A nun helped to change my life. She was cool and aloof. Like the Catholic Church of the time, she was tough and she brooked no question to her authority. Times have changed. The Catholic Church has come under criticism. Enrollment in Catholic schools is down. Priests and nuns have been accused of all manner of things. And Sister Philomena is dead.
It was the sixth grade. We were 11 and 12, an age when one becomes aware of the world and ones place in it. As for myself, I’d discovered the summer before the unpleasant realities of being a black child living in a white world. By then Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were known for what they were; and if we understood the mechanics of sex (and most of us did not), why, we wondered, would anyone go to all that bother? Our bodies as yet untouched by adult passion, mean as imps and innocent as larks, in September 1956 we were living proof of Oscar Wilde’s unhappy line: “Something was dead in each of us / And what was dead was Hope.” Summer was over and we were enrolled as sixth graders at Our Lady of Angels. And Sister Philomena was our teacher.
How many times had we sniggered her nickname among ourselves, “Sister Full-of-meanness?” And now here she was, standing at her desk before us. Her skin was white and wrinkled, her nose was big and long. Add to this a couple of unfortunately placed moles, and there you have her — or rather she had you, for essential to this description was her blue-eyed laser-gaze that could cut right into the soul. Ramrod stiff in her nun’s habit with the starched bib, she stood tough and imperious.
“These are the rules,” she said, turning back to face us. Having written her name on the board, in a gesture that was soon to become familiar, she took out a snowy white handkerchief and wiped the chalk from her hands and her black wool habit before tucking the hankie up her sleeve. “There is to be no talking,” she said, “no gum chewing...” And on she went. There was to be no this and no that. “And woe betide the one of you,” she ended, raising the index finger of her left hand, “who disrupts my class.”
She must have been allergic to the chalk dust, for then she did what she would do often that year: without a hint of a sneeze coming, she dove up her sleeve, pulled out that hankie, and — just in time — buried her face into it to muffle an explosion. We stared, mute.
Part of our problem was that Sister Josephine Martin had been our teacher in fourth and fifth grades. She laughed easily, was light on her feet, her long rope of rosary beads clacking, her skirts flying. All we knew or needed to know was to be found in Sister’s clear skin, the hint of auburn hair at the temples, the blue eyes and ready smile. We were all a little in love with her. Sister Josephine Martin was transferred from Our Lady of Angels, disappearing from our lives on 24th and Market Streets to another school in the far-off city of Martinez and leaving us, with summer over, to enter, in a funk, the ground-floor classroom marked Sixth Grade. Sister Philomena now looked on as she took attendance.
“Here!” piped up Bobby Eisde, the smartest kid in class. Dark-haired and mite-sized, cute enough so that bullies would prey on him, now he had raised his hand and cried out again during the taking of attendance, “Here!”
Sister smiled. (The smile itself was a surprise. ) Looking down at him, she said, “Big things come in small packages.”
The phrase hit like the lunch time Angelus bell: everything seemed to stop. At lunch, when the Angelus tolled, we would freeze in place with the balls left to bounce unattended, the games of four-square and tag and basketball, jacks and jump rope briefly suspended. We would then mouth to ourselves the much reduced version of the Angel Gabriel declaration, a simple “Hail Mary”; then, another bell, and our play would continue. Sister’s line was like that.
Word for word, we thought we got it. But the line required the ability to acknowledge and find pleasure in contradiction, and as we’d not seen enough big things in small packages, we could not unravel the line for its insight. Besides, we didn’t think Bobby Eisele looked so small. Yet we knew that the expression held a mystery that went far beyond its literal meaning. Like the whispered stuff we’d begun hearing about sex (made no less bizarre by the spidery drawings of oddly placed arms and legs Jimmy Campbell had taken to showing), we knew there must be more to it. In the course of our year together, Sister would say many things that would turn out to be in their simplicity, wise. This was just the first. Casually, perhaps inadvertently, Sister Philomena had instructed us in one of the earliest lessons of wisdom: Things may not be what they seem.
She was a demanding teacher. This was essential to her bad PR. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” Sister liked to say. Accordingly, she would keep us busy in class and send us home toting a mountain of texts. She was like this I think because she enjoyed books and what they offered. To call her an intellectual would not be immodest. Her start, however, was modest.
It was 1909. Mary David and her two sisters had boarded the Idaho train bound for St. Joseph’s Academy and Indian Mission in Culdesac where they would receive the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist (Confession and Holy Communion). At the mission the three were able to watch some young women from Philadelphia take part in a ceremony of religious profession. (They had come to teach the Nez Perce Indians of that state.) Mary, as it turned out, was especially impressed. When her sisters returned home, she remained at the mission. She had found her calling.
