I guess it all starts with school. When I say school, I mean Roman Catholic Parochial School and, specifically, Holy Family Grammar School and Holy Family High School. Mine was taught, administered, and watched over by the Sisters of Mercy. Back then, they, along with the country, were at the height of their power, confidence, and influence. It was a unique experience. Ask anybody the nuns educated at the time. They’ll have the scars to prove it.
One of the “gifts” I received from my time with the Sisters of Mercy is a permanent problem with authority. I have gotten into scrapes with dentists about the proper procedure for filling a tooth and then accused the billing clerks out front of deliberately obscuring the charges. On a perfectly beautiful June night, at a Triple A Baseball Game, I watched my pregnant wife edge away from me, red faced, while a traffic cop and I “discussed” how best to navigate through a crosswalk. I can break into a cold sweat approaching a baggage claim or airline ticket counter.
You need to know that school was not just school.
It was a generational tapestry of intricate relationships, where schoolmates’ mothers and fathers had been schoolmates. My uncles, my Mom, me, we spent dozens of years walking the same hallways, having the same classes, and playing in the same asphalt schoolyard. We heard the same church tower bell and smelled the same smells, learned the same subjects, shared the same rituals, and believed in the same values, superstitions, and biases. We hated and feared the same things. And we all wore the same uniform.
It led to an overwhelming sense of belonging. I belonged to my block, to my family, to Holy Family, and to God’s family. Not just Mary and Joseph but all the angels, and saints, and celestial bodies. The connections went deep. I remember when I was eight and first saw the Pieta with my family at the World’s Fair in New York. I felt the agony of Christ. The marble captured a moment past the withering of His pain and of the comfort of Mother Mary holding him. It was complete compassion and complete surrender. And it showed the undying love Mother Mary had for Jesus.
I tugged at my mom’s blouse sleeve and told her that it seemed so real; the emotion seemed alive.
She asked, “What emotion?”
“Of compassion, of the pain of crucifixion and of Mary’s love.”
She said, “All of it is the same for you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as we stared at the sculpture with the hot lights on it, and a security guard close by.
“It’s there for you,” she said. “What is true for the sculpture of Christ is also true for you.”
Holy Family immersed you in this type of world. I loved that I lived in a known and conquered universe where all the tough questions had been asked and resolved, all the philosophies thought out and refined, all the mysteries explored and penetrated. And the reason I was on this block and in this schoolyard was so these forces could be distilled in me.
Holy Family was the first parochial elementary school ever built in New Bedford; built with the pain of Ireland, by the sons of the Irish. Hard working parishioners with last names like Donovan, Doyle, Donaghy, and Dwyer scrimped, sacrificed, saved and finally built the church and the rectory and then the Grammar School and the High School.
To come into the schoolyard was to feel the force and center of gravity that the church grounds produced. The church itself jutted out onto County Street as if it wanted to impose its order onto the world. And it wasn’t an abstract battle. The nuns gave us detention if we didn’t bow our heads and make the sign of the cross as we traversed the Tabernacle at the center of the altar even if we were outside on the sidewalk on County Street.
Mornings when my father dropped us off on the way to the mill, my brother John, my sister Mary and I watched as the morning sun rose above the Acushnet River and engulfed the top of the façade of the red brick schools and the grey granite church tower with a soft, golden light. On school grounds, I felt close to God and had no doubt God was active on this block.
But the glow from the schools and church was not enough to keep all trouble at bay. The nuns pointed to a clear and present danger right at the border of our confine: the Clarence P. Cook School, standing diagonally across the street from, and seemingly in direct rebuttal to, Holy Family and our way of life. Clarence P. Cook was named after a ship builder or someone connected to the Underground Railroad during slavery. No one at Holy Family was ever clear on it and no one ever bothered to look it up. But one thing we were sure of: it was not named after a Catholic.
Cook School was in fact the public elementary school in the neighborhood, but I and all my schoolmates for years and years called it, incorrectly, the Protestant School. We had no friends or acquaintances at Cook School and knew we never would. They hated us, which was okay because we hated them.
