On This Day, Oh Beautiful Mother
Marilyn Adele Niemann Kinsella, 2006
It was one of those hot August days in 2005. St. Albert's (now known as the Holy Trinity Church) was sold, and it was decided to hold an auction to divest themselves of decades of unused furniture, books, bookshelves, desks, chairs, cookware, and church statuary. It was a well-known fact that Monsignor Schindler was quite the pack rat. It was rumored that there tunnels between the church, school, and rectory where he used to store some items that he thought may have some uses some day.
My daughter, Amy, and I both graduated from St. Albert's grade school. Amy had her camera ready to take some last snapshots of our Alma Mater. First, we made our way over to a soft belly of grass between the convent and rectory. I scanned the area filled with old furniture until my eyes lit on old blue and red leather kitchen chair. "Amy, look at this chair! I swear this chair was at St. Albert's when it was in the dairy barn.
Amy gave me a sideways glace, "Dairy barn? Dairy barn?
"Yes," I said, "before the new school was built in 1956, we met in the old dairy barn on Route 159. The church was upstairs in the hayloft and the five-room school was on the main floor. Nowadays, it's the VFW Hall."
"Guess I didn't know that," Amy quipped, "I just hope your not going to buy that chair. It's ugly!"
"Humph!" I thought, "One man's trash is another's man treasure."
Amy, Drew and me in front of St. Albert the Great School
Next, we saw huge tables piled with books. We are both "biblio-holics," so we attacked the tables with voracious appetites. Amy found a book she thought looked interesting. "Mom, you're not going to believe this."
I came over to see what treasure she unearthed. Amy said, "Look at this songbook. It has, not only the students' names in it, but the dates. Some of these are from the fifties! That a half a century ago!"
"Very funny! I was here in the fifties. Let me see it.' Sure enough, there was the name of one of my former classmates. Her name was at the top with 1957 written next to it. "These books were new! I remember them. Brand new!!" But, now they are so...old.
We meandered inside the school -more memories to conjure. "Amy," I said, "do you smell anything?"
"Ah, ye-ya!" We looked at each other and said at the same time "Fish!" The lingering scent of fried fish permeated the walls of the school. It was strongest on Fish Fry Fridays, but it was always there. It was the St. Albert smell.
When we got downstairs, we saw that the long tables in the cafeteria were loaded with more stuff.
"Amy, look at these plates. I used these plates when I was here."
Amy looked at them. "Yup, well, I used them, too. Don't even think about it.!"
"Amy, there are some things even I wouldn't bid on!"
Next we went to the gym. Before the new church was added in 1968, it served as the church. It's where I was confirmed and graduated from eighth grade. And, this was where Larry and I were married.
The front of St. Albert's Gym Larry and I were married 1967 My second grade "Our Gang"
Later, when it became the gym, I took my students here on rainy days for PE. It was in the gym where the school put on its annual "Monsignor's Name Day Pageant." One year, my second grade put on an "Our Gang" skit. Our troupe was trying to come up with a skit to honor Monsignor. We were a big hit! It was here in the gym where my own kids played volleyball and basketball. "Hey, Amy, remember when you saved the volleyball game in the eighth grade?"
"I remember you yelling like a fool... is what I remember!"
We looked at all saw the stuff strewn around the gym floor, and I thought, "Jeesh, they won't finish this auction till next week!"
I was getting tired, so I told Amy that I was going over to the church and would wait for the auction to catch up with me over there.
St Albert the Great Church, 2006, before demolition
As I entered the church, I could see that the altar had been stripped of its former beauty.
The copper crosses that had graced the back of the altar surrounding the risen Christ were lying in a box alongside other boxes holding vigil candles, the Way of the Cross plaques, and old hymnals.
Chalices looking out over the pews Statue of Christ with Clocks - time running out
Out of habit ,I genuflected as I took my place in a pew ,even though I knew the sanctuary was empty. I settled in and waited for the crowd of people to make their way into the church for the final phase of the auction.
The stained glass that hung above the altar and entrance to the church
As I looked around, I saw pockets of memories from the last 40 years. I saw Monsignor Schindler on the proud day that he first held mass in the new church, I saw my daughter Amy playing the part of Mary during the Posada at the midnight Christmas Mass. I saw Brian as an altar boy as he rang the offertory bells. I saw Chrissie and her classmates smiling on the altar for their First Communion picture. I even saw myself as a young teacher leading my class in for daily mass.
And, more recently, I saw my granddaughter, Drew, in my arms in front of the granite Baptismal font wearing the Christening dress I had sewn for her mother. So many memories. My eyes started to well for soon the wrecking ball would destroy 40 years of memories.
