MEMORIES OF OLD ST. MARY'S SCHOOL
by Rose Moore, columnist, Gazette Newspapers
(Published Lake County Tribune, 5-23-2008, after the parish announced the old school would be closed. Now I post this old column to my blog so that I can share it with websites that have been established to collect the memories of this old school, which I attended 1946 through 8th grade)--R. Moore
OHIO'S AMBITIOUS SCHOOL rebuilding program of recent years will result in many of our old public school buildings being empty in the fall, with uncertain futures. The same fate, though not connected to the state rebuilding program, falls now to a local parochial school---St. Mary's School in Painesville. The difference is, St. Mary's School is being closed and will not be replaced with a shiny new building.
Its history is as long as any school in the county, and now sadly its life as a school is ending. St. Mary's organized its first school in 1861, when Roman Catholic Pastor Charles Coquerelle began holding school in a primitive, white-frame building which stood where the nuns' convent stands today. The present building came about through the longest-serving pastor of St. Mary's---Rev. Msgr. William J. Gallena, who assumed the pastorate in 1914 and served the parish for the rest of his long life.
In 1920, he supervised construction of the familiar brick building which has served St. Mary's children until now; and in 1939, began construction of St. Mary's gymnasium which now serves as a parish social center. He also purchased two acres of land adjacent to St. Mary's campus for a playground and for paved parking.
IT WAS TO FATHER Gallena's sturdy brick school building that I reported on my very first day of school in 1946; I was six years old. The school was staffed by nuns of the Order of the Holy Humility of Mary, who would later be supplemented by lay teachers.
St. Mary's had religion classes in its curriculum, and we had to raise our hands and stand for any permission we were seeking (i.e. leaving the room to go to the lavatory). But in other ways, our school days weren't much different from the public schools attended by many of our friends in the neighborhoods.
Those were the years when schools had no air-conditioning except for open windows, and "cloak rooms" smelled of the contents of lunch bags, wet boots, damp wool, moth balls and other mysterious aromas. We walked to school, as did most of the city's school children at the time. Class sizes were larger than today, and school did not begin until after Labor Day; it closed for summer until late May or very early June.
For us girls, the start of the school year marked the temporary end of our tomboy "dungaree days." By requirement, we wore skirts or dresses; no slacks. In those less affluent times, back-to-school was one of at least two times each year when many kids wore new clothes and escaped an older sibling's hand-me-downs; the other time was Easter.
There was no pre-school "gentling In"... no orientation day, no kindergarten, no nursery school, no day care... and we had never heard the term "latch-key children." And so for us, the first day of first grade loomed very large; it was our entry into the unknown world of school. For some, it must have seemed that Mama "dumped" them there. The fear and nervousness were palpable, and a good many new first-graders cried when Mother walked away.
For me, a memorable first impression of that day was the red velvet bonnet Aunt Helen had purchased for me. Though the velvet may not have been appropriate for the heat of that day, my mother couldn't talk me out of wearing it. In those days I was shy, and I found I could lower my head and, under that bonnet, become unattainable to the strangers around me. Even the parish priest could not entice me to raise my head for introduction. I spent considerable time hiding beneath that bonnet and for several weeks at school refused to take it off, indoors or out.
ONE BIG DIFFERENCE from public schools for us "Catholic school kids" was the nuns. My first-grade teacher Sister Agnita seemed formidable in long dark wool and starched white habit. To me, she looked more like a beetle or a penguin; I could not believe a real person could exist behind that crisp white habit and extended veil and head piece. (A few years later, it was a younger brother and me who sneaked into a local dentist's office where we knew one of the nuns had an appointment; we wanted to see what she looked like without her veil. We got a quick glimpse before we were caught and ushered firmly out; to our surprise, what we saw was a woman with short, grey hair and a gentler face and jaw line than the tight habit had allowed; she looked like someone's kindly grandmother).
Sister Agnita remains in my mind for her threat to staple our tongues if we didn't stop chattering together in class. She never acted on the threat, but we had graphic visions of our stapled tongues, and so her tactic worked. Like the rest of the nuns that would teach us, her favorite discipline seemed to be a whack with her ruler on a student's open palm. Strict as she was, however, my memories of her are mostly kind.
During my years at St. Mary's, I looked forward to Friday afternoons, when we ended our classes early and were allowed to "skate" on steel wool up and down the wood floors to clean them. In a sense, I guess, we were unpaid janitors.
For me, Sister Cornelia's Thursday afternoon choir classes in the church were a welcome respite from the classroom. Unfortuneately, my own voice was so deeply pitched, it didn't even qualify as an alto in Sister's eyes, and she would interupt our singing to ask in a stern, exaggeratedly deep voice, "Who's that singing in the basement?" Everyone including her knew it was me.
A favorite forbidden thing was sliding down the stairway bannisters. A classmate (Bill Condon, now deceased) showed me how to place the bottom of my leather-soled shoes against the metal ledge at the bottom of the rail, clinging tightly to whiz rdown from the top to the bottom of the stairway. I did it fairly often and never got caught.
At the end of every school day, the principal would put marching music on the big wood victrola, and the teachers would line the students outside the classrooms. Down the halls we'd march to the martial beat of Sousa; down the broad front steps to the sidewalk and the freedom of the outside world. That seemed wonderful at first, and then embarassing. As we made friends with kids from the nearby St. Clair St. school, we learned they found our marching exits quite hilarious and would rush out after school to watch us. (It was later suggested these marches established a built-in exit discipline that might prove valuable if there were a fire.)
THOSE OF US who went on from there to Harvey High School may have felt some fear at the transition. But we were accepted with great friendship, and many of our new classmates had been the friends and neighbors of our neighborhoods. Once we learned to shed the Catholic School peculiarities---(Raising our hands and standing to speak was one that instantly identified us)---we were no different from the rest, and those were good years too.
In the past few years, we have watched the closing or replacements or consolidations of our own particular schools---public and private---and we find ourselves reminiscing about those special places of our youth. Most of us, when we were children, loved to balk at the whole idea of school, and we probably would have been surprised at the warmth with which we now remember our days and years in those familiar places.