I went to Catholic elementary school in the 50’s and early 60’s and I know much has been written by people who had that same experience. But I have stories that must be told about the horrors I lived through if only to help prevent something like this from ever happening again. We’ll start with 2nd grade, my first year in what I look back on now as the beginning of a 7 year sentence at a penal colony for children.
My first teacher was a Franciscan nun. She wore a brown habit with a rope for a belt. She also wore sandals. She was very old and I was certain she was a witch. On the first day of class she spent an hour using colored chalk to draw a picture of hell on the blackboard. Then she drew a little child dangling from a rope over the image of hell. She turned to us and said, “If any of you die while you have a mortal sin on your soul God will send an angel to cut the rope and plunge you into the everlasting fires of hell!” We’ll, that pretty much did it for me. I needed to find out what a mortal sin was ASAP to avoid this terrifying fate. Unfortunately, there seemed be a lot of things that fell into this category, so I started to list them. Here are three.
1. Eating meat on Fridays
This explained why we had to always have creamed tuna on toast every Friday for dinner. As long as my mom kept making this terrible meal I was ok. However, I later learned that she was really a Presbyterian so who knows when or if she slipped some meat into our Friday dinner.
2. Not going to mass on Sunday or on a Holy Day of Obligation
This was not a problem in the 2nd grade but by the time I was in 5th grade it would become one. By then I considered going to church as something that wrecked a perfectly good day off. But I was dangling from that rope so I usually attended.
I think there are degrees on this one. Kind of like a misdemeanor versus a felony. So stealing a pencil was just a venial sin but stealing a bike was very likely a mortal sin. As people at my work know, I have always coveted other people’s property. In some kind of perverse way that’s probably what got me interested in police work and security. But anyway, if anything was going to get me into hell it would probably be this one.
Speaking of venial sins, I learned that while they won’t get you into hell you were not quite off the hook. If you died with venial sins on your soul you were sent to Purgatory for a very long time instead. It was a place very much like hell (fire everywhere) but with one important difference. You had an expiration date. Someday you were going to get out.
The Baltimore Catechism was my nemesis in my Catholic school years. We were often required to memorize the answers to questions in this book and if picked on the next day, stand up and recite them. I never memorized the answers of course so I had to take my chances and hope for an easy one. Like, “Who made us?” Answer – “God made us.” Or, “Where is God? Answer – “God is everywhere.” But then there were the very long answers that in my mind were impossible to memorize. Here is an example: “Is there any difference between the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass?” Answer – “Yes; the manner in which the sacrifice is offered is different. On the Cross Christ really shed His blood and was really slain; in the Mass there is no real shedding of blood nor real death, because Christ can die no more; but the sacrifice of the Mass, through the separate consecration of the bread and the wine, represents His death on the Cross.” There was just no way I was going to try and memorize this so I didn’t. And when I was called on and couldn’t answer questions like this there were very painful consequences.
My greatest trial in all my time at Catholic school came in the 7th grade. I spent the entire nine months trying to avoid being beaten to death by my 7th grade teacher, Sister Stephanie. She ruled with an iron yardstick and I was her #1 target. I once asked her if nuns wore underwear and she had the pastor come to the classroom and paddle my rear end in front of the whole class. But I won – I didn’t cry, which just pissed her off all the more. Finally the last day of school came and I was free! I survived Sister Stephanie! I thought if I could do that then my last year would be a breeze.
Summer came and went in a blur and in September my classmates and I were back at St. Matthew’s Catholic school. We were all sitting in the classroom talking and showing off our new shoes when the door opened. The room got quiet. I looked up. Our 8th grade teacher had walked into the room. It was Sister Stephanie.