St. Mary's Grade School: A tour of flashbacks
I had expected more Catholic icons at the St. Mary’s rummage sale last week in the school gym. I had really hoped to find the statue of a female saint whose eyes followed me whenever I climbed a stairwell in the old school in Westville, Ill.
Alas, the only statues were a Nativity set, with Joseph’s head chopped off, waiting to be re-attached. I passed.
But there were plenty of other things that jogged my memory:
— The tall AV cart. I remember the nuns rolling one of those, with a TV on top, into my classroom soon after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The nuns wept. He was our first Catholic president.
— The small desks and chairs, with blue and pink backs and metal legs from which the paint was scratched off in parts.
— A barrel containing shepherd’s crooks, all hand-carved. Children carried them in Christmas pageants.
— A box of prints on small wooden panels, depicting the stations of the cross. We had to perform the ritual of the stations every Easter season.
The items were a mix of things from the school and from parishioners. Among them were two large paintings, in shades of red, by George Balent. One was a portrait; my mom thought it was of Balent’s sister. The other was of a vase of flowers.
My mom and I looked carefully through all of the other detritus: old basketballs, music education books, CDs, videotapes, scratched and beaten up cookie sheets, colored-glass candleholders.
We came away with a bag of items for $2. I settled on a blue-and-white mouse pad with the school logo, even though personal computers came long after I graduated in 1966 from St. Mary’s Grade School. I also bought two shepherd’s crooks, admiring the rough handwork.
After making our picks, my mom and I walked through the empty halls and classrooms of St. Mary’s, which closed a couple of years ago due to declining enrollment. In some rooms the blackboards and ceiling tiles were removed. Ghostly.
When I entered the eighth-grade classroom on the first floor, near the school office, I flashed back to my classmate-buddy Michael Vassen, how we sat next to each other in the back of the room and chatted. We seemed to escape Sister Andrew’s detection.
Over the past few decades we’ve all seen the reports on Catholic school closings, even in Catholic strongholds like Boston, Philly and New York. Word is that St. Mary’s Grade School, with all of its terrazzo floors, will be demolished, to make way for a parish hall, possibly a metal pole barn.
The old school building is too expensive to maintain, to insure. I along with many others feel sad at the loss, even though I consider myself a recovering Catholic.
I might have received a guilt-inducing religious education at St. Mary’s but I wouldn’t give up my academic one for anything. That’s where I first learned to diagram sentences, and that’s kept me in good stead throughout my long daily newspaper career.
Good-bye, old school.