Feb. 17, 2009
By JAMES FLANIGAN
Sr. Margaret McEntee is
pictured in 1956 with her first-grade class at St. Anthony's School in the
Bronx section of
recent film “Doubt,” set in 1964, Fr. Brendan Flynn, played by Philip Seymour
Hoffman, pastor of a parish in the
But Sr. Aloysius, played by Meryl Streep, protests vehemently, “We are not like them. We are different, and we must be different. These working-class people depend on us” to be different, to be above and apart from them, to guide them and to care for their children whom they have entrusted to us.
reflects the thinking of the Second Vatican Council, which ran from 1962 to
1965. Sr. Aloysius accurately reflects the thinking of the
I grew up
come with little formal education from small farms and towns in the west of
Its school took their children, corrected the Irish brogues they brought from home, and taught them of a new country and a wider world. It taught them the value of their individual lives: “You are a temple of the Holy Ghost,” Sr. Jane Frances de Chantal would say. “You are responsible for yourself and others.”
The church protected them in practical ways also. If a young man stole a car, the police didn’t book him but telephoned the pastor of Sacred Heart, then Msgr. William Humphrey, who inevitably would “know the boy’s parents.” Msgr. Humphrey would then ask the car’s owner (probably a non-Catholic) not to press charges, assuring him that the car would be restored and any damages paid. The church would pony up the money. The parents would pay it back, then the boy would work it off. A police record was avoided, a productive life, perhaps, saved.
young fellow persisted in recalcitrant ways, as my friend, the rangy, wild
Bobby O’Toole, did, he would be sent to Lincoln Hall, a reform school in
The unlettered parents seldom if ever spoke to priests or to the nuns and Christian Brothers who taught their children with anything other than bowed deference. A mother trying to defend her truant son before Fr. Stanislaus Jablonski, the legendary dean of discipline at Cardinal Hayes High School, might say that the boy had left for school but returned home feeling ill because “he’s sick, Father.”
Whereupon Fr. Jablonski, with courteous authority toward the mother but scarcely an unnecessary glance at the son, would say, “He’s sick of school, Mrs. O’Connor, that’s what he’s sick of.” And the mother would bow her head and concede that, of course, Father was the better judge.
all, there were great numbers of religious. The absolute majority of the
teachers in the elementary schools and the nearby high schools -- All Hallows
and Cardinal Hayes for the boys, Cathedral High and the
The nuns guided the girls’ sodalities; the brothers coached the boys in basketball and American football, forming intramural play as early as sixth grade. It was called “American” football only because in that neighborhood, briefly, there was a different kind. Some of the fathers tried to form teams for Gaelic football. But the American version prevailed, of course.
The nuns and brothers, often offspring of immigrants themselves, recognized that their pupils were from different cultures. But they didn’t dwell on that. The children’s homes might be filled with Irish music or perhaps Italian opera, but the school dances introduced baritone saxophones, early rhythm and blues, and the beginnings of rock. The teachers knew that their role was to bring their charges into the new land and the new society, “secular” though it may be.
And they provided that passage at “steerage” rates. The elementary schools were essentially free to the parents, the costs borne by the Sunday collection plates and the archdiocese. The high schools were reasonable even for working-class families.
Cardinal Hayes, for example, charged $10 per month tuition if parents could pay it, $5 per month if they could not afford $10. The multitudes of religious -- bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience -- made such bargains possible. Their lives, their own skills and ambitions, were essentially an offering of service. That was the difference that Sr. Aloysius understood.
things were changing in 1950s
church was changing. Their new flocks were no longer from an Irish village, but
moving on to
The schools went on, but with many more lay teachers, at wages and benefits appreciably higher than the old vow-of-poverty incomes. Costs went up, as did tuitions. Today high school tuitions are above $5,000 a year. The schools get help from charitable institutions and foundations, and they need it.
students once again are the children of working-class people, mainly African
Americans and immigrants from
The essence of what happened then and is happening today is in the same great tradition, captured best in a line of William Butler Yeats. “Education is not the filling of a pail,” wrote the poet, “but the lighting of a fire.”
James Flanigan is a business journalist whose book on the economy
and people of