As I sat there, my eyes scanned the many statues that were heading for the auction block. My mother loved the statue of The Infant of Prague. I wondered how much money the others would bid on such a beautiful piece.
Shadowy picture of St. Albert....his memory fading
There were big statues and little statues, but my eyes settled on two identical statues of the Blessed Mother that sat off to the side. Each statue stood a good 2 ½ feet tall. Each had Mary with her arms outstretched and standing on top of the world crushing the serpent's head. Identical...except the first one was in pristine condition. The veil that framed her beautiful face was a cerulean blue and her gown was white as snow. The other statue was in rather poor condition. Mary's veil had faded to an off-whitish blue color, and her dress was dirty and streaked. Her once beautiful face was cracked. The tips of her fingers as well as the tip of her nose were missing. Worse, there was a hole in the back of the statue.
Suddenly I recognized those statues.
It was May of 1961, big changes lay ahead as I completed eight years at St. Albert's. Soon I would graduate. May is always a busy month at school, but especially if you are graduating - field day, school picnic, and the May crowning. One of the eighth grade girls was picked to crown Mary. Oh, I wasn't picked, but I did get to wear my pretty yellow graduation dress to school for the ceremony.
I begged my Grandpa Joe to take me to school early one May morning. I picked some iris and peonies from my mother's flower garden and wanted to bring them to school. I wrapped them in a soaking paper towel and then some aluminum foil to try to keep them fresh. I knew, if I took the bus, those flowers would surely wilt and die. "Please, Grandpa, can you take me to school today? Please!" To say I had my Grandpa Joe wrapped around my little finger is an understatement. He just gave a big sigh and mumbled something about paying good money for the bus, but... he put on his shoes and met me in his old green Dodge. When I got to St. Albert, I kissed him on his whiskered cheek and hopped out.
I was the first one in the classroom that day. I put my books away and went over to the little May altar that my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Anthony, placed in the corner of the room. I picked out some of the dead flowers, and then I went to the drinking fountain to replenish the vases. I knelt down and started to put my flowers in the vases. As I artistically placed each flower, I began to look at the statue. Mary's blissful countenance seemed to be smiling at me. It was a beautiful statue, and, besides that, it was taller than any of the other classroom statues. This statue stood a good 2 ½ feet tall. The veil was painted a vibrant blue and her robe was the whitest white. She stood with her arms outstretched ,while her feet crushed the serpent at her feet. I felt a little sad that the statue had a small nick on one the fingers. Some of my classmates were playing in the room while Sr. Mary Anthony was out, and it toppled over. The statue was perfect when we first got it.
In 1959, our sixth class won this statue. The sixth grade was a year that most of my classmates have never forgot. That was the year that we had Sister Assumpta....
She was different than any other nun we had ever known. For one thing, she was quite the athlete. Every recess she was out on the baseball fields playing softball with the girls or hardball with the boys. I remember this one time, a boy socked the ball with all his might. Sr.Assumpta nonchalantly raised her hand and caught the line drive...with her bare hand!
Our field with Sr. Assumpta playing hard ball
And, if she played hardball on the fields, she also played hardball in the classroom. She demanded nothing less than perfection from us...and she got it. Our homework assignments were unacceptable unless we did them on straight-edged paper...no spiral tablets in her classroom! She demanded that we use fountain pens. She didn't like those modern, ballpoint pens. She claimed that they skipped. So, we dutifully went out and bought inkbottles and ink pens with tiny cartridges to hold the ink. Can you spell d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r!
Then, the homework paper had to be set up a certain way. We placed our full name at the top left and the date off to the right. We put the subject and page numbers in the middle of the second line. She also taught us to put a "JMJ" at the top of the page. It was a little prayer to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that would help us get a better grade. She did not allow any smudge marks or writing off the lines. We had to use our best Palmer Writing for each and every paper we handed to her. There was a lot of moaning and gnashing of teeth, but we complied with her every wish. We loved our Sr. Assumpta.
Believe it or not, I was a reticent reader when I was in grade school. I especially hated oral reading in front of the class. One day, Sister gave us a reading assignment, and I actually brought the book home to practice. It was great little story, and it had places where I could really put some emotions to the words. When the time came to read the next day, my hand shot up in the air. Sister and the class listened as I read...and read rather well. I remember Sr. Assumpta saying, "Now, there's someone who has practiced her reading." I simply beamed. I loved our Sr. Assumpta.