All the kids over there seemed strange and foreign. They wore no uniforms, carried fewer books, and had no lunch boxes. Still, all of us at Holy Family felt sorry for them because they were not going to receive the illuminations that we were promised and so their reality had certain limits and grayness to it while ours soared and ended in majesty. The nuns told us they had a library, a gymnasium and a cafeteria. We had none of these. Somehow, we offered this sacrifice to God and somehow we felt better than them for it. We were prepared to inherit the earth. As if some ancient rite had to be honored, we thumbed our noses, stuck out our tongues or spat at the Protestant School boys and girls when they came to close to the cast iron fence of our schoolyard down on County Street. Actually the Cook School kids got the message and they mostly veered away from the fence to cross the street. The girls, especially.
The nuns felt the same disdain for Cook School kids that we did except they couldn’t show it as openly. The nun on schoolyard duty would turn her whole body away from the Protestant School kids the way you might turn away from a bad car accident that you witnessed and wanted to forget immediately. These “lesser lights” that walked by our schoolyard affronted the entire sensibilities of the nuns and kids.
So all through the long school year we eyed each other warily and suspiciously. Occasionally, a rock fight broke out between schools, but all in all, we remained much like I imagined the tension that surrounded Northern Ireland—- a forced peace always on the brink of war. If in the morning we came back to school and our window panes were broken, then the very next morning Cook School sported broken windows too. The nuns never mentioned the broken windows and in this way OK’d our schoolyard justice. Maybe imagining that if Cook School got control over us they would recreate what all my friends’ grandmothers referred to as “The Troubles” right here on our sacred block. Like in Belfast, they’d have us working for them. They’d have us forsake our greatest yearnings, desires and beliefs. They would not acknowledge us as a legitimate force with legitimate wants, needs, and rights. This is what all our grandparents thought we had escaped, and here it was staring at us from right across the street.
Cook School fed our block a constant tension. All our mistrust of foreign people and ideas were directed at them. The nuns probably loved that Cook School stood diagonally across the street. They pointed at it and intimated it was a pagan place full of philistines—and so we had better buckle down in learning the Ten Commandments and all our other lessons.
But the underlying fear that Cook School struck in us was not apparent to me during my first days at Holy Family. What I was aware of was the power of the nuns.
On the first day of school, our very first official act was to attend Mass. Even Mr. Sullivan, the school custodian, had to go. The nuns marched the older students around, barking orders, pronouncing students’ last names with a certain bite and madness, with a demeanor that suggested it would be great if some kid did something really stupid and they could make an example out of him.
The nuns held us responsible even for the things they chose not to explain. They could count on the older kids, out of their own traumatized memories, picking up the torch of any fallen protocol.
For example, when the bell rang the very first time everything stopped. After an eerie suspended animation fell over the schoolyard, another bell rang and all the older boys were released to quietly retrieve their belongings. We, as first graders, mimicked what we saw. I found my lunch on the hard asphalt schoolyard next to other lunches. Then we stood in the middle of the schoolyard again not sure what to do. Just frozen, knowing our life was about to change and knowing we were getting on a track that lasted a whole twelve years — a lot longer than we had been alive. All of a sudden, a boy at the back of one of the lines, someone’s older brother, took a chance and waved us over.
He cupped his hands and whispered, “You’d best line up at over there at the top of the line before you invoke the wrath of the Bulldog.” He pointed to the top of the schoolyard.
We found out who “The Bulldog” was when the principal, with her fiery red complexion, pug nose and eyes fiercely set on us came through that oversized door. Her chin jutted out from her face in a way that welcomed a punch, and her stiff upper lip looked like it had never given forth the word “Uncle.” The Great Protector of our school, she marched us first graders to our classroom directly from the schoolyard. As we entered Sister Susan’s classroom, she said to the first grade nun, “Here’s a new batch.”
