Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Little French Church

Grade schools today come in all sizes and shapes. Most are large sentinels of education complete with gymnasiums, cafeterias, front offices and teacher’s lounges. My grade school squeezed two classrooms per room, an asphalt playground that over looked downtown Saint Paul and a sinister-looking police station next door. It was older than many of the buildings downtown and had served its students for well over a hundred years. At times, it seemed as if some of the nuns had been there even longer than that.

The Church of St. Louis, King of France Catholic Church, affectionately known as the ‘Little French Church,’ was founded in 1868. It was built to serve the French-speaking citizens of Saint Paul. Five years later, the church built a school called Ecole St. Louis.

I knew none of this when I first trudged up those stone steps as a first grader in 1949. It started with an early morning streetcar ride from Highland Park and culminated in sixteen years of Catholic education.  The whole experience proved a proverbial mix of academics, socialization, discipline, and a suppressive culture that was the clay that formed the person I am today.

photo credit: St. Louis Church

The grade school was beyond ancient by the time I got there. There were two classes per room.

The bathrooms were in basement along with the cafeteria with a kitchen smaller than most in modern homes today. The cloak room, if you could call it that, was in the back hallway and exits were old wooden rickety steps to the ground level. It was a fire trap waiting to happen which thankfully never happened.

My memories are sketchy from that period in my life. Augmented by old black and white photos and chats with my sister, images arise from which I can paint a picture of life as a grade schooler in old downtown Saint Paul.

photo credit: St. Louis Church

My memories of the nuns are the most poignant. There was the rotund Sister Paulet who shamed me in 2nd grade for sneaking a peek at my Davy Crocket comic book stashed in my desk. Sixth grade teacher Sister Roselia let me hang out the second story window and clean it after school. Fortunately another student was holding my legs so I didn’t drop to the asphalt below. There was the new nun who made a disparaging remark about our poverty because my sister and I were getting free clothes for confirmation. Finally I remember how I admired Sister Alfred Marie who was strict and stern but fair. The rest were all forgettable. They were some of the last stewards of Catholic education before major changes and upheavals shook their world of teaching. Their style of Catholic Education had reached its zenith and was slowly dying out.

Seven Corners from Cathedral Hill [photo credit: Jean Day]
As deeply ingrained as those memories are, so too are the long since forgotten or remembered landmarks along the way. There was the Tastee bread factory across the street whose whiffs of freshly baked bread distracted even the most ardent scholar of education. A large stone edifice to fighting crime was on the corner. Our asphalt playground offered sweeping view of old downtown Saint Paul. Tenement housing snaked its way up to the capitol while the last remnants of old turn of century mansions slowly crumbled away behind Capitol. The Nuns Rectory was across the street and Mechanic Arts High School several blocks away up the hill.

photo credit: Minnesota Historical Society

The one landmark I remember best was the new W.T. Grant Department store that I cut through each afternoon to catch the bus back home. A streetcar token cost ten cents and offered a daily tour of a changing cityscape. If I had time, I would walk a half block to Saint Paul Book and Stationary. I loved the smell of new books and exploring the myriad of titles awaiting me.

One book in particular stood out. It was a first novel by an English author named Alistair MacLean about the battle in the North Atlantic during World War Two. The book was entitled: H.M.S. Ulysses. I was hooked except that the three dollar and ninety-five cent price tag kept me at bay.

The city was on the cusp of major changes to its downtown core. There was just the beginnings of a shifting population away from the cities to the suburbs and social undercurrents that only hinted at the disruptions ahead. For a hungry horny youngster the siren call of rock and roll only added to the angst and anxiousness for the years ahead.

It was the beginning of the end of an era of pre-world war II buildings and an entire way of life for downtown residents. The first suburb, Roseville, was just beginning to grow and Larpentuer Avenue was no longer the end of civilization.

Walking along Seventh Street [Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society]

Walgreens [Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society]

White Castle [Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society]

Seven Corners in 1954 [Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society]

Grabbing the bus gave me a birds eye view of Walgreen Drugs with its ten cent candy bars. The Orpheum and Paramount theaters which I frequented in high school. Bridgeman’s Ice Cream for treats afterwards. White Castle and the Edsel dealership were down the road. Seven Corners was a crossroads with its old grocery story on one corner and the Wilder Youth Center across the street. Further down the road, Anchor Hospital was about to close and the Schmidt Brewery was bottling some of its last brew. The Pitney Building survived them all and still stands.

Graduation Photo - Class of 1957

Eight years of traveling on wicker-seated streetcars then graduating to leather-seated buses brought an end to my daily urban jaunt. No more year round altar boy duties every Sunday. No more sweating out those math tests. It ended my infatuation with fellow student Elaine in the third row-fourth desk down.

Cretin Military Officers Ball - 1961

The years ahead would prove more fortuitous with a Christian Brother education, military discipline and a first introduction to the opposite sex. It would go on to include military service, living abroad, career development and a hungry life never quite satisfied.

Not long ago the St. Louis church choir tried singing a few nontraditional songs. It didn’t last but for one Sunday. Pastor John Sajdak explained that “It’s the people who like traditional church music like the Gregorian chants, hymns and the traditional liturgy who come here.” I could only smile. Nothing much has changed after all these years.

I shed my vestments of obedience a long time ago; about the time I finished high school. Yet I can appreciate the rote and routine, the traditions and blind obedience that was demanded of us kids. It didn’t hurt and probably helped us in the long run.

Thanks for the memories, Sister Alfred Marie. Beneath that cloak of black and white, I’ll bet you were probably a pretty cool lady.

No comments:

Post a Comment