The associate priest at St. Albert's was Fr. Hartlein. We loved him too. He was so funny and down to earth. We actually looked forward to religion class when he came. One time he told us something that was a complete contradiction to what Sr. Assumpta had been teaching us. We proudly told him what our teacher had told us. When Sr. Assumpta came into the room, he chastised her for her teaching. We all took sides in the great debate. Sr. Lorene, the principal must have heard the commotion and stuck her head in. She scowled at us and gave a strange look to Sr. Assumpta and Fr. Hartlein.
It wasn't until years later that we learned that Fr. Hartlein and Sister Assumpta had set us up. In fact, it had been a set-up from the get-go. They planned the whole thing to see how well we listened, and how well we could stand our ground. They were both great teachers!
To see enlargements of these St. Albert choir pictures circa 1958, click on individual pictures.
If there was a fly in the proverbial ointment, it was Sr. Assumpta's voice. She was great music teacher, and we sang our hearts out in choir. She even taught us to sing in three part harmonies. But, Sr. Assumpta's voice was not, as she would say, heaven sent. She just laughed at her voice, as she kept her pitch pipe handy to keep us in tune. She often said, "Singing is twice praying!"
About halfway through sixth grade, the principal, Sr. Lorene, announced that the school was going to have a contest. Now, if you have ever had a kid in school, you know they come home with stuff to sell: chocolate, popcorn, peanut brittle, magazines, pizza, coupon books, Christmas cards, candles, raffle tickets...all kinds of stuff. But, this was different. This contest was to see who could bring in the most money. That's right - money, cold, hard cash. I don't remember what Sr. Assumpta said to fire us up about this, but we wanted to win. The prize was a statue of the Blessed Mother - a much bigger one than any of the little statues that we had seen - a good 2½ feet tall! Well, we began to bring in the money: money from our allowances, money from extra jobs, money from redeeming glass soda bottles, money from our paper routes, money from, dare I say...soliciting the neighborhoods! From the first day, the sixth grade was in the lead. We were invincible. Hoo-ah! Then, one day, disaster struck! The fifth grade brought in more money than we did! Those little upstarts! We would have none of it! The next day, we garnered all of our reserves - robbing piggy banks, searching under couch cushions even doing extra chores! And we were back in the lead. The last day, Sr. Lorene brought the statue to our room. We were so happy. The look on Sr. Assumpta's face said it all. She loved us! We were told that this statue would remain with us until we graduated from the eighth grade, and it would stay in the eighth grade forever - until the walls came down.
Then, something happened. It must have been around March, or so. One day, we came to school and Sr. Assumpta was not there. When the class settled down, Sr. Lorene came into our room and with a rather unusual smile, she introduced us to our new sixth-grade teacher. We felt the blood drain from our bodies as we sat in stunned silence.
Call it kid-intuition, if you will, but we knew something was not quite right between Sr. Assumpta and Sr. Lorene. And this just proved it. Instant hate like a heavy curtain descended on that room. We not only hated Sr. Lorene, but our new teacher - Sr. Renee. She could never ever in a million years take our Sr. Assumpta's place. We were not willing to give her even an inch. It was like all the promise, the optimism, the bravado was drained from our hearts. We came to school; we did what we were told... but in a cold, mechanical way.
Then, May rolled around. We dutifully brought flowers for our new statue. Sr. Renee made a little altar in the back of the room and even added a few candles. She had us turn toward Mary as we recited the "Hail Mary." Then, she started to sing a popular May hymn:
"Oh, on this day, O beautiful Mother/On this day we give thee our love./
Near thee, Madonna, fondly we hover,/Trusting thy gentle care to prove."
We stood in silence as Sr. Renee's beautiful voice filled our sixth grade classroom. She sung with such clarity and feeling. Almost as one, we turned around and looked at Sr. Renee. Through our ears... we saw her with new eyes, and slowly we joined in
"On this day we ask to share, dearest Mother, thy sweet care;
Aid us e'er, our feet astray, wandering from thy guiding way.
On that day we learned a lot about ourselves. We learned that change is hard; that sometimes we need to look at the gifts that change can bring, if we give it a chance. It's okay to look back and appreciate what was, as long as we also look to the future and imagine what can be.
All these thoughts and more came flooding back on that hot August day, as I sat there in the shell of our church. Others were starting to come in, and we waited together for the auction to begin. Slowly the auctioneer made his way over to the two statues of Mary. I knew which one was mine. Not once did I put my auction ticket down. "Going, going"...gone! to the lady in the purple shirt. Everyone applauded, as I walked over and picked up the statue.
Her veil was faded; her face was cracked; the tips of her fingers and the tip of her nose were chipped. But she was beautiful. She had withstood nearly 40 years of residing in an eighth-grade classroom, and...oh, the stories she could tell.