“Catholic School Days: Heads up and on a Swivel,” John S. Walters

Jan 23rd, 2019 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

I was born attached to the Catholic Church, with no avenue of escape and little chance of loosening its stranglehold, for my mother was no ordinary woman; she was a Polish woman; neither was she an ordinary Catholic; she was Polish Catholic. As surely as corn dogs harden the arteries, Polish Catholicism, as manifest in women of my mother’s generation,hardens the brain until it becomes impervious to reason.

In specific settings, which invariably involved several beers with either my dad or her sister, my mother demonstrated considerable charm (even earthiness), but all such appealing qualities abandoned her whenever a wave of ancestral Catholicism washed over her. In full Catholic attitude, my mother was as jolly as a medieval inquisitor. Pope Francis and his “who am I to judge” approach to alternative lifestyles would have had her praying for the return of Pope Vladislav the Impaler.

Even my dad fell in line. A proud descendant of French Huguenots, who settled New Amsterdam in the 1630s, he courageously converted to Catholicism knowing that his ancestors would rise collectively from the dead and beat his ass. Though indifferent to religion generally, my dad relished the role of enforcer of the faith, demanding obedience to the rigorous Catholic regimen that my mother established for my sister and me.

My mother immersed her kids in the full Catholic experience,which nonetheless left her wanting. Unconscionably, the local Catholic school lacked a first grade and kindergarten, a deficiency that nearly rendered our little town uninhabitable, as if my mom couldn’t bear the thought of depriving the nunnery my pound of flesh, even if only for a few years. I dreamt the recurring dream familiar to all kids bound for (and to) parochial schools, featuring charmingly debauched parents too drunk to care where, or even if, I attended school.

While I toiled under the Tyranny of the Sisterhood, my friends attended public school. I envied their freedom to wallow in a largely secular existence. My attempts to join them were met by my mother’s swift and unassailable veto, which I found impossible to overturn. Defeated, I made peace, not so much with my captors, as with my captivity, settling into the routine of prison life and perfecting a passive aggressive personality.

My captivity was not without its amusements. I spent most mornings with two elderly nuns in the throes of dementia. As goes the otherwise unappreciated Ninth Beatitude, which provides comfort to incarcerated Catholics everywhere: “Blessed are the cognitively impaired prison guards, for theirs, (and soon to be yours) is the key to an effortless jail break.”

Sister Regina (Reggie) was oblivious to all persons and things except for an imaginary horizon located somewhere north of the clock and east of the portrait of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever she saw there obtained her undivided attention and provided ample cover to vacate the classroom for an unfettered journey to Dondero’s Pool Hall, haven for AWOL Catholic kids. A fellow survivor of Catholic education, Billy Dondero, like the Statue of Liberty, warmly received the fugitive huddled masses seeking refuge from matriarchal despotism.

Shooting Nine Ball to the accompaniment of Dondero’s juke box, which Billy stacked unapologetically in favor of Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, and Mitch Ryder (the gold standard for any Michigan-based jukebox), provided a splendid backdrop to that most essential of academic pursuits: running time off the school clock.

Reign of Terror

As if they had a secret gym to which they retreated for expert coaching, our Dominican Sisters produced an inordinate number of skilled pugilists. From this stable of champions emerged the stone handed Sister Ursula, who inspired fear and commanded obedience, even into her dotage. Chilling stories abounded, confirmed by generations of alumni, of this legendary brawler and her devastating right hand. Ursula ushered in and presided over a particularly dark chapter in the violence-laden history of my school.

Ursula wasn’t our first Warrior Nun, nor was she the last. In hushed tones, aged alumni spoke of Sister Ludovicha who in 1934 concussed Battlin’ Bobby Donovan for taking an elephant-sized dump in the school aquarium, which took the lives of four goldfish and one beloved turtle, and left the tank’s survivors floundering in a state of aquatic psychosis.   

Any fair-minded student or impartial jury would have found Bobby’s offense deserving of a sound thrashing. Bobby aimed for and attained a revered place in the annals of my school’s storied history, knowing that pain and suffering often accompany feats of derring-do. Battlin’ Bobby took his lumps and got the glory. Such were the days when a sense of fair play guided the behavior of enemy combatants.