In speaking of her postulate year, she described herself simply as a physically “mature” girl — so much so that at 14 she could pass for 18. She had to wait a year before being allowed, on March 19, 1910, the feast of St Joseph’s, to receive her nun’s habit. She was 15. In choosing her religious name, she kept the Mary, adding to it the name of a saint, Philomena, a young virgin martyred in the Fourth Century.
Sister Philomena joined the teaching staff of the Indian mission. Her first students were Nez Perce Indians and young settlers’ children — all young white boys. She was a novice with three classes in one room and a window that did not look out onto much. At the time, teaching with just an eighth grade education was acceptable practice. (With so few high schools, universities accepted students directly from grammar school.)
In 1925, Sister Philomena was among the 52 Sisters of St. Joseph of Idaho who, under mounting fiscal burdens and diminishing numbers (many had died through the influenza epidemic seven years earlier), joined the community of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She came West.
“Quit gawking out that window!” This was one of Sister Philomena’s favorite lines. Another was “Speak up! What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”
Her class was the first in which we were given lengthy assignments and then set to work independently. She assumed we could take greater responsibility and accordingly piled on the work so that we carried a mass of books and assignments with us into the deep green valleys of silence that she maintained in her class, especially after lunch, a silence sometimes broken with that sharp return to business, “Quit gawking out that window!” Outside was an auto repair shop with hunks of wrecked cars ugly and seemingly permanent (the shop and its clutter of cars remain to this day), and there was afternoon sky, already gone pale in anticipation of sunset. We looked at the sky.
Sister seldom found a need to send us to the principal. She took care of the problem herself but was never unfair as far as I could tell. Slower students got the attention they needed. Those capable of moving faster were challenged. “Cat got your tongue?” she’d ask when we couldn’t answer a question.
To get to Our Lady of Angels, then, a few rode the bus that ran along Market Street; some were driven by their parents; many rode bikes; the youngest came clutching the hands of their mothers. Most of us, however, walked — a noisy ragtag mob with books and sweaters trailing as they converged on the block dominated by the church and school, the convent and parish house. At 23rd Street, the patrol boys (never girls) in their yellow gear, whistles, and red-and-white signs would regulate the flow of traffic on busy Market Street at morning, noon, and afternoon. We shared traffic duty with Sherman School, just a few blocks away. They took the morning and first lunch shift; we took over with the second lunch shift and after school.
Before Highway 94 cut eastward, carving a kind of peninsular isolation around Our Lady of Angels Church and the school, Market Street was a swift-flowing stream of traffic. Only with six patrol boys (twice the normal number) were schoolchildren assured of safety from motorists in their headlong rush up and down town.
But motorists were far from the only hazard children faced, and not the most dangerous. There was each other. At three in the afternoon, kids would leave the school yard, but not always to head home. Often clutches of them would converge at comers two blocks from school in every direction and there take care of business they’d been unable to finish under the watchful eyes of the nuns. There were fights and, for some of us, flight. Nearby Sherman had the allure of a maximum-security prison. It seemed to the faint of heart that the place bred bigger and meaner boys — and girls too. Childhood is not easy.
Fortunately, it was not always avoidance and flight. Located in the basement of the convent, at the far end of the school yard, was a makeshift store. It had a wide window that opened onto the playground. Here, at lunch, we could buy milk and a sandwich and sweets. (I split my tongue down the middle biting into a piece of hard root beer candy that broke into shards as sharp as glass.) But it was the neighborhood comer grocery stores awaiting us after school that had the specialty items we came to crave. Two blocks down Market, the store generally known as Margaret’s (and still there today) had peanut butter nougats. Near Sherman School, a bald Greek offered foot-long black licorice (the red variety was as yet unknown) and sour gum-balls, both just a penny. And a block from our home, on 2()th Street, the hard-working couple who ran the mom-and-pop store turned a blind eye as young brigands snatched packages of Hostess Twinkies.
Once home, and out of school clothes, we’d play until dinner. Slowly, as evening set, the streets would empty and the small wood-frame apartments, the occasional handsome Victorian, and the vast number of boxy stucco structures with their red-tile hint of Spanish influence, all built nearly half a century before as the city swept back from the harbor, moving inland, these would have their windows glowing as we sat down to dinner and then homework and that half-hour of entertainment called television, with its bluish light, new to the world and intense, flaming across living room walls until, one after another, all light was extinguished and all around, a mile in every direction, with the tall dark steeple of Our Lady of Angels Church at its center, the houses, the world, would go black and we asleep, dreaming.
Sister Philomena suffered a heart attack not long before taking on our sixth grade class. Because it was feared that stairs might invite another attack, throughout her tenure at ola her classroom was always on the ground floor at the northeast corner of the building. Today that classroom is the school library. Where there were rows of wooden desks clamped together like dental braces, the runners held in place with iron, there now stand tall bookcases filled with encyclopedias and magazines, novels and biographies. Under the elated, suggestive “Reading is Cool!,” fiction listed for grades five and six includes Shiloh and Alice in April, Stealing Home and The Vengeance of the Witch-Finder. Instead of a nun in unyielding black and white, Anne Buehrle (pronounced BURL-ee), a busy woman in happy shades of Flemish burgundy and sky blue, teaches today’s sixth grade class.
