Writer’s Workshop: Life in Catholic School

I spent eight years in Catholic grammar school, and I think I only got hit once, and that was by a lay teacher. Our nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, weren’t generally a bunch of hitters. They used psychological warfare. I guess life as a Bride of Christ can get pretty boring sometimes, and I just had this vision when I was in school of them sitting up at night figuring out how to make our lives a living hell.

Sometimes it wasn’t so much psychological warfare as just getting a bee in their wimple about something. The nun we had in third grade, for example, was from somewhere in either New York or Pennsylvania, where, apparently, they had a different pronunciation for merry, Mary, and marry. In Chicago, we didn’t waste our time with that, because we could figure out which one it was based on the context. If we were to say "I’ll be merry when I marry Mary" we would know that the first was an adjective, the second a verb, and the third a proper noun.

To Sister J’s way of thinking, that was just wrong with a capital R. The way she spoke, merry was pronounced in a way that sounded like murray, marry sounded like MAH-ree, and I can’t remember how she pronounced Mary, but it wasn’t pronounced like it rhymed with "fairy," which is the way we said all three. So, one convenient afternoon, she decided to waste most of it by trying to teach us the correct (i.e. her) way of pronouncing each. When, after spending most of the afternoon on this folderol, we still said it wrong, she mercifully let it go.

26 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Life in Catholic School

  1. I have never heard of a nun referred to as a “Bride of Christ” and I’m getting quite a kick out of it. I think nuns were trickling out of the teaching jobs by the time I came along. Sister Maxine was my 4th grade teacher but I didn’t have any other brides of Christ teaching me. Sister Marie was the principal and I did NOT get along well with that lady. She is definitely the type that would have insisted on the correct MERRY MARY MARRY.

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    1. Never heard the term “Bride of Christ”? Their wedding ring is the crucifix shaped into a ring they wear. Some of them actually wear bridal gowns and veils when they take their final vows.

      The nuns were starting to get out of the teaching business as early as the late ’60’s. Maybe I moticed it more because many of them were taking classes at Loyola, which was in the neighborhood. First sign was that they all wanted to move into apartments in the neighborhood rather than live in the convent. It got to the point where there were almost no nuns teaching at the school, and the pastor cut off their support…

      The principal we had when I was in second thru 6th grade was a real bitch. One day she pinched my cheek so hard that she drew blood…

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  2. Being someone who only used one way to say all three, this is very interesting to me. I couldn’t differentiate among all three now if I tried.

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  3. I went to public school but had several friends who went to Catholic school. They had their hits-from-a-nun stories, but as far as I know, merry, marry, and mary all were pronounced the same.

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  4. I was never touched by a nun nor did I ever see anyone else slapped or hit. What I remember is that they were never wrong! If I went home and told my parents that, say, ” Mother Mary says the earth is flat ” then, by God, the earth was flat!

    As an aside, did you know that St. Ignatius parish was closed a few months ago?

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    1. It was on their website. From what I understand, they’re keeping the church for special events, but not for Sunday Mass. It seems like such a waste, all that physical plant. Wonder if they’re planning to sell it off to someone who will have the whole thing (church, school, theater/gym) torn down and turned into apartments?

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    1. The thing aboit the nuns was that many of them didn’t have a degree in pedagogy or any of the academic subjects they taught, just the grace of God and the teacher’s manual. Some were excellent teachers despite all of that.

      Funny story about my first-grade teacher: Mary and I lived in the dorms during our last semester. Mary’s dorm was actually what we called a 4+1, an apartment building with a ground floor lobby plus four floors of apartments. One day some people from the maintenance department came to fix something in Mary’s apartment (which she shared with two other girls), a young man and a woman in her late 40’s. She and Mary got to talking and Mary mentioned that she was marrying someone who had grown up in the neighborhood. The woman said “One of the Holton boys?” Turns out she had been my first-grade teacher… how she knew one of us was getting married is a mystery. I guess the former Mother Irene Mary, SHCJ told Mary a story or two about me…

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  5. My (New York City) college major included a semester of linguistics. We did a lot of study of regional accents and pronunciations, and one of assignments was to go out on campus, snag a few students and have them take a quiz involving expressions they used and how they pronounced certain words. One of the questions involved the Mary-Merry-Marry set. Others involved asking what they called those insects who light up at night in the summer (fireflies? lightning bugs? lightning beetles?), and what time it is when the big hand is on the 9 and the little hand is on the 11. (A quarter of? A quarter to?). This brought back memories; I’m glad I didn’t have a nun pounding on me because of my Bronx accent!

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  6. When we moved from NJ to the Chicago area, my dad warned us about merry-marry-Mary. He’d been working there for a few months as my mom stayed back to sell the house. It was so weird to hear them all pronounced the same way!

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  7. Goodness me a nun who knew she’d lost….a rare thing! I went to a Catholic convent too…
    I know their twisted thinking and pronunciation! … We both survived John ….πŸ˜πŸ˜‰πŸ˜žπŸ™‚πŸ™‚πŸ™‚πŸ™‚

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