Schools are the beating heart of neighborhoods, of the multi-generational communities that nurture families and enrich society. Perhaps the most successful social accomplishment of the Catholic Church in the United States has been the parochial school system, which educated generations of immigrant families and helped create a successful American middle class. That need still exists, of course, for newer generations of immigrants, but sadly there are fewer and fewer schools around to meet that need. It always saddens me to hear of a school closing. But I was especially saddened when it was announced the school I myself once attended will close this year.
Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Parish Elementary School has served its Bronx, NY, neighborhood since it opened (with 90 students) in 1907 . When I graduated 8th grade in 1961, Tolentine (as it was commonly called) had some 1400 students. After 112 years, it will close at end of the current school year this coming June.
The Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Parish and School Facebook site fittingly describes itself as "A place to share the memories of the great place we either grew up in or went to school at or worshipped at and the friends and people we found along the way." I was fortunate to do all three – to grow up, go to school, and worship there.
And what a sight it was in those days, Sunday after Sunday, as thousands of people poured out of the 13 Sunday Masses celebrated in both upper and lower churches! (Sunday Masses upstairs at 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 12:50 and downstairs at 9, 10:15, 11:15, 12:10, and 12:55.) In fact, almost everything about that great Gothic church - referred to by some as "the cathedral of the Bronx" – was impressive. Closing the celebration of the parish's 50th anniversary on September 10, 1957, no less a luminary than New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman himself said, "Very few cities in the United Sates have cathedrals which have the beauty of your parish church." It was a distinction the neighborhood took pride in.
In post-war Catholic New York, parish and neighborhood were often largely one and the same. Of course, people left their neighborhoods to work elsewhere in the city, and the wider world's influence was certainly felt within those communities. But, at least when I was growing up, most of our day-to-day needs, both social and spiritual seemed to be met there in the parish. Such neighborhoods were overwhelmingly hard-working blue-collar, working class communities – at a time when strong unions and the general post-war prosperity instilled the forward-looking optimism that goes with a sense of collective upward mobility, all of which our society has sadly since lost.
The parish school was an old, early 20th-century building, barely able to accommodate the 1400 or so students enrolled in it. In winter, the heat sometimes didn’t work, and we would sit in class with our coats on. Such privations probably would seem unacceptable to many people today, but then they seemed perfectly normal, completely coherent with how we lived – in apartment buildings where likewise the heat also didn’t always work in winter!
Surely teaching 50+ kids five days each week had to be a real challenge. Some of my teachers, my 8th grade teacher, for example, were quite experienced. For my 5th grade teacher, on the other hand, we were her first class. The amazing thing, I think, about the parochial school system in those days was that it all somehow managed to work – and, on balance, really worked quite well. Again, what made it all work so well was that it was coherent with the rest of our world. Adults at that time largely supported the school, valued the Sisters, and almost always sided (if that is the right word) with them.
It was a world of clearly defined moral rules and social expectations. Not everyone benefited equally from those rules and expectations. But, for many at that time, the burdens seemed bearable and paid off as guideposts toward a reasonably predictable and stable way of life. In the half-century and more that followed, enormous economic and cultural changes have eviscerated the opportunities available for working class people with modest educational background and have radically diminished their prospects for financial and social stability in successfully functioning families. Social change always has winners and losers, and 21st-century America has paid a price for the alienation those losses produced.
Back then, parochial schools were, as I said, fairly basic. We had no kindergarten, just 8 grades. In the fall of 1954, I started 1st grade at Tolentine. I had laywomen as teachers in grades 1, 3, and 4, and Blauvelt Dominican Sisters in all the other grades. School was so crowded at what was then the height of the "Baby Boom," that classes were half-day sessions through grade 5. By then the new parish high school had been built, and the old high school building became part of the elementary school, increasing the amount of classroom space available. Obviously we lacked the educational benefits of contemporary technology, but beyond that we suffered no noticeable academic disadvantage from such large classes, and may well have been better educated in certain respects than some are today. Side by side with an all-encompassing, seemingly “otherworldly” spirituality, we received a rudimentary appreciation of art and music, learned practical skills like the right way to write a “friendly letter” and a “business letter,” and studied civics and were taught to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship.
Midway through 3rd grade, I was “skipped” to the middle of the 4th grade. Having students “skip” a grade was also, I suspect, one more way of dealing with the then widespread overcrowding!
I most certainly did not want to “skip.” Being wrenched out of my class and dropped down into another one was certainly destabilizing. And it meant dropping me into the middle of a grade the first half of which I had already missed. In particular, what I had missed that year was long division – something I struggled with for quite some time. I cried a lot that spring, struggling with my long-division homework!
Long-division aside, I liked most of what we studied. Some subjects were new in 4th grade – history and geography, for example. Some subjects – history again and religion – I especially enjoyed. Each September, when school resumed and we got our new textbooks, I rushed to read through the entire history book as quickly as possible, so eager was I to learn, so in love was I with other times, other places, and other possibilities.
Needless to say, in parochial school in the 1950s, it was religion that permeated every day of the school year and every subject of study. We prayed at the beginning and the end of the day (and before and after lunch). We recited the Morning Offering in the morning, the Angelus at mid-day, various other prayers throughout the course of the school day, and an Act of Contrition at day’s end.
Whenever a priest came into the classroom to speak to us or to our teacher, before he departed we would reverently request his priestly blessing. Then we would all (including Sister) dutifully drop to our knees while Father raised his hands in a semicircle and then made the sign of the cross over us, saying Benedicat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus. Meanwhile, from celebrating Our Lady’s birthday in September, to the daily Rosary in October, decorating the crib at Christmas, and making the Stations of the Cross in Lent, all the way to Mary’s annual May Crowning at the end of that month, the calendar followed a set cycle of taken-for-granted devotions that punctuated the year and marked the recurring rhythm of months and seasons.
And, of course, there were the special life-cycle celebrations, such as First Confessions, First Communion, and Confirmation, for which the school faithfully prepared us. On Saturday, June 4, 1955, at an 8:00 a.m. Solemn High Mass, having now officially reached the “age of reason,” I made my First Communion - after having made my First Confession the day before. What I actually remember most about my First Communion was how much time we spent practicing beforehand. The Sisters were not about to leave anything to chance!
The other significant life-cycle sacrament was, of course, Confirmation, which I received in the 5th grade on Sunday, September 22, 1957. The Bishop was a Dutch Augustinian, Peter Canisius van Lierde (1907-1995), who held the exalted post of sacristan to Pope Pius XII. As for the ceremony itself, I was most invested in the confirmation name I had chosen. I remember carrying a card between my fingers with my name on it. I remember a priest then taking the card and saying the name to the Bishop (in what I later would learn was the nominative case) and then the Bishop addressing me (in what I later would learn was the vocative case): Michaele, Signo te signo crucis; et confirmo te chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.
Much more important, however, was becoming an altar boy. In those days, it was considered a great privilege (albeit a common one) to serve Mass. I eagerly joined my classmates to the rectory chapel where we practiced the complex maneuvers of moving the missal from the epistle side of the altar to the gospel side and then back again, carrying (and kissing) the cruets with the wine and water, ringing the bells, walking with the priest at the altar rail and carrying the communion plate, and so much more. And, of course, there was the Confiteor and all the other Latin responses to memorize, starting with the psalm response at the foot of the altar: Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam!
Serving as an altar boy – at Sunday Masses, weekday Masses, Low Masses, Sung Masses, Nuptial Masses, Funeral Masses, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Stations of the Cross, Forty Hours, and the crowning event as an 8th grader, serving at Christmas Midnight Mass – was among the more unambiguous joys of parochial school life. Funeral Masses were a very frequent assignment, since every funeral required a full complement of four servers. (We especially looked forward to funerals since they got us out of school for an hour; and, if assigned to a Saturday morning funeral, we were guaranteed the next funeral on a school day!),
As I remarked at the time of my 50th High School reunion, we became judges and lawyers, policemen and priests, teachers and truck-drivers. The school did its job and did it very well.
And it will be missed, for that work is still very much needed today!
And it will be missed, for that work is still very much needed today!