On J.F.K., Memory and the Nuns

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.”

As I began 8th grade, my greatest existential conundrum revolved around whether nuns wore brassieres. And, if so, why?

When I was a boy, I attended a small, Catholic grade school. I thought that world timeless. Nuns in wimples. Daily mass. Incense. And, like all things that seem timeless, it was fleeting.

It’s hard to say when that world ended. But November 22nd, 1963, will do.

University City is a small, inner suburb of St. Louis. Small as it is, there are those of us who love it. Christ The King School, C. K. S. to those in the know, was (and still is) also a small place. In 1963, it was Old School Catholic. I was an altar boy. Mass every day before school. Stations Of The Cross every day after school during Lent. Latin. Almost every grade was taught by a nun. It was a world that seemed as immutable as a medieval hymn. A world that had always been thus.

Aside from my immediate family, and a few family friends, the Sisters Of Mercy were the most important adults in my life. I’ve heard tales of kids abused, smacked with rulers. While I will not dismiss their suffering, my experience was one of comfort and nurturance. Christ The King School provided stability, predictability, purpose.

The nuns were strong, capable, educated. And anachronistic. Their world was crumbling. Vatican II and the feminist movement would challenge their lifestyle irrevocably.

But, in 1963, nuns were still all long black habits punctuated by a stark white wimples. It was still a day when a daughter, who became a Carmelite, trumped the daughter who married a millionaire stock broker.

Into this world came John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young. Glamorous. And Catholic. Catholic as St. Louis is – it is a city named for a saint, after all – I was not immune to anti-Catholicism. The Lutherans down the street would not let me play with their sons, because I was Roman Catholic. Once, in central Missouri, when we ate at a “Restricted” restaurant, my mother, in hushed tones, told me to not say anything overtly Catholic. “Restricted” meant no Blacks, no Jews, and no Catholics. So J. F. K. was a kind of vindication, a coming of age for Catholics. Then one day someone shot that young man.

On that Friday fifty years ago, we kids came in from our mid-day recess. It was immediately clear that something bad had happened. Sister Mary Amabilis, who was both our teacher and the principal, told us to sit quietly, and left us for, perhaps, half an hour. We could sense her seriousness, her anxiety, as she and the other nuns gathered in the hallway, as they chatted in whispers.
Then, shortly after one, the announcement.

Since is was a parish school, meaning everyone lived within blocks, we were dismissed early.

Thus were we introduced to a terrible truth. We didn’t learn it all at once. It was more like the way a small spoon of incense, poured over a single coal, fills a church. And gradually dissipates. People die. Lives change. Even the One, Holy, Catholic And Apostolic Church changes. Today, there is not a single nun teaching at that school.

Yet, when so many folks are gone, when things are broken, shattered, the memories remain like souls, their resurrections. Even after fifty years, the incense, the Latin, the ink wells, the Palmer Method, the uniforms, the Angelus bells. And those nuns, their strength, their intelligence, their holiness. These recollections no madman’s bullet can shatter.

Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose