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Formidable Women

Bobby remained at his desk as the other third-graders were released from class. He watched Sister Mary Joseph erase the board and pack up her books. His heart was racing, and he was trying not to fidget. Why was he kept after class? He had never been in trouble before and he couldn’t think of anything he had done wrong. Boy, was he going to get it when he got home.

His widowed mother had enough to worry about with taking in laundry and ironing to make ends meet. “Education is a privilege,” he could hear her saying. He and his siblings were all on scholarship, and there was no room for bad behavior.

“Come with me, Bobby,” Sister said. They walked hand-in-hand into the cold Brooklyn January. Bobby could feel the wind around his ankles where his pants were too short and the wet snow through the hole in the bottom of his shoe. By the time the hand-me-downs got to him, they were holier than church, Ma joked.

Amazement replaced fear as Sister took them into an elegant men’s clothing store.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Giordano,” she said.

“Good afternoon, Sister,” said a man Bobby knew only by the shape of the back of his head, which he stared at during Mass each week. Bobby had thought they were a rich family because they had such nice clothes, but Mama said that’s just what Italians were like.

“Mr. Giordano, Bobby needs new clothes.”

“Yes, Sister.”

Bobby watched wide-eyed as Mr. Giordano carefully selected and wrapped two of everything: pants, shirts, undershirts, underwear, and socks.

“And he’ll be needing shoes also,” she said.

“Of course, Sister,” he said, and selected a shiny brown pair to wrap up.

“And he’d better be puttin’ ‘em on now before he catches his death of cold,” she added in her Irish lilt.

Outside the shop, Sister handed Bobby the bag, told him not to scuff his new shoes, and instructed him to go directly home. “And tell your ma that it’s not charity—it’s the Church.”

The story is true—I heard it from Bobby himself. I hope he will forgive my forgetting the real names and getting some of the details wrong. It’s been more than twenty years since I heard him tell it. Bobby grew up to be the father of ten and a professor of philosophy. He credits the nuns who taught him for both his love of learning and his love for the Church.

They were formidable women. A teaching sister often faced a classroom of forty to fifty children—mostly very poor, mostly children of immigrants, many speaking little or no English. They didn’t come armed with educational theory—most of them had only a high school education. They had no computers. They weren’t supported by tax dollars. Yet they were able to bring the vast majority of those poor immigrants squarely into the middle class in one generation through education.

Tragically, you won’t find many sisters teaching in Catholic schools these days. On page 12, Russell Shaw analyzes the reasons behind that loss.

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