After “The Bulldog” departed, Sister Susan allowed us our alphabetical seating assignments only long enough to repeat the Our Father and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, taking a deep breath like something momentous was to occur, she invited us to stand, to take up our first responsibility and first act of service to our school and our Lord: to lead the entire student body into church. When the bell rang she told us to put the palms of our hands together, locating them about chest level like my Dad taught me when we prayed to God at night. “Walk like this,” she said. “Follow me.”
We marched silently behind her out of our classroom, into the hallway, down the stairwell, out to the schoolyard once again into the bright sunshine and onto the walkway that led down to County Street. As we walked in the schoolyard, I looked over to where we had stood. Minutes before, we were lost, directionless, uprooted and alone. Now we led the entire Grammar School, High School, altar boys, Auxiliary Bishop, priests, and nuns into church for Mass. How had it happened? I felt the power of the line — its history and responsibility. I felt we trudged a beaten, ancient path that brought us close to God as we fulfilled His mission and were ushered by the nuns from the profane into the sacred. For the first time, I felt like a classmate and a schoolmate. Twenty minutes ago we were not even in school, had no identity and lacked both power and direction. Now, we were responsible for the entire church complex.
Auxiliary Bishop Gerard, who was our Pastor, concelebrated the mass with three other priests. Standing with them was every altar boy from school. In full command of the center aisle, the priests carried with them burning incense, candles and of course, the Cross of Christ. The organ lady sang, filling all the empty spaces with her music as the priests turned their backs to us and faced the mystery of the tabernacle.
The nuns started beaming at the priests from the time they eyed them outside church. By the time the priests were in church the nuns were positively beside themselves, gazing in adoration at spiritual giants. By contrast, the nuns scowled at us. It was amazing the depth of their scowl and the contrast of their mood. We had already been tried and convicted and they were having a hard time holding in their contempt. It communicated a clear, unspoken message: At this place you don’t complain, or talk about your hurts, or venture to figure things out on your own. The Sisters of Mercy carried the mantle of justice. They were ready for a long year and would take on any comers.
Kids at Holy Family, though, were not about to roll over for the nuns even with their huge power differential. Everything in our makeup indicated we couldn’t. For starters, New Bedford was too tough a town. Add to that the fact we had Irish blood and knew the Irish saying our Dads and Uncles knew: Is this a private fight or can anyone join in? So, our instincts, heritage, and skills said fight.
Our response to the nuns’ discipline was to be measured, tactical, and muted, but if a lot of boys tested the limit of the nuns’ power, challenged them, and stayed unified we could establish a beachhead. And then we might expand those beachheads incrementally.
But challenging the nuns was always hard–they held so many trump cards. Not just the backing that comes directly from the infallibility of Rome, but our families’ firm support.
If a nun whacked you at school and word reached home, then you got whacked at home. No questions asked. The message was pretty clear: nuns aren’t wrong and parents are on their side even if they are wrong. So, the nuns exploited it and loved calling a kid’s bluff and watching him back down.
Wayward kids received lots of punishment. Extra homework or its threat might change a kid’s attitude. If things got real bad the nuns called for the dreaded parent’s conference. Here they knocked your parents around. These meetings were full of drama. Successful parents had to show just the right blend of contrition and piety, otherwise more trouble brewed. If none of it worked, like Lucifer, you were banished; the school remained cleansed and the nuns’ power intact.
Nevertheless, we put up active resistance. There was a belief around the schoolyard that the nuns clamored for a final victory. They wanted us broken. If they turned us into goody two shoes, choir boys, altar boys, or momma boys that was an ultimate victory. The thinking in the schoolyard went like this: If they made us obedient maybe we might hear The Call and if we heard The Call maybe we might enter the seminary. It was said the nuns had informal, secret competitions within the Diocese between the Parishes for bragging rights on who sent the most boys and girls into the seminary and convent.
