Comment