I spent a significant number of years during my coming of age at Holy Cross Church and Holy Cross School. This parish was founded in the 1890s by Lithuanian immigrants. In the 1930s, there was a large influx of Mexican immigrants to Back of the Yards, which is one of the main reasons our family moved to the neighborhood in the 1960s after having lived in Pilsen.
I attended Holy Cross School from kindergarten through eighth grade and I graduated on June 6, 1971. The study habits I developed during this time served me well the rest of my years in school, especially college. Of course, it helped that all the teachers were strict Lithuanian Catholic nuns, with exception of Mr. Hovanec the history teacher. Nothing instills healthy study habits better than the fear of being disciplined with corporal punishment by a nun wielding a yardstick and a man’s name such as Sister Joseph or Sister Bartholomew.
Of course, during the 1960s there was a movement to convert U.S. to the metric system and move away from the English system of measurement that even the English didn’t use anymore. Our nuns participated in the metric system conversion by trading in their yardsticks for meter sticks when they hit us. That meant 3.37 more inches of pain. These nuns really wanted us to learn so we would go on to excel in high school and college. The school was very strict and if the corporal punishment didn’t straighten out a student quickly, expulsion was imminent. Once the principal, Sister Cecilia, lectured us on the importance of behaving well because our school record now could affect us later as adults. Recently, she told us, a former Holy Cross student applied to become an FBI agent and the FBI came to Holy Cross to see what kind of student he was. Well, that was enough to scare me into being a good student.
At school most of my friends were either Lithuanian or Mexican. Everyone had to learn English. Everyone had to become a good American citizen. In fact, the nuns constantly reminded us that any one of us could one day grow up to become the President of the United States. We always had to study hard and be on our best behavior. But somehow someone always got in trouble. I used to get in trouble for laughing at the class clown. When the nun would ask me what was so funny, I would tell her and she didn’t understand why I would laugh at such a thing. Looking back, I see her point.
Above all, they taught us to be good Catholics. We went to church everyday before going to school. If we were late for morning mass, we were considered late for school. Back then I thought the whole world was Catholic. Everyone I knew was Catholic. My parents, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, the nuns, our pastor, I mean everybody. Even famous people were Catholic. Mayor Richard J. Daley was Catholic and he was well-known for stopping at St. Peter’s on Madison Street to hear mass before going to City Hall. President John F. Kennedy was Catholic. The nuns would proudly remind us at every opportunity. To me, the whole world was Catholic. Even the Pope was Catholic! So why did he wear a yarmulke?
Of course, attending a private school meant paying tuition and having fundraisers. As I recall, we had one fundraiser after another all year, culminating in the parish carnival in June. We had raffles for everything. One year, the raffle prize was a brand new station wagon, and miraculously, one of the nuns had the winning ticket. There were bake sales, rummage sales, Christmas card sales, movie showings, and sometimes just outright petitions for donations for certain goals either at school or church. I remember that I liked selling the Christmas cards door to door. My brother Tato and I teamed up one year on a cold, snowy day. We carried our boxes of Christmas cards with us and didn’t have much luck selling them at first. Then, we were at one house on the icy porch of a woman who had just refused to buy a box of Christmas cards from us. As my brother started walking down the stairs, he accidentally slipped on the ice and rolled down about eight stairs all the way to the bottom. Well, the woman asked if he was okay–he was because we always bundled up in multiple layers on cold days like this. Then she bought a box of Christmas cards from us. I think she was afraid of a civil lawsuit. At the next house, the woman didn’t want any Christmas cards either, until my brother “accidentally” fell down the stairs again. This was my brother’s brilliant idea and he kept falling until we had sold all our Christmas cards!