In our long-ago time, a worldwide depression followed by the Second World War set millions of people adrift. Our sixth grade mirrored the consequences of international events and migration patterns. With Europeans sailing across water, blacks trooping up from the rural South, and parched farmers in long caravans fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Midwest, Sister Philomena’s attendance sheet included names like Gowlevech, Green, Alvarez, Washington, Daellenbach, and Rupblinger. Today all the names are Hlispanic in Anne Buehrle’s class. However, neither she nor the other teachers instruct in Spanish.
“It happens that in this community most of our children speak Spanish at home. But here, we see it as our job to instruct in English,” says Jeanne Nickoli, principal. “We serve our part in this bilingual community, offering what will ensure students a head start on academic achievement.”
“On Monday we will begin writing with ballpoint pens,” Sister Philomena explained from the front of the class. A few years back, she would have instructed us to bring in fountain pens. Now, she said, our pens should be Paper Mate ballpoint pens with medium points.
My search for the perfect ballpoint pen was undertaken with the attention to detail one could expect to later give to the purchase of a stereo, camera, or car. The Paper Mate medium point I finally decided on was a two-toned beauty. It had dove gray bottom, canary yellow top, with silver metal fittings. As I recall, it cost a whopping $1.49.
On Monday, we waited in nervous anticipation until finally, after lunch, there came the order:
“Take out your pens.”
Mine lay already in my palm like some living thing, pulsing with color, alive with potential. I pushed in the ejector button, feeling its effortless slide, the subtle spring driven pressure, the moment of sustained holding as the pen head peeked forward — its neck lengthening — and then the minute kick in the button, with the head in place: the thing was ready.
“Write your names on the top of the page.”
How, on that Monday afternoon, we carefully set our paper just so, against the brown wood grain of our desks. Then, putting our pens to paper, we slowly scripted our names in blue-black ink. This was an experience altogether different from writing with pencil, which bit into the paper and broke off at the point, that smelled of carbon and wood and with results that could be, with the eraser, smudged into messy anonymity. How deliciously, dangerously fluid the pen head moved across the page, ink passing out in a steady line. There was the tiniest ongoing bite as the pen moved against the paper, and the most gentle buck as the pen head, leaving the page, like some sensitive organ, would accept the pressure of our fingers in its spring-loaded barrel, and pull in, like a thing with a will of its own. Today, students have learned to use a computer, which operates on the premise that time, as read digitally, is forever counting off, and whatever gets scrolled down the computer screen may be lost or discounted with the flick of a key or two. With our Paper Mate medium point pens, our names (that is to say, our identities) seemed indelible. This breakthrough was an exquisite moment. If today children’s faces are made bright by the monitor screen, ours, then, glowed from a wonder felt within. We looked up from our sheets. Sister Philomena was too long at the teaching game not to know what we had just undergone. Oscar Wilde wrote of Dorian Gray that he “knew the precise psychological moment when to say nothing.” So, too, her. She had us do a simple exercise and then dismissed us.
We studied fractions and decimals and percentage in the sixth grade, like students today, we had our first taste of geometry. In English, we learned parts of speech and punctuation. We learned paragraph writing and how to write a persuasive essay. There was silent independent reading meant to instill a love of the written word, a lifelong romance with books, that would be there, intact, when romances of various other kinds had gone their way.
Two things have changed, however. The first is religion, or rather its study. The second is classroom teaching itself. In our time, the Baltimore Catechism was an exercise in question-answer memorization. (Q. “Why did God make me?” A. “God made me to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next.”) The information is still in place, but today its presentation is different. More of a workbook format to be used at home by both students and parents, who are expected to come together in a joint exploration of the doctrines of faith. There are facts to recall and prayers to recite and stories that vividly illustrate both. Religious texts are more user-friendly, and so is the teaching.
No longer is Catholic school education a kind of smooth-running machine fueled by an endless supply of baptized children in need of educating. No longer is that education a sort of furnace stoked by devout young women, nuns willing (if not always well trained) to keep the heat on. Today the school requires a staff of lay teachers in order to stay open. And those teachers serve with a devotion grounded in professionalism rather than as a consequence of a spiritual vocation. It is hard to tell if this makes a difference in the classroom, particularly as nuns, over time, went on to win professional certification. Sister Philomena’s case, however, speaks to the value of on-the-job training.
Bob Eisele is 52. He’s not losing his hair, he says, he just has more face. Last winter I asked him for recollections of Sister Philomena.