The farthest reaching example of our rebellion toward the nuns came from the type of boy the nuns referred to as the Roughnecks. They earned the name from Sister Augustine, who in 4th grade roamed the hallways seizing misbehaving boys’ ears and hauling them round to demand, “Just what do you think you are doing? Are you thinking of becoming a Roughneck? Well, you had better think twice about it, Buster.”
For the most part these boys were not just rebels they were outlaws–cultural heroes at Holy Family who had all our hearts with them. If the nuns had given way we’d all have joined them in a second. So their rebellion against the nuns, and the nuns’ continual reimposition of order, gave our school its imprint, set the tone and attitude for the whole experience.
The nuns and the Roughnecks played a game of brinkmanship for the hearts and minds of the student body. At school the tension was constant. A question hung in the air: Which way were you leaning? Toward the Roughnecks or toward the nuns?
All the kids at Holy Family knew who the Roughnecks were. In my class, they were Mike Rossi, John Conlan, Mike Driscoll, and Paul Koczera. Every kid with a brain at Holy Family appreciated what the Roughnecks accomplished.
I liked the Roughnecks, but some were rougher than others. Teddy Hughes and Paul Sullivan occupied the fraternity’s outer edge. They were a few years ahead of me. But they were angry–violent. Hughes and Sullivan indiscriminately soaped cars, flattened tires, pelted eggs at homes, and put sand in gas tanks. They tortured cats probing the theory that they always landed on their feet. They poured gasoline on frogs before striking a match.
Once, while we were walking home from school, we spied Hughes and Sullivan on Mrs. Petersen’s porch. Everyone liked the widow Mrs. Petersen. Her house was one of the premiere stops on Halloween Night on account of she gave out this great Norwegian candy that we never saw anywhere else. Hughes saw us and yelled over.
“Hey, you guys. Watch this. We got dog shit in this bag.”
Evidently, Hughes had put dog shit in a brown paper bag. We watched him drop the bag on the old widow’s wooden porch in front of her door, and light it with a sure strike of wooden match. When the bag was up in flames, he rang her doorbell and they both hid behind some shrubs that offered a great view of the porch and the front door. They laughed like hell when the Old Lady Peterson came out and in her alarm and emotion started stomping on the bag until its contents were all over her! Hughes and Sullivan were delighted. They looked like their whole life was coming together. They felt giddy, young and revitalized. Finally, they must have thought, life gained meaning.
They probably loved most the indignity that overcame Mrs. Petersen. Her sunny disposition tampered out. It was replaced by the confusion, the insecurity and the fear Hughes and Sullivan felt and knew so well. Maybe spreading it around, they didn’t feel so alone, so isolated, so alienated.
And yet the nuns ultimately had ways of handling even this sort of pain and violence, even with this sort of kid from broken families that couldn’t or wouldn’t back them up: they kept them on a shorter leash and had a double standard that they had no problem invoking. They might stroll down the aisle toward the kids with the inside knowledge of his “home situation.” They might talk about the danger of drink, getting hit for no good reason, or going to bed hungry. Or they might call on a Roughneck in class when they were introducing a new concept knowing full well the kid didn’t have the right answer. And by embarrassing them publicly they knocked them down a bit.
But, in the last analysis, our dissent was limited by practical matters. If we got thrown out, where would we go? Over to Cook School, to be constantly vilified and harassed by the Protestant School kids, and then mocked by Holy Family every morning we skulked by? We were in what my grandmother called a pickle. Boxed in, we were all basically a lock to go the distance.
And yet. Our parish was not the whole of New Bedford. The nuns’ stranglehold diminished a couple of blocks from school grounds. It didn’t matter if I walked east to the waterfront or south or north toward the mills, or west toward Buttonwood Park, the influence of Saint Lawrence Church and Holy Family waned. Astonishingly, those ancient, mighty forces of the parish diminished.
Even right outside the church and school complex you felt it happening. You emerged from the church and breathed a different air, scented with candy and dust from the corner variety stores. Halfway across the street and you broke free of the nuns’ power; you felt like sprinting away from it. But you were still in the parish, with the church nestled into it like a piece of a puzzle that had long ago been snapped into its place. Rows of tenements stretched entire blocks and made them feel narrower than they actually were, occupied by longstanding communicants who never moved—or moved, in the case of married daughters, only as far as the next floor.
