In the first grade at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal elementary school, I was one of 55 students huddled in my class, and the religious training began immediately.
Sister: “Who created us?” Billy: “God created us.”
Sister: “Who is God?” Billy: “God is the Supreme Being.”
Sister: “Why did God create us?” Billy: “God created us to love him and serve him in this world and the next.” The “Baltimore Catechism” had sticking power.
The strategy, of course, was to blast dogma into brains before we even knew what “Supreme” and “Being” mean. Intellectual and spiritual conviction could be worked out later. First lay the cement foundation.
If I did not know the answer I would have to write it on the board 50 times or write it in my notebooks 100 times to be turned in the next day. If my classroom performance flagged, the nuns would send me home with a note, urging my parents on to greater efforts. That usually meant a spanking and a stern warning against such future misconduct.
The Sisters of Notre Dame themselves dressed in black, woolen pleated robes with a broad white-starched habit that looked like a breastplate, and a white cloth skullcap over which the black wimple was arched with its long, trailing veil falling down below the shoulders. Around their waists they wore a yard-long set of rosary beads, which they would grasp and mumble from time to time during the day. (These beads probably held up their knickers as well.)
The sleeves of this garment were wide and blousy. Sister would often reach up her sleeve to pull out a pen, a stapler, a watch or a ruler, a notebook, or a little round harmonica used to get us on pitch when we were about to chirp some pious ditty. If Sister had to sneeze or expectorate, she would deftly reach up her sleeve, pull out a tissue, retrieve the offending matter from her nose or mouth, and gracefully put the tissue back up her sleeve. This sleeve was a well-stocked storage room, and no one would have been surprised if Sister, in a madcap moment, had pulled out a rabbit or a duck.
Fear-mongering was another arrow in the nuns’ quiver: “If you don’t behave, I’ll tell your parents!” or “Jesus will punish you for this!” “Jesus will send you to hell if you persist!” Or guilt-
mongering: “How can you pretend to love the Virgin Mary after what you’ve just done?” “Don’t you know the Baby Jesus and his Blessed Mother weep every time you misbehave?”
Jesus was always a “baby” and Mary was always a “Virgin” or “Mother” when the nuns were cranking the guilt machine. Surely, only a twisted and vicious child would deliberately hurt a baby or a mother, not to mention a virgin. And “Jesus” was always a full-grown, muscular man with a short fuse when they were trying to scare the hell out of you.
Every morning we would do a drill to protect us in the event the Commies pulled a surprise nuclear attack. The drill consisted of getting under our desks and putting our hands over our heads. The clerical authorities apparently believed it was better to be vaporized in a fetal position under your desk with your behind sticking out than dashing for the door or screaming down the hallway.
The nuns also used the threat of nuclear war and grisly death to scare us into righteousness. They routinely embellished their apocalyptic musings with a horrific tale about how Pope Pius XII had opened the Vatican safe sometime in the late ’40s and impulsively snuck a peek at the Fatima letter.
This letter, purportedly written by Virgin Mary, was delivered by the Fatima children, circa 1917, with the specific warning that it should not be opened until 1960. Apparently, when the rascally, impetuous Pope unsealed the letter and read its contents, he was so shocked, he fainted.
The nuns “divined” that the letter predicted a nuclear holocaust in 1960 that would destroy the world. This turn of events really upset me. I thought: Just my luck for the world to end during my life. I felt fear, anger and impatience. I was only about 11 when the nuns were circulating this tale — which I believed.
I calculated that I had barely eight years left, eight years in which to get my house in order, namely to get a girlfriend and have my own car before being radiated and sent airborne in a mushroom cloud. I could be a freshman in college when the bomb dropped — if I lived that long and made it that far.
P.S. All good: Girlfriend. Car. Still alive.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, is the author of “Fellowship of Dust: Retracing the WWII Journey of Sergeant Frank Shaw.”