“Did you ever see the movie The D.I., starring Jack Webb?” Webb was the star of TV’s Dragnet, and in the movie, according to Eisele, he plays a sadistic drill instructor to some marine recruits undergoing basic training. “That was Sister Philomena,” he says.
But then he laughs.
Eisele, who was the oldest child in his family and responsible for his younger brother and sister, remembers the mile-long bike ride to school with Johnny, three years younger, who would not keep out of traffic. There were the American cheese sandwiches he’d have for lunch, and there was Sister Philomena’s nose, of course. He remembered that and her endless supply of laundered white handkerchiefs. He recalled how, after a good blow of the nose, she would give three or four neat swipes with her hankie that set that organ bobbing. But he apologized, saying he spent most of his time in school daydreaming and did not remember much else.
“Oh wait!” He put out a hand. MHow could I forget? I mean, who could forget her shakes and pinches?”
Gumball dispensers in those days took a penny. The dispensers were made of thick glass and tough iron because we’d shake those things like mad, hoping to get an extra gumball or jawbreaker; we’d shake the pole to dislodge the basketball wedged between the backboard and hoop; we would shake bottles of root beer, to drink the fizz, or as a weapon to spray each other. Sister Philomena shook us like this. She shook us like there was no tomorrow.
Kathy Allen, sister of Robert Eisele and a student half a dozen years after us, remembers seeing Sister shake a student. “And boy, could she shake. I remember thinking, ‘What’s in store for us next year when we get into the sixth grade?’ ”
Martin Young, who looks like an older Tom Selleck, is the son of good Irish Catholics. Now living in Northern California, as a child he had early on watched priests and nuns gather around the piano at his home on a Saturday evening, singing or reciting poetry or playing a musical instrument in what were known as “hoolies.” Seen in close quarters, priests and nuns held little mystery for him. Or at least so he thought until that morning in 1942 when Sister Philomena walked into the classroom of his Oakland school. He had finished serving early morning six o’clock Mass and was alone in the class, reading and waiting for his classmates to arrive when, he recalls. Sister Philomena opened the door.
“She was a large woman then," he said (adding that when he saw her after her heart attack, she’d slimmed down). “Anyway, here she was at the door eating a green apple.” Martin laughed at the recollection. “I mean, I was shocked! Maybe it was her, and maybe it was the apple, but it was almost embarrassing. You have to understand that there was this unspoken thing about nuns. They were Brides of Christ. They were not normal. Who ever saw a nun eat lasagna or fried chicken or a green apple? Sister Philomena, however, said good morning and kept on eating.”
And there was another story.
Young recalls how a classmate, Bob Fitzgerald, wrapped a portion of plumber’s steel, a malleable metal, around his upper arm. The metal covered by his sweater, Fitzgerald then proceeded to act up.
“If you don’t cut it out — ” she warned.
First and last. Sister Philomena was a woman of her word, and Fitzgerald knew it. In fact, he was counting on it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time, he kept up his high jinks. At last she came down the aisle, reaching for him. He lifted his armored arm, figuring she’d bruise her fingers when she pinched. Instead, she caught the flesh of his arm against the edge of the metal.
“And did he let out a yell!” says Young.
To this day, neither Fitzgerald nor Young, nor any who were there, know if Sister Philomena knew about the ruse. “She was as cool as a cucumber and never let on one way or the other.”
These stories go over big at class reunions. Tales like these, told with affection, must seem to come out of some distant past, for teachers do not shake or pinch their charges today. Yet such was the tenor of the time, when parents looked to the school for support in child rearing. At a time when drug addiction was what a few jazz players were prone to, when sex was a four-letter word, and an unmarried pregnancy was a source of deepest shame shared by the whole family, a good shaking or a pinch seemed benign enough. Contrasted with contemporary accounts of racial unrest in the barrio, of gang warfare and children toting guns, of murder and incest, the story of a nun with a penchant for pinching seems almost to glow with the honeyed amber of nostalgia.
As a youngster, Mary Katherine Padilla had the pale skin and dark undistinguished beauty found in paintings of children in the Florentine Renaissance. Youthful, hardly touched by the years, she has remained a member of Our Lady’s parish where she sings the Mass each
Sunday as one of the “Wings of the Spirit” choir.
Last winter Padilla recalled two incidents with Sister Philomena. The first began simply enough.
“We lived on Grape, about a mile east of school. One morning suddenly it started to rain so that by the time I got to school I was soaked. Sister looked at me. ‘You’re going to catch your death,’ she said and told me to go out to the cloakroom and take my wet things off. She then wrapped me in her wool shawl while my clothes dried on the heater. I was a little embarrassed at the time, but I remember feeling so warm and taken care of.”
Her other story is of the pinch-and-shake variety that has become part of the folklore of Sister Philomena.
