Friday, April 19, 2013

St. Cecilia’s

My mother was Catholic and my father Protestant.  They were married in my mother's living room as no mixed marriage could be held in the church, of course.

I was raised Catholic but it was a very low key, private kind of religion.  My mother and I went to mass and occasional confession and communion and abstained from meat on Fridays, but there were no outward trappings -- no family rosaries, no going to novenas, no holy pictures in the home.

My mother had a small crucifix in her bedroom and I had a pretty little blue and white della robia plaque of the infant Jesus in swaddling clothes in my room.

My mother and father preferred to send me to public rather than parochial school and church instruction came at Sunday School held after the nine o'clock children's mass for all of us "publics" who were slightly beyond the pale.

When I moved to Washington, I met a number of girls who became friends, three of whom were going to attend a Catholic girl's high school in the fall.  I suddenly had to go.

The following summer my mother and I (she, still slightly skeptical) went down to register me with the good nuns.  Paper work done, we went to get my uniform for the next two years... a navy blue jumper, two short sleeved white blouses with Peter Pan collars, a navy blue sweater, a small blue and gold bar pin with SCA for St. Cecilia's Academy to wear at the collar and several pairs of tan knee socks to wear with either loafers or saddle shoes (these last to be kept clean, please.)

St. Cecilia's was a small school:  one class for each year of high school, a combination gym/lunch room/auditorium, a small home economics room, typing room, English classroom, bathrooms and small front office for the principal. 

Next door was a building where the nuns lived where one could buy a hot lunch, plain but nourishing, and where for one semester I took piano lessons from Sister Victoria who really rapped my knuckles (gently) when I made mistakes.

The first day of school Joan, Nacen (?) Joyce and I took the bus, transferred to the street car at Barney Circle and went down Pennsylvania Avenue, getting off at Sixth Street.  We walked over one block to East Capitol and the school.

They were all freshmen and I went alone to the room full of strange sophomores.  Sister Clotilde, brisk, middle aged and kindly, entered our room.  We stood up, said "Good morning, Sister" and the day began. 

There were prayers and announcements.  I was introduced and just before we dispersed to our various classes, Sister said drily: "I found out over the summer that there is something that will remove nail polish, so I don't want to see any of that bright red stuff.  Also no dark lipstick.  Your mothers wouldn't be seen like that."

My first class that first year was English.  We had a lay teacher for that.  She was a nice young woman who had a great crush on Leslie Howard.  When he was killed late in the war, she was really distraught.

From English I went back to Sister Clotilde for geometry (in the slower class.)  I had barely squeaked through algebra the year before to my engineer father's despair but, with Sister's help and doing my homework, I mastered acute angles and isosceles  triangles.  I managed to pass with a "C."

After geometry was Religion, also with Sister Clotilde.  The theme that year was mostly church history all of which I have forgotten.  I envied the two Lutheran girls who attended school but who were excused from religion class.

We had lunch and then biology with Sister Grace Marie.  I can still smell the earthworm in its formaldehyde.  Lastly, there was Latin with Sister Clotilde again.  I remember Latin especially because in my junior year there were only four of us in class...four of us and Cicero with his long wordy orations.  The class was our own particular hiding in the back of the room, no waiting for eight other people before one was called on, no excuses like the dog ate my homework.  We had to do it.  After junior year, I studied no more Latin.  French that year with Sister Samuel was a breeze in comparison.

The girls were a friendly lot.  Mostly they were from other parts of Washington and we southeasterners were in the minority.  We did, however, all have smarts enough to go to the bathroom after classes were over, roll down our socks, hike up the uniform skirts, plaster on all that dark red lipstick Sister Clotilde hated and venture forth looking "sharp" to the nearest Little Tavern for a sack of hamburgers, a strawberry shake and forbidden cigarettes.

The nuns were pretty unflappable.  They had probably seen it all.  Once Marcella Clancy, who arrived without breakfast, started to faint at morning prayers and Sister Clotilde was at her side in a trice, catching her before she fell and putting her head down.  We stood like lumps, no help at all.  Sister, one of eleven children and with a dry sense of humor, loved us all.

Another time at lunch in the gym/auditorium/cafeteria, someone found a baby mouse pickled forever in her bottle of coke.  Sister Agnes, small, aristocratic and authoritarian with pince-nez on her nose, was called and strode briskly in and stopped the rising hysteria.  The local bottling company, by the way, generously replaced the mouse-tainted coke bottle with another free case of coke.  No lawsuits in those days.

After junior year when I had worked on the school paper and enjoyed it, I returned to Anacostia where I could take journalism classes not offered at St. Cecilia's.  For good grades, I should have stayed where I was!

I lost track of most of my classmates, running across one or two in later years.  Four or five years after my sojourn there, I ran into Sister Clotilde and a companion waiting for a streetcar on Connecticut Avenue.  She recognized me and immediately introduced me correctly to her fellow nun.  I marveled at her memory.

St. Cecilia's has merged with another parochial high school in these years of hard times.  I don't know what it is called now; but I did hear a few years ago that Sister Clotilde was alive and well at 90.  Bless her.

No comments:

Post a Comment