But it was when you took Mill and Hillman Streets down the hill through town and to the waterfront boundary where New Bedford faced the open sea, that you felt the dense webs that connected the church with its surrounding parish give way entirely. The wind blowing from the harbor brought the smells of low tide, of life, of adventure even as far as the church itself. And the closer you got to it, the more it overwhelmed and upended the forces of the parish, swallowed them whole like the whales Herman Melville wrote of, when he was a sailor out of this same harbor, on the bark Acushnet.
In Melville’s day, of course, the waterfront was different. New Bedford was one of the richest ports in the world, renowned as a magnet for all sorts of dreamers and drifters, merchants and malcontents. For a long time now, though, with the decline of first whaling and then the mills, a general feeling of collapse had taken hold, spread to houses, rules, economies, yards, and the social order. Warehouses stood abandoned. Discarded shopping carts, broken bottles, and old refrigerators were strewn around. Anything metal rusted. Danger, lawlessness, the sea—instead of adventure, there was a sense of despair, brokenness, and chaos. When fights broke out at The National Club, the Pequot or Haskell’s, the police brought backup.
It was forever low tide for the forces of the parish down here. The men and women who earned their living by the sea didn’t care what the nuns thought or what line the parish was trying to get the parishioners to walk. That kind of control didn’t begin to make sense against the restlessness of the sea, the risks they took. The waterfront was a place not of faith, but superstition. Fishermen braved weather, currents, the price of fish at auction, and migration patterns they could barely ascertain. They faced the chance—higher than in any profession—that their 14 days out, 4 days in would become a permanent watery grave. It haunted them, and they responded by never setting sail on a Friday or December 31st. They didn’t bring bananas or a black bag on board. They would not rename a boat, ever, or have a woman come aboard. Lots of fishermen hardly set foot outside this area. No other part of the city understood them, their rhythms were so different from the eight-hour shift workers’.
Their families were New Bedford families, though of an entirely different sort than the parish families I knew. Right before the start of a trip you’d see the weathered crew members milling around the dock smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, and shuffling back and forth. Nobody talked. They hardly acknowledged each other. They waited for the captain to signal completion of the inspection of the boat and yell “all aboard.” Their girlfriends and wives were there, too, saying just as little, standing facing the boat and taking long, hard, frightened looks at their husbands and boyfriends. At the very best, it was two weeks of loneliness, silent prayer, worry and responsibility for broken furnaces, sick mothers, lost dogs and kids.
The sons of such families were different, too. Their demeanors mimicked their dads’. Their body language communicated to outsiders to leave them alone. They, like their dads, underdressed for the weather as if to prove they were impervious to the forces shaping them. They ordered cheeseburgers at BPM’s lunch counter the way their Dads did— a sense of disdain and a measure of discomfort about the whole transaction. They had a short fuse, easily lit, as if an inner fire was the only answer to what water might eventually do to them.
I remember one kid from down below County Street in particular. Eddie was a fisherman’s kid and a Cook School student. Even for a Cook School kid, Eddie was different. He dressed in work pants like the men on the waterfront and wore flannel shirts. He sported a scar plainly visible under his left eye and had strong shoulders that supported a strong, thick neck. His long forehead and deepset eyes gave him a look of resolution. Eddie clearly thought he had figured out a few of life’s basic premises.
Yet, he also looked like he yearned for the world to understand him, when he knew it never would. He was without a shepherd. His whole demeanor was different than mine. He walked jauntily, testily with a beezer—a botched homemade crew cut. His face was mean and hardened by life. It contrasted with the faces at Holy Family. Our faces seemed fresh, waiting and wanting to receive instructions from the nuns on how to feel about the world and how best navigate through it. Eddie did his own navigation.
