I was just a little guy in the post-World War II baby-boom generation when our neighborhood parish, Christ the King in Yonkers, New York, decided to build a school.
It wasn’t just the veterans who were having the big families who wanted the school. It was the whole parish family — from the grandparents to the young singles, from the third-generation Irish to the second-generation Italians to the first-generation Poles.
My oldest brother, Al, and my only sister, Annamay, were ready for public high school. But the bottom three — John, me and my younger brother, Anthony — would end up at this new Catholic grammar school, scheduled to open in the fall of 1955.
The sisters who would teach at the school — Dominican nuns from Newburg, New York — had to be brought to their new home. My Old Man, who had a big, old Ford Country Squire station wagon that could fit about 86 riders and a picnic lunch, volunteered to deliver the sisters. He also volunteered me to go along for the ride. Thus my introduction to the sisters.
The sisters didn’t bother to act like sweet old aunts. Instead, I was quizzed. But when I recited the Hail Mary letter-perfect — my mother had me well-trained — I was on easy street. At least until school actually began a few weeks later.
That’s where it began for me, an odyssey through Catholic education even before I attended my first class at that new school. Catholic education took me from early childhood to the cusp of adulthood. And it has stayed with me ever since. It is a gift of the generations; a gift that the present owes the future.
The history is that the bishops of the United States, by the mid-19th century, were afraid — rightly so — that the children of immigrants would lose their faith in a public school system that was little more than a force-fed indoctrination into mainstream English-American Protestantism. In 1884, following up on previous declarations, the bishops demanded that every parish establish a Catholic school and every parent enroll their children.
Perhaps the bishops were being unrealistic with such a universal demand, but Catholic schools in the United States became a part of nearly every community where the faithful gathered. The schools did become a universal mission, a unique combination of the will of clergy, religious and laity in the face of government neglect and, worse, outright prejudice. It would not be until 1925 that the Supreme Court would recognize the right of Catholic schools to exist, in the face of organized political attacks led by the Ku Klux Klan.
Eight years with the Dominican Sisters at Christ the King, then four years at high school in the Bronx with the Christian Brothers. We began every day with the invocation, “St. John Baptist de la Salle, pray for us. Live Jesus in our hearts, forever.” And finally, onto the Jesuits at Fairfield University, where liberal arts majors automatically took enough required credits to qualify for minor degrees in Philosophy and Theology.
My mother went to Catholic grammar school in the 1920s. I went in the 1950s and 1960s. My children went to Catholic grade school, high school and college in the 1980s and 1990s. This past fall, the grandchildren started third grade in Catholic school. Four generations.
I started at that new Catholic grammar school back in Yonkers as a little guy in September 1955. I would push through the front doors every school day until graduation in June 1963.
At that entrance, they engraved a Scripture quote. It was the message that greeted me every day:
“Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk 10:14).
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.