Enter Ursula, who defied time-honored rules of engagement. She introduced—and liberally availed herself of–the Preemptive Strike, which Sister Ludovicha would have considered unsporting.Upon the faintest whiff of incipient mischief making, Ursula delivered withering haymakers, sending unsuspecting and sometimes guiltless lads (including our champion, Dondero) to the school infirmary, which kept a licensed Cutman on retainer. 

Given the full-throated approval of our parents, who were unmoved by our pleas of innocence and who required no proof of our guilt, this unscrupulous street tough indulged her thirst for bloodshed while enjoying the immunity of a Cold War Diplomat. Unsympathetic parents inspected wounds, not as if these were evidence of assault, but as love bumps justly administered for the purpose of our greater edification. Case closed.


Father Michael McVeigh, Monseigneur of our diocese, brought a much-needed touch of degeneracy to our Parish. God bless him for that. He appeared on campus most afternoons as the embodiment of early 1960s casual cool: a deftly balanced olive topped martini in one hand, complemented with a stylishly held Viceroy cigarette in the other.  I could not imagine an existence grander than his. Beholding Father Mike in his mid day splendor, I saw the light (however dimly), and I sometimes heard the terrifying sound of a vocational calling to the priesthood.Rather than having a moderating effect on his habits, Monseigneur McVeigh’s exalted position ostensibly provided anunrestricted passport to carry and indulge his vices regardless of occasion or destination.

As he strolled the campus grounds in his graceful, if somewhat unsteady gait, Father Mike gave the appearance not of a parish patriarch surveying his domain, but of a song and dance man in search of a brightly lit casino stage.  I remember him as a somewhat diminished Deano, yearning for the company of Frank and Sammy.


I graduated from Catholic school on time and near the bottom of my class, where I belonged. Confounding my high school counselor and confirming suspicions that it spurned even the most rudimentary of admission standards, my community college wrapped me in its loving embrace, where I established my bona fides at both the euchre and billiard tables. I recall my days at community college as the four happiest years of my life.

I left Michigan over 30 years ago. Twice annually I receive an alumni high school newsletter, which challenges me to accept new developments in Catholic education, the most incredulous of which is that my school now wears a human face. In vain, I search my newsletter, including several years of archival issues, for the instruments of terror that historically defined and governed this Dickensian institution. For ten years I have turned the pages of this biannual bulletin without finding a Dominican Nun snarling for the camera: neither as warden nor prison guard, nor as sniper staked out on a high perch. They seem to have vacated the premises.

In their place one finds a smiling, cheerful, helpful looking bunch of civilians, who look as if they are constitutionally incapable of battering a child. Which raises a fundamental question: is a school authentically Catholic in the absence of its very underpinning? The Catholic child is sent to school to be hardened for a rough and tumble life, trained to run any gauntlet, however terrifying,

The purpose of a Catholic education, as many of its victims understand it, is to perfect a child’s defense mechanisms, to turn out Olympians in the Darwinian struggles of adulthood. Educated in the role of small prey, the Catholic child acquires the heightened senses of the hunted, alert to lurking dangers, such as guys named Skip selling whole life insurance policies and the entreaties of dispossessed Nigerian princesses.

I’m inclined to think that the child who spends his formative years in an unthreatening environment is a child poorly served. Only a formidable predator provides the steady undercurrent of terror necessary to get the blood pumping, the heart racing, the feet flying. Just ask the Roadrunner. If not for Wile E. Coyote toning him up, the Roadrunner is road kill, bound to suffer an ignominious demise, perhaps even ambushed by a witless lapdog named Muffy.

The Catholic child acquires superbly honed survival skills in a daily dodge with a menacing nun. I’m delighted as anyone to see genuinely happy children. But when I see gleeful Catholic kids reared in a nun-free school, I envision defenseless chumps begging to be sucker punched.

Now, in life’s final chapter, as I recall the forces that have shaped and informed my choices, I thank my parents for holding firm and subjecting me to a quintessentially harrowing childhood. I also thank the punch-happy Sisters who conditioned my guard-up approach to life.I would not trade any of my neurological disorders for the nun-deprived education of my coddled successors. I wear these disorders as Purple Hearts received in the course of a properly administered Catholic education.


John Spencer Walters is old and tired and sustained only by the prospect of impeachment proceedings commencing in 2019.

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