Each morning we saw groups of Protestant School kids headed to Cook School. They wore no blazers or ties. They had on their play clothes, even for school! Evidence they didn’t take school seriously and were not enlightened. Even at this young age I could not help but see them as diminished characters.
Among this group, Eddie was easy to spot. He had an unlit Lucky Strike in his mouth and the collar of his shirt was turned up. He wore no coat, had on his customary work pants and a flannel shirt. And instead of just walking by, Eddie did the most preposterous, defiant and almost sacrilegious act thinkable. He came up to our schoolyard on County Street and walked right past the fence and inside Holy Family.
None of the Roughnecks tried to stop him. Not John Conlon, Brian Hogan, or the MacMullen brothers (there were five of them), not the Farlands or the O’Neils or even the nuns tried to stop him. He kept on cutting diagonally through and it seemed like our schoolyard just opened for him like the Red Sea. I could not believe the invasion of our sacred space and, to use a nun’s phrase, his boldness.
As he came farther onto school property, I noticed he carried with him a fishing rod instead of books. Eddie never had a book! And at the end of the pole he had not a fish, but a dead rat. It was a City Pier rat with black, oily, darkened fur. It was a wharf rat that had lost its grey color and turned black from being on the pier so long. It looked like a mutant type of rat. Its dead eyes gave it a wild and bewildered look.
Eddie was not a fisher of men or a fisher of fish. He was a fisher of rats. He measured the reaction alone. It was like he stood outside of us and our world yet was a real part of it. A shaker and mover. Sr. Camilla, the nun unlucky enough to have the schoolyard monitoring assignment, murmured under her breath, “Bold as brass.”
All schoolyard activities halted. Everything went still. Hushed. I don’t even remember any cars motoring by on County or Mill Street. The only movement came from Eddie. We all watched him and the rat. They both seemed to know how tough life could be. I secretly admired him, but I knew then that I did not envy his fate. I bet Eddie’s not alive today.
Still I envied Eddie’s complete defiance of and contempt for our city block as he trespassed against us. Sr. Camilla’s face was flushed and full of expression. The whole schoolyard read her thoughts, as she stood powerless against this onslaught to the One True Way. It was as if the Devil was let loose in our schoolyard. Sr. Camilla’s posture was erect. She stood with military readiness. I never saw her posture like that again. Her eyes never left him. She tried, it seemed, to escort him out of the schoolyard by pure will.
Eddie continued on over to the girls’ side. As he approached the imaginary line that separated the boys and girls, breaking taboo upon taboo, all the boys became even more frozen, powerless and diminished. The entire atmosphere changed. Now that we were out of immediate danger we saw the situation in its entirety. We all knew if Eddie hit a girl or kicked her it permanently diminished us and our place. We’d have to have a compensatory act of retribution. It would be like Archduke Ferdinand being assassinated in our schoolyard. An irrecoverable chain of events would be set off that might forever change the entire composition of this city block. Our standing in the eyes of the girls and the nuns was now in jeopardy. Eddie stood to alter the whole sociological and cosmological order of our block: the nuns’ authority, the boys’ machismo and the girls’ sense of chivalry, all of which constructed the world as we knew it. Every kid in the schoolyard that day felt and knew what was up for grabs. We waited as Eddie held our fates in his hands. The boys were willing him to go as fervently as Sister Camilla had done.
Eddie walked slowly, deliberately, in a diagonal line toward Mill Street. At one point, he brought the pole down in front of him, shook it, and the rat mimicked being alive. The girls cowered at the prospect that what they thought was dead had come back to life. They braced themselves. The boys held their breath. Then Eddie smiled a smile that only he understood, and shrugged his shoulders, as he got to the end of the schoolyard. Out on Mill Street he slung his pole back over his shoulders the way Huck Finn might. As he headed toward Cook School he didn’t look back. He just kept walking, his head held high.
Whenever I spotted him in the mornings after this, I watched him spellbound as he passed by. That day school and the schoolyard felt differently right up to the final closing bell.
Photo by the author