“It was awful. We had to go up to the board and indent paragraphs, and I did mine wrong. Sister got so mad she took me by the arms and shook me good.”
Today, enrollment in Catholic schools is down and Our Lady of Angels, in an act of fiscal survival, has joined in partnership with Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Logan Heights, dividing not only resources and students but their name: both are called simply Our Lady’s School and are defined as either north or south campus. What was formerly Our Lady of Guadalupe (now south campus) accepts students in grades kindergarten through third Students enrolled in grades four through eight take themselves to that longstanding two-story structure, as impregnable as a fortress, that sits near the crest of Market Street hill. Forty years ago, there were no iron gates running around the school yard to keep children in or an uncertain world out. The girls wore skirts and jumpers of navy blue, matched with white blouses, and the boys khaki brown shirts and salt-and-pepper brown corduroy slacks. The boy's now wear blue (slacks) and white (shirts) while the girls, in bright pleated red-white-and-gray McDonald plaid skirts, flash across the school yard in a clamor of color that would have once seemed shocking. Like then, girls are warned against makeup or nail polish or, for both girls and boys, exaggerated hairstyles. But there is something new in the school handbook: “Hairstyles connoting association with gangs are unacceptable and prohibited.” And on free-dress days, “No T-shirts which advertise beer or violence or gang association may be worn.”
Good deportment has king characterized parochial school students from their rowdier public school cousins. This “responsible behavior” is maintained by an escalating system of detentions, pink slips, Saturday detentions, probation, and ultimately expulsion. It was more or less the same back in our day when offenses that could lead to expulsion included damage to or theft of school or private property. These are still on the books. But today’s radically different world has meant some striking additions: Affiliation with gangs. Possession or sale of tobacco. Possession or sale of alcohol. Possession or sale of weapons.
Forty years ago tuition was $5 per month. It was twice that for two students — but stayed there. This meant a good Catholic family could offer a sound education for, say, their four elementary school-age children for $10 per month. Fees today are higher ($ 155 for one student, $232 for two, $271 for three, and $310 for four). As matters go, parents say it is still a bargain.
“We know we serve an important function,” says Principal Nickoli. “As a Catholic institution, we support the moral position our parents seek to instill within the home. This is a significant support in an increasingly complex world.”
Nickoli is not a nun. Married and a mother, her blond hair fashionably cut, she is at once warm and distant in the way of all principals who must make decisions that inevitably someone is not going to like. There was a time, not so long ago, when there were plenty of nuns prepared to take on the task of defending parents’ moral values and supporting children’s intellectual development.
Jo Ann Kay McNamara writes in Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia that the strict separation of church and state had made the Catholic Church exceptionally anxious to develop a school system that would ensure the instruction of Catholics and sometimes act as a conversion of Protestants. “In 1818, when only 40 nuns resided in the United States, Elizabeth Seton opened the first free school associated with a parish. By the end of the century, more than 40,000 nuns staffed 3,811 parochial schools and 663 academies for girls.”
The numbers kept increasing with young women answering calls to faith until not long after our time in sixth grade, more specifically, until around the time Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Suddenly, in a plague of reexamination, nuns and priests started dropping their vows in droves. Today at Our Lady’s School there is one nun among the teachers at work on north campus and two at south.
Back then the culture of youth was clearly articulated, the traffic was kept moving. Sister P. was the cop on the corner. Take one incident:
It began when an enterprising older student in the eighth grade brought to school some extra-long straight pins onto which were prettily strung tiny colored glass beads. For a quarter, one got a pair of these pins, which you wore stuck to your blouse or shirt collar. Some of the girls, just beginning to develop a figure, liked to show their beaded pins stuck fetchingly in the pocket that had begun to swell at that spot over their heart. The beaded pins were nice in themselves; hut that they were coded (depending upon how the pin was positioned) for “Going Steady," “Single," or “looking” enhanced their cachet.
The girls started it, buying pins for boys. A little slower on the uptake, soon boys were buying pins for girls. (Already, after school, girls would get to the corner where they hiked up their skirts, rolled down their bobby socks, dabbed Woolworth perfume behind their cars and cheap Woolworth lipstick on their lips. Cued by the girls, the boys were rolling up their shirtsleeves, showing budding biceps and giving the girls something to talk about on the phone that evening.) The beaded-pin craze blazed through the school. Their promoter, working nights so as to show his wares at recess and lunch time, could not keep up with demand. In retrospect it was an insignificant moment, of course; but our child’s world, appropriately scaled to account for age and reference, had suddenly taken on the allure of trespass, of incipient sexuality, of sharing a secret that adults were not in on. Ours was, more than anything, an expression of revolt.
“Where did you get this?” demanded Sister Fhilomena, pointing at a girl’s blouse where a beaded pin blazed as boldly as the scarlet letter A. The girl took on that wide-eyed, dazed look of a startled hare caught in approaching headlights.
