Wednesday, December 7, 2011


If you grew up as I did attending a Catholic grammar school, then you are familiar with nuns. My school was Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn. Children were taught by lay teachers from first to fourth grade. These were formidable women who ranged from saintly (the kind and placid Miss Baumann who exerted such an influence over the young boys in her charge that they would line up on her doorstep in the rain bearing umbrellas, and fight for the honor of escorting her the short distance to school), to malicious (the white-haired, permanently scowling Miss Wall whose special punishment for misbehaving lads was to grasp us firmly by the hair and bang our heads against the slate blackboards.)

Starting in grade five, boys were turned over to the Franciscan Brothers, and girls to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, a community of nuns founded in France in the year 1650. In 1836, a request came from the Bishop of St. Louis, Missouri for Sisters to teach deaf children. He had been advised by a friend in France to "…get the Sisters of St. Joseph because they will do anything". Truer words were never spoken. These nuns were not your modern-day religious women who walk around in pastel colors and penny loafers, no, the nuns at Our Lady of Lourdes were "old school" in the harshest sense of that term. They wore habits that might only be described as starched straight-jackets. And they were feared.

Nuns have been portrayed in movies (Lilies of the Field), plays (Nunsense) and TV shows (The Flying Nun), but I think the characterization that comes closest to the nuns I remember was in the movie Doubt. Meryl Streep plays the forbidding Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a grimly determined grade school principal bent on exposing a priest she believes to be a pedoplile. What made Streep's performance so brilliant was  that she showed us not only the iron will and discipline of  Sister Aloysius, but her repressed softer side that reflects a true love of the children in her care. Girls I knew in school who got to know the nuns saw this side of them, but to us boys, they were all like Rosa Klebb, the villianess with the knife blade in the toe of her boot in the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love.

Our school wisely separated the girls from the boys. Separate classrooms and separate schoolyards...there would be no fraternization while all those young hormones were raging. That was fine with the boys, because we knew that the Sisters of St. Joseph were the Lord's appointed guardians of feminine purity. To them, boys were testosterone-crazed lunatics whose sole mission in life was to sully innocent young girls. (They should only have seen their innocent girls in action in the balcony of the Colonial Theater.) If we wandered too close to one of the girls a watchful nun might just flick us with a left jab that Sugar Ray Leonard would have envied. The guys in my class were more afraid of them than we were of the brothers. I've told this story before, but I'll repeat it here since it fits the theme.

The worst beating I ever got was in 8th grade. Another boy (Michael Miller) and I were carrying a ceramic-like statue of the Blessed Mother balanced on a small table into the 8th grade girls' room down the hall. As we shuffled slowly into the room trying to keep the statue from falling, I craned my neck to get a look at a particular girl when I tripped over the bench seat of a desk that had been left folded down. The statue hung agonizingly in mid-air for a split second before shattering into a thousand pieces. Sister Bonaventura, the most feared nun in the school, had a look of horror on her face and was momentarily frozen like the rest of us. She recovered quickly though and proceeded too beat the hell out of me, all five feet of her. My cheeks redden to this day when I think of my humiliation.

Despite their combativeness, I believe that most nuns, and brothers for that matter, played an important part in educating young people in Catholic schools. People will always cite exceptions to try to demonize them, but most, like Sister Aloysius in the movie Doubt, were good people who took their calling seriously, even if it meant occasionally swatting a malcontent.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I'm still in love with Miss Langon in1st grade!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Do you remember attending her funeral? They made all the kids go.