It was recently pointed out to me that I join the Villa Maria Elementary of Erie, Pennsylvania Alumni group on Facebook. Along with that suggestion came the preposterous idea that I should also friend request the former principal of VME, one Sister Margaret Frank SSJ. To me Sr. Margaret has always been evil personified. I once called her the Antichrist but retracted that statement after I realized how unkind it was to say that. Not to mention a great insult to the Antichrist.
Astonishingly I have run into many fellow alumni who adored her. Memory is subjective and we all experience things and people differently. A while back I saw her. The first time I encountered the woman as an adult. She recognized me immediately and praised me for having been in so many theatrical productions. “You always hated me.” I blurted out. The words came automatically to my lips. “Nooooo!” she declared. “Yes.” I countered. But as I just said, memory is subjective.
My earliest letdown in the Catholic school known as Villa Maria Elementary was the day of my first holy communion. At that point, at seven years of age, I had already been kicked out of a religion class. The incident occurred the year before in first grade. I had suggested that the class should not be praying in the chapel that day. The bewildered old nun was quite affronted by this and asked me why not. I indicated that the huge candle in the sacristy was not lit. In a previous tour of the chapel it was pointed out to us that the fire burning on the candle signified the presence of God. “That means God is here with us, children.” said Sister Drool. Now of course Sister Drool was not her real name but we children could not keep up with the numerous old corpses sent down from the motherhouse (which at that time was a few floors upstairs from our classrooms) that we had to name them by their attributes. “God’s not here today.” I explained to Sister D. whose openmouthed gasp temporarily stopped the flow of drool. I was made to stand outside the chapel while the good children were led in prayer.
Well, hey,maybe this would be my first chance to try some of that holy water from the basin sitting in the marble cherub’s outstretched hands. Nobody was looking and holy water must taste awesome, right?! Probably better than Kool-Aid! Better than Tang! Maybe even better than chocolate milk! After all it is holy! Word to the wise, kids. Yuck.
Yet holy water had to be nothing compared to the communion host that by second grade I was now going to be allowed to eat! Now this had to be something special. For one thing, only adults were permitted to take it and for another, it was BLESSED! Blessed by priests who had power that was passed down to them from Jesus Himself! And not only that, we had to partake in a special ceremony just to become eligible to eat this magic bread!
I was anxiously awaiting this most holy of communion days. We had a practice run in which we did get to eat an actual real honest to goodness communion wafer. I was discouraged that it tasted so terrible until we were informed by Sister Weeble that the practice bread had NOT been blessed. Well that explained it. No flavor and no magical powers.
I spent the day of my communion being primped by and for the adults in my life. Curlers, flowers, jewelry and a very uncomfortable starched white dress and veil. All fripperies that I normally hated but could tolerate on this most holy special day.
Communion day came and went. I ate the special bread. And I was not miraculously endowed with special powers. I had really been hoping for the ability to fly. After all, Jesus flew all the time, didn’t He? At least in my seven year old mind he did. ( Four years later, in sixth grade , I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar whereupon I overcame my disappointment that our savior apparently did not have the power of flight. Now He could sing rock and roll which was even cooler.)
In third grade Villa Maria Elementary became what I affectionately refer to as a school for troubled teachers. My guess is that the decrepit creatures from the motherhouse could no longer make the journey downstairs to instruct us. Since they taught for free (or maybe it was for room and board) the school had to find alternative educators. That third grade year started a succession of interesting characters at the head of our classrooms. To describe them all would be a blog unto itself. It was as if the new principal, Sister Margaret Frank, shouted out the window at passersby and asked them if they wanted to be a teacher then invited them in if they answered yes. Some were ineffectual, some were actually dedicated wonderful educators and some were downright abusive.
Holy communion did not bestow any particular blessing on me as the ensuing years at Villa Maria Elementary only got more hellish.
Mrs. Susan Bullock was my third grade homeroom teacher. A new hire, Mrs. Bullock was one of Sister Margaret’s pool of low bid foot soldiers. Surprisingly, Mrs. Bullock actually had a degree in education. What she lacked was humanity. Third grade began what was to become a year of horrible difficulties for me…difficulties that I’ll explain briefly below. Difficulties that made ME difficult and Mrs. Bullock took an instant seething dislike to me.
One of Mrs. Bullock’s favorite gambits was to point out my ridiculousness or stupidity to the rest of the class. All activities had to stop while this humiliating event occurred. “Class, please stop what you’re doing” she would start and I knew I was in for it. She would hold up my paper or point out some absurd thing I had done and say “I want you all to see what Karen (redacted) has done this time.” She always blended my first and last name into one. “If you had any brains in your head at all, Karen(redacted), I think they would rattle!” was one of her fondest directives toward me. To this day I get very shy about introducing myself with my first and last name. I still hear Mrs. Bullock’s putdowns even in my adult head.
To be somewhat fair to Mrs. Bullock I have to offer the full disclosure that I did become a very difficult child for any teacher to deal with the year she started teaching. Awful things that happened outside the school changed my behavior for the worse. Early in my third grade year I was molested by my pediatrician and later that year my father went into a coma and hovered between life and death for many weeks. I became an angry, frightened, insecure and defiant child.
I became “trouble”. An annoyance. And a huge thorn in Sister Margaret’s side.
I saw the unsympathetic, money worshipping side of the Catholic church at a very early age. The same Catholic mentality that sent scores of known child raping priests to poorer parishes.
God and Sister Margaret favored the rich kids. It was too much of a bother to extend time and compassion to the child of working class parents who had difficulty making tuition payments.
At one point during a particularly nasty Sister Margaret Shitlist Session (that would be where the good sister called in her least favorite students one by one to angrily insult us and tell us what rotten Catholics we were) she asked me to leave Villa Maria Elementary. “Maybe you belong in public school.” she told me. The words “public school” were spit out of her mouth with a disgusted sneer. Just saying “public school” in that building was akin to uttering a profanity.
This was good news to me! Surely I could take this statement to my mother and it would treated as some sort of royal command. A decree from her royal heinous, Sister Margaret, that I be banished to the uncivilized lowlands known as public education! Naturally, I did not see this as a banishment but as a release, an early release from prison.
Unfortunately that day only got worse as the next victim on Sister Margaret’s shitlist was my dear friend Ann (REDACTED). She was going into Sister’s office as I was leaving. Ann had not been at Little Villa very long but she and I had bonded deeply. Ann’s troubled childhood and family difficulties of her own cemented our bond. We had glommed onto each other. Nobody else found religion class as boring and as humorous as Ann and I did. Two little blasphemous heretics in sea of pious, compliant urchins.
Ann left VME that very day. Sister Margaret had apparently given her the same “You would be better off in (sneer, spit) public school .” speech. Ann’s’ mother was called and Ann was quickly and quietly spirited away from VME forever. ( I still envy her!) She asked Sister Margaret if she could go back into the classroom to say goodbye to me but Sister was still in heartless bitch mode and refused that request. Ann’s last act of Catholic school rebellion was to write me a beautifully touching farewell letter which she slipped into my locker while gathering her things.
My mother does not remember Sister Margaret’s decree. I certainly remember my plaintive plea that I be allowed to leave that school because it was a plea that was repeated every day for many more years after that. I suspect that my mother quickly tired of hearing the same request day after day and just tuned me out. Even Summer vacation did not go by without a daily appeal to be transferred to a different, preferably non-Catholic school. Still every summer ended the same way.
Back in line at VME. All the students being greeted by a grinning Sister Margaret whose smile abruptly left her face upon seeing me. Perhaps she smiled at my eighth grade graduation , secure in the knowledge that I would never be back