“Answer me! Where did you get that thing?”
The girl opened and closed her mouth. Told to repeat herself, she said, “The school yard.”
“And how did you get it?” Only a few rows away, a boy turned deathly pale. A set of pins with tiny glass beads set in identical color and pattern were pinned to cross each other on his collar. His pins advertised the fact that he was going steady.
Like rows and rows of mongooses paralyzed by a single snake, we sat at our places, frozen. None of us attempted to cover our pins or take off what showed so many of us to be, for the most part, “Single” and “Looking.”
“Who bought it for you?”
“I bought it,” announced the girl in a tone that would have done Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne proud. Clearly she was ready to go to some length, and to the principal, with the same story.
“Remove it from your blouse.”
While the girl fumbled at her pin, Sister turned to others. She interrogated and appeared to stumble onto the code with its hint of sexuality. That was all it took. Suddenly with the stakes raised and the secret out, girls were bursting into tears.
“All of you, take those things off and don’t let me see you wearing them again.” Chastened, we tore our beaded pins from our persons as if they were leeches sucking at our lifeblood.
The beaded pin craze had lasted ten days.
When I was a kid delivering Shopping News and the Evening Tribune, this area — in fact much of what is now known as the barrio — was a black neighborhood. Today, flowering bougainvillea twine purple across broken trellises, cacti standing like giant daggers guard the front steps, red geraniums bloom in pots, and angry weeds and Bermuda grass poke up from the hard brown ground of the front yard. It was the same then.
Confirmation in the ’50s came as a ritual in which the youngster, having selected the name of a Catholic saint with whom he felt some deep affiliation, kneeling before the bishop, then vows to strive toward ever greater fidelity to the Church. Confirmation occurs somewhere between ages 13 and 14, right about the time our adolescent hormones could be expected to go off. The saint was supposed to help soften the bomb blast.
I had recently come across the story of a French saint. Theresa, the Little Flower. Touched by the naturalness of her spiritual development, the easy familiarity she had in speaking of God, I wanted to take her as my patron saint. But 40 years ago, in a time of greater gender specificity, boys took only the names of male saints for their confirmation names. Like the nuns who took as their names Peter and Paul, Michael and Luke, girls might have had greater license to take a male saint’s name (given the cultural tendency to assume strength and power in every case of masculine adoption), but for a male to seek the female was unusual. I was in the eighth grade then, long past a student of Sister Philomena’s, but I thought she’d understand. At a distance of two years. I’d been able to put her in perspective. What can I say. For better or worse, I knew her to be—authentic. So I told her of my dilemma, how I’d become devoted to St. Theresa but that it seemed I couldn’t take “Theresa” as my Confirmation name. We were in the school yard where she was keeping an eye on children waiting for their parents to come for them.
“Why don’t you take the name ‘Therese’?” she suggested kindly, giving the French equivalent that she thought might be suitable for a boy. She had squelched our short-lived bead craze only to now, with a change in accent, support one person’s assault on gender dictatorship. She knew, however, that wars are waged according to rules. “But you better go ask Father,” she added, pointing me toward the rectory. I hurried over.
“No. You must take the name of a male saint,” the priest said.
I looked at him. Only then did I realize what Sister Philomena and I had failed to understand: Mine was an inappropriate request — a boy asking to take on the name of a woman. I felt ashamed.
“Find another saint,” he said. “There are plenty to choose from.” And the priest closed the door.
“Oh well,” said Sister Philomena, when she heard. She patted my arm. “What’s in a name? It’s more important to live as a good person than to have the name of a good person.” (I took the name of Martin, from St. Martin de Porres. He was a 17th-century Dominican monk born in Lima, Peru, who was known for his humility and work with the poor. But I chose him not for this, but because he was the only black saint in the church’s huge list of saints.)
At Our Lady of Angels, on the first Friday of the month, we would go to Mass and receive Holy Communion. Afterwards, for a nickel we got a giant glazed donut from Helms Bakery and for another nickel a cup of rich hot cocoa brewed in giant urns. At our desks sipping sweet cocoa and biting down into that sugary confection, a rare contentment would descend. To be honest, there was not a lot of laughter in that classroom with its letters of the Palmer alphabet perfectly scripted over the top of the blackboards. There was even something unhappy about the big globe lonely in the corner, something restive in the smell of chalk and the delirious odor of newly mimeographed paper, the chewed pencils and the used books and the innocent stink of young bodies whose school yard shadows fell careless against the rough gravel surface. It was just a classroom in which we would in all spend fewer than 1000 hours. But on at least one First Friday, a day in which it happened to rain while we were warm and cozy inside eating donuts and drinking hot milky cocoa, I understood that here was a holy place.
