Catholic Guilt


The Catholic schools of my parents’ childhoods were the haven of the working class families of The Valley. Housewives herded their broods of four or five or six off to places like Our Lady of Lourdes and Bishop Alemany, as their husbands drove off to jobs in garages and banks and factories. These second and third generation American families’ allegiance to the Church was likely as much social as it was spiritual, and enrolling their children in the parochial schools was a natural step in the cultivation of their Catholic identities.

The instructors wore habits and doled out punishment with the flats of their rulers to trembling knuckles and bruised hides. The sisters did their part in reaffirming the mingling sense of reverence and fear the men of my family have always felt toward women, while laying deep the seeds of a crippling, life-long guilt.

In other words, a proper Catholic education.

Although my parents moved out of The Valley to start our family, when the time came my older brother and I were sent to St. Catherine of Sienna to continue the family tradition of eschewing secular education. The school was built into the landscape, climbing up and down with the rise and fall of the hills. Lengths of four by fours wedged into the dirt served as stairs; the science lab was built around an ancient, sprawling tree. There was a large, terraced hill that flowed from one leg of the classrooms down to the blacktop that served as both parking lot and lunch area. Seagulls blew in from the coast and begged for scraps of our lunches. It was as if the builders of the place were originally tasked with building some pagan treehouse and, after learning of the change, had only grudgingly altered their plans.

I immediately loved the place. That there was but one nun on the teaching staff, I realize in retrospect, undoubtedly played a part in my positive memories.

The first time I remember falling in love was at St. Catherine’s. Her name was Jessie McElwee. She was the youngest of six or seven, from a proper Irish-Catholic clan, and she had a splash of freckles under her eyes that my second grade self found divine. Jessie was an aspiring stage actress, and during Lent one year my family went to see a production of A Christmas Carol she was in. Afterwards I gave her a rose, and I remember being pretty sure marriage wasn’t far off.

She moved away at the end of the year and I never saw her again.

I recently found Jessie on Facebook. Her page was semi-private, but I was able to scroll through a selection of her profile pictures. She looks much the same as I remember, only a decade and a half aged. She is pretty in a decidedly uncontroversial way, and her childhood freckles have faded, or perhaps revealed themselves as an embellishment of my memory.

I thought, in a moment of whimsy, of sending her friend request. What a wonderful story it would make, social media rekindling our lost playground romance. The moment passed almost as quickly as it came. There are no happy endings to come from digging up fossilized perfection and exposing it to the harsh expectations of the present. Besides, if vices negate virtues, I have even less to offer now than I did then. Time begets decay in all things, and the soul is no exception.

My Catholic schooling lasted all of two years. When my grandparents sent my parents off to Catholic school it was as a matter of course; tuition was such that my dad and his three brothers all attended on my grandfather’s income as operator of an auto garage. Whether a generational or geographical difference, or both, my parents discovered the Catholic education facing my brothers and me to be of another ilk entirely. My classmates came from families who would eventually pay high school tuitions that dwarfed most colleges’.

Theirs was a kind of wealth that forces a readjustment of perception, even among the well off. Faced with this readjustment, my parents pulled us out of St. Catherine’s and enrolled us in the local public school system. If salvation can be bought, they found the price a bit too steep.

I drove past St. Catherine’s the other day, for the first time in a long while. The place of my memory is no more. It has been leveled and rebuilt, and from the highway looks more like a resort than a place of education, let alone a place of God. That pagan spirit has been replaced by stiff stucco and redundant archways, terra cotta tiling. It is big, impressive, and really quite lovely. I can’t help but to hate it.

Maybe it’s for the best. The perfection of my youth has been razed, but lives on in my head. If time begets decay, then reverie provides respite, however brief. The walls spring back up as I remember, the feelings come pouring back, pure and unaltered. Jessie’s eyes sparkle above her freckles and I still know how to love.

I can hear the gulls once more, and feel the ocean in the breeze.

image –Shutterstock