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September 26, 2006

Growing Up Catholic

“Hello, Jimmy,” the frail old woman in a bathrobe, said from her wheelchair, reaching out to accept the flowers I’d brought her.


 It was a visiting room at a retirement home for Catholic nuns in St. Louis. About 12 years or so ago.


I’d called ahead to arrange the visit, with my former kindergarten and 4th grade teacher.


Sister Antonita Maria looked so different.  It had been nearly 40 years since I’d seen her at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Kansas City.


In those days, she'd  worn the long black, wool “nun’s habit” with starched collar that hid everything but the face.


Sister Antonita Maria had a  natural smile, a generous attitude, and lovely singing voice.


She must have been fairly young when she taught me, my equally unruly twin brother Johnny, and others in the 4th grade.


One day during the middle of class, she suddenly got up from her desk, rushed out and slammed the classroom door behind her.


I tipped toed to peek out the door. Sister Antonita Marie was standing in the school hallway – sobbing.


She was usually composed and cheerful. For some reason she did not elicit the moderate fear we had of the nuns’ discipline. Perhaps she didn’t carry the wooden ruler, like others, making the rounds between desk rows at test taking time.


The nuns wore a large crucifix and Rosary beads on their habits. We would listen for the sound of clicking beads approaching from behind us.


It was the 1950s. The St. Joseph order of nuns led a restrictive lifestyle. And they had to travel  in “twos” whenever they went outside the convent, school and church area.


My Mom would call the convent some Saturdays with an invitation.  ‘Would Sisters like to take a Sunday ride and stop for ice cream?’


If the answer was “yes,” my Dad would spend Saturday afternoon washing and waxing our 1948 Plymouth in preparation for the next day’s outing. It was considered an honor to have the Parish Priest or the Sisters in your home -- or your car.


And here, five decades later was Sister Antonita Maria  – perhaps in her late 70s,  and in a retirement home.


She’d had diabetes, with one leg amputated, and sat uncomfortably in the wheelchair.


“How is Johnny? Do you two get along any better?,” she asked with a bit of a smile.


Driving on to Michigan and home after the visit, I wondered if Sister Antonita could have recalled  such details about two little boys,  among the thousands she taught during her career.


There was nothing special  about the Richmond boys..


The “Sisters” were special --  for those of  us growing up Catholic in the 1950s.


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