It was on another First Friday, the one of December 1956, that Sister Philomena announced the Christmas card contest. Sister unveiled the holy cards, prayer books, and rosaries displayed on a side table in the front of the class. With her powers of negotiation, she had convinced the merchants in San Diego who handled religious items to donate one or two of their finest pieces as prizes for our Christmas card contest. Proceeds from the sale of the cards were to go to building the church hall. Depending upon how many boxes we sold, we got a prize.
“But for the person who sells the most —” Sister said, and lifted the veil that covered a 14-inch statue of the Virgin Mary standing enclosed on a three-sided mirrored alcove.
“Ooooooh!” went the class.
Her cloak was sky blue, like her eyes. Her cheeks each had a spot of pink. Her lips were rosy. Subtly crafted, like a Dresden porcelain, Mary, the statue, seemed imbued with a fragile, miniaturized life. And when we went close and looked, the tiny angled mirrors threw back the reflection of us in the act of looking at the statue. The shift of symbolic modes of reasoning, the essential transfer from concrete to abstract, which occurs in childhood had already happened, but here in an instant was the living experience of all that hoopla the French later made with their structuralists’ argument about sign-symbol signification. In those mirrors I could sec myself in the act of observing the symbol whose value lay precisely in the pleasure, the utter fascination, I saw myself expressing. It was the grandest thing I’d ever seen and, to make a long story short, every night after school and on weekends, I walked the streets of my neighborhood hawking boxes of Christmas cards. Wherever the long shadow of the church steeple fell, I went. Single homes. Rentals. Apartment units. I braved growling dogs, No Soliciting signs, and a four-year-old who, apparently having never seen someone like me, called out to his mother, “There’s a boy with a dirty face here!” Twelve cards per box, and each box going for what, at the time, was not an indifferent sum. Grandparents, family friends, neighbors, local merchants, even mean Mrs. Boswell who kept all balls that fell in her back yard, they each were induced to buy a box or two of cards. I wanted that statue more than I could remember wanting anything. Bobby Kisele wanted it too.
It was not long before the two of us had outdistanced our classmates. It was a race between him and me to get that statue. Evenings and weekends I roamed farther and farther, going into neighborhoods of larger or more modest homes, the odors of different foods cooking — steak or boiled cabbage, fried chicken or tamales with beans— underlining their ethnic character. I assured those who came to the door that if they’d just look at one or two of my cards, they’d surely want to buy a whole box. (And I was more often right than not.) Each Monday I’d appear to dump my share of booty on Sister’s desk and pick up more boxes. And Bobby was right there with me. We were pacing each other like marathon runners. Never in my life, before or since, have I sold like I sold that Christmas holiday. Our competition was pure, clean. It had about it the stark beauty of a Zen Buddhist koan. There was he and I; and there was that statue. The last weekend before the contest was officially over, I was up at dawn and back at dark. I was crazy, and my madness was infectious; people, strangers, bought those cards like they were hotcakes. Scrooge-like, I counted my money over and over again. There was no way Bobby could have beaten me, I thought. On Monday, after doing her own count, Sister brought both of us up to the front of the class, congratulated us, and then turned to me.
“It looks like you’ve won,” she said.
Children can be heartless creatures. I was the winner and Bobby, standing next to me, was the loser. It was as simple as that. Having not yet learned the trick of hiding my feelings, I grinned with the fierceness of a blood warrior and gazed wantonly at the statue of the Virgin Mary in its mirrored alcove standing amid rosaries, prayer books, and holy cards. She was mine.
“But if you want,” Sister Philomena was saying, “you may choose something else.” She swept her hand over the table arrayed with rosaries of glittering cut glass, prayer books with gilded edges that shown like rubbed gold, a crystal vase so delicate light seemed to sing as it passed through.
Was Sister using this as an opportunity to instruct in Christian values? Did she like Bobby more than me and want him to have the prized statue? After all, Bobby’s family was Catholic, and the statue would have a favored spot in the living room. At my home the statue would be allocated to my room. My parents were not Catholic. They had sent us to parochial school because of what they believed to be its more advanced educational policy. (To attend OLA then, my brothers and I had to be baptized as Catholics. To my parents, this seemed a small price to pay to help secure a niche for us in the burgeoning American middle class.) Or was it that as an adult and our teacher, she felt she needed to show by example that there were options still available? Maybe she was trying to make me feel guilty.
“Generosity is a virtue,” she said.
I was in a quandary. I knew, of course, what was the better thing to do. Had not Mary, whose likeness I craved, lived a life of virtue and sacrifice? Had not Jesus said to turn the other cheek? Were there not saints who’d lived unblemished lives of ever-mounting generosity? Were there not martyrs galore who had accepted death rather than deny their faith and their responsibility to do the right thing? Were we not after all in the Christmas season, a time for giving? And finally was it not in the end far better to give than to receive? “I want the statue,” I said.
Today from the freeway, Our lady of Angels Church, its grace-fill black steeple tipped with a gilt cross, still dominates the skyline. It is a handsome structure inside, its walls and sculpted images once a dazzling white against which the rich ruby and royal blue stained-glass windows stood out. This was before fire, wear and tear, and the subtler effects of cultural shift would make it what it is today. Bob Eisele recalls looking at those walls and figured tableaux and picturing them, in his daydreams, brightly painted. Forty years later his fantasies have been made real. The walls of the church throb with yellow, green, burnt sienna, and gray-green. In addition, the altar rail is gone. The priest faces the congregation. The Mass is no longer offered in latin. A statue of Our lady of Guadalupe sits in its own alcove. While in our time the church was always open, now it is locked except for services and special hours.
At graduation from the eighth grade, the school handed out two prizes. One plaque read Excellence in Academic Achievement. The other was for Christian Fellowship. Bob Eisele got the prize for academic achievement. I got the other.
Eisele looks back to that moment and thinks it’s funny. Currently a student at State, he is old enough and comfortable enough with himself to recall that while he got the award for academic achievement, he flunked out of State after a year. I mention that while I got the award for Christian Fellowship, I have come to embrace an Eastern religion. Has the moment been scripted by Sister Philomena? It was in search of her story, after all, that we have found each other after so many years. Four decades ago she told us things are not always what they seem. I kit some things are exactly what they seem. It came as no surprise when Sister Josephine Martin, who saw Sister Philomena in the course of her last days, reported that “there was such joy radiating from her.”
When Sister Philomena stood before us, there was an aspect of her that was separate and intractable. I remember her kneeling at prayer in the incensed shadows of Our Lady of Angels Church. In the convent was a chapel room set aside for offering Mass and where the nuns received Holy Communion. But sometimes Sister came here after school, where the dimming sun pouring through the tall stained-glass windows could bleed ruby and amber and turquoise color over her. Sister Philomena had a private sense of humor, from where she looked down at the world and smiled. With the purest blue stare, already old and partly broken, she had more than a third of her life still to live.
Sister Philomena was 61, the age of our grandparents. Some of us would ourselves be grandparents on August 25, 1991, the day she died. At 96, her hearing was still good but vision in those blue eyes had dimmed a little. Poor circulation had required the amputation of a leg. A nun was needed to read her the many letters of appreciation and hope and send back brief cordial thank-you’s to people the aged woman, after so many years, could no longer remember. I wrote one of those letters.
Dear Sister Philomena,
I was your student long ago at Our Lady of Angels. My life has been rich and varied since then, and I feel that I owe some of its richness and variance (and the pleasure I am able to take in these) from sitting in your class. It turned out to be one of the most important times of my life.
She died at the retirement community for her order, the Carondelet Center in Los Angeles. It was a happy death according to Sister Josephine Martin. No longer (since the mid-’60s and Vatican II) wearing her habit, and now known as Josie, her auburn hair a little faded, her voice still as clear as water, she described Sister Philomena in her last year, “never allowing her visitors to leave her bedside without something — some stationery or a bar of fragrant soap that had been gifts to her.
“We were allowed to see the truly loving woman she was.”
In 1961, the Church solemnly decreed that there had been errors of fact in the physical evidence taken at the gravesite of Philomena, the young virgin-martyr. And so her name was stricken from the list of saints. Like St. Christopher, whose name was also stricken (and for the same reason), Philomena had become the Christian stand-in for what the Church considered pagan practices. The name “Philomena” was chanted when members of Nigeria’s Yoruba religion, seeking to keep their practices secret, in fact were actually calling upon Osun, one of the African deities said to have healing powers. Unable to curb the Yoruba religion or to stop its followers from name-transposition, from (as it were) carrying off their young Fourth Century virgin-martyr into the jungle of pagan depravity, the Church disowned her as surely as if she’d come back from those dark revels bleary-eyed, wine-soaked, and carrying a black child in her womb. Striking Philomena off the list of saints was an act of administrative expediency.
On her deathbed, the nuns helped to make Sister Philomena feel comfortable. She was part of a time that was near to passing on. (Only one Sister of St. Joseph of Idaho remains, Sister Anthony Finan, who has served 80 years in the order.)
“Philomena” was the name she’d help to make famous — if only among a few who today recount moments with her at class reunions. But “Mary,” the name of the Mother of Jesus, was the name she’d been born with. It was what she had left in the end.
I don’t know if any of Sister Philomena’s students were given the chance to see, like the nuns, what a “truly loving woman she was.” With us she had a job to do and she did it. There is a valor in that. But it takes a while to understand this, longer to recognize its significance in one’s own life, and finally longer still to smile in gratitude.
I imagine her in between bites of green apple, saying “What’s in a name?” Things, after all, are not always what they seem.
Her Church would help to make sure there would never be another Sister Philomena.