Catholic Girls

They showed you a statue and told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
But they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done…
—Billy Joel, “Only the Good Die Young”

My parents might have had a better outcome if they had shipped me off to boarding school. I was not a girl that was meant to be contained. The Little Sisters of the Poor never stood a chance, although they did indeed make a righteous effort.

Speaking of effort, I was a precocious, smart ass who didn’t need to study to pass almost any subject. I loved school, and I loved learning. Especially anything involving reading. My mother told me I was devouring college level books in seventh grade. This little tale of effort is just one of many from when I did hard time at St. Theresa.

My fourth-grade teacher was named Sister Mary Antecita. It was always Sister Mary Something. I used to believe it was their middle name.

I adored her, and I know she secretly admired my moxie while she openly chastised me for talking in class or whatever daily infraction I had done. This was the year my beloved red-netted slip (so forbidden) ripped apart on the swings at recess. I scrunched it up under my skirt thinking I could hide it until I got home. But no. I sat in the front row with all the other excessive talkers. As we stood up for afternoon prayers after lunch (many prayers happen in Catholic schools), my red skirt rolled out at Sister Mary Antecita’s feet. Humiliation did not begin to describe my embarrassment.

You got a brand new soul
And a cross of gold

Now. Getting back to effort. We received four report cards per year and were graded on many subjects with letter grades from A to F. Not only did I strive for As as a personal goal, but my father also forked out a dollar for each A. Big money to me. One semester in fourth grade when apparently I had tested Sister A beyond all of her limits, I got my As, but at the bottom of the report card, there was a deep red F for Effort and Conduct. I died. I shriveled. I walked home practically backward.

This is a rare example of when my mother actually surprised me. I was sure when she got home from work, I would be grounded until summer. But here’s what happened instead. She silently looked the card over, told my brothers and me she’d be back soon, and drove off in her car. Oh, God (a forbidden word), and thought. Where the hell (yet another forbidden word) is she going? To Motorola, where my father worked where together they’d decide a horrible fate for girls who get red Fs in Conduct and Effort?

As it turns out, she had driven unannounced to St. Theresa’s principal’s office and screamed bloody murder. “HOW can she get an F in Effort if she got all As?” “It is IMPOSSIBLE to get all As without SOME kind of effort!” When the story was later retold to me, I just prayed (we Catholic girls do a lot of this) that no goddamns were used. It was long before I knew she also regularly used the F-bomb. But the mother who was constantly on my ass for a dirty room, playing outside past when the street lights came on–well, she just defended that same ass to the mighty principal Sister Mary (of course) Macaria.

And the absolute best part? The red F was erased, and a new A was put in its place. My mother could be so badass.

Early on, my mother tried to build up some extra credit for me by dressing me up for Halloween as, Mother Seton, the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Oh, the oohs and ahhs from the nuns. Snap snap went their cameras. We were permitted to dress up on Halloween as long as it was as our patron saint or some religious figure.

The stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind
Never lets in the sun

Now, some enlightenment about patron saints. Good Catholic parents named their children after saints. Yes, there is a Saint Dorothy. A name I had to suffer being called by the nuns during my entire time at St. Theresa. Now, even my drivers license reads Dori.

I will never forget the time my best friend Debbie was openly told by the nuns that there was no St. Debra. Nor is there a St. Tiffany, Laura, or Nancy. They stopped just short of telling them there would be a holdup at St. Peter’s gates.

You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to fate

Some memorable moments.

I have two younger brothers that I was tasked with getting to mass before school every morning and walking them home. To me, an insurmountable burden that rained down on a good part of my cool. Little brother Danny was a year younger and fairly independent. Little brother Michael was six years younger and was as bad as having a small child of my own at 12. Please take note: both are named after saints.

Michael had to sit next to me at mass because he was completely untrustworthy. One morning, when I wasn’t looking, he took his little hands, clenched the top of the pew in front of us, and swung his chubby little legs over the kneeling pad and pushed as hard as he could forward in one giant swing. The result was every book bag and lunch bag in at least three pews ahead of us went flying forward in a huge crash in a very quiet part of the mass. I was mortified. In mom-like fashion, I dragged him out of church by the back of his shirt. I won’t even elaborate about his farting on the pews and laughing.

Why couldn’t I have had sweet little sisters?

I was not so saintly (saintly–get it?) myself. The little brothers and I had a mile-long walk home from school. I would tell you it was in the snow, but I grew up in Arizona. When I was in the sixth grade, a new mall opened on our route home. To celebrate, a local deejay was broadcasting and interviewing anyone who wanted to talk. Talk? Hell yeah (I can say it now). That was my forte. I proceeded to tell the DJ about life at St. Theresa, including the fact that our pastor had just been killed in a freak accident by hitting his head on a cart at a golf course. True story. Who knew so many parishioners were tuned in? Back to principal Sister Mary Macaria’s office for me the next morning. I got off easy because I believe she was still afraid of my mother.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun…

I would be remiss not to mention the priests of St. Theresa. There was both a large convent and large rectory on the fairly large campus. We had a pastor, two priests, and many visiting priests that reported to him. Never, at any time, was I aware of any wrongdoing by these priests, and I so hope we were one school unscathed by the horrific scandals to later be exposed.

They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait

My father converted to Catholicism when I was about seven years old, a promise he made to marry my Catholic mother. Father O’Grady, who had just arrived from Ireland, straight out of Catholic Central Casting, made many trips to our home during the conversion lessons. I had a painful schoolgirl crush on him. I once made him a handkerchief, about 6″ by 6,” completely unusable, with an embroidered green shamrock. He acted as if it was his favorite gift ever.

Once, after Sunday mass, I was in the little crowd that always gathered around him. My crush, Father O’Grady, said to me in his thick Irish brogue, “I know you, young lady.”

I was so dumbstruck, the only thing I could utter was, “My mother’s name is Jacque.” As if this information would be the secret key to my identity. My family still impersonates me saying it.

I don’t go to mass on a regular basis anymore, but not long ago, I went to St. Theresa and visited the school. I was saddened to see it was locked up with metal security gates. A teacher was just leaving, and I asked her if the order of nuns was still there. “No,” she answered. “They are long gone. The few remaining ones are in nursing homes.” I guess it’s no longer a vocational calling. But the classrooms were exactly as I remembered them, right down to the brick hallways. It was a good feeling and a happy memory of a childhood and education my parents sacrificed so much to make sure I had.

In retrospect, I believe now that most of my rebellion at St. Theresa was due to the uber strict environment and too many rules that were just begging to be broken by me. And, really, did none of them study Freud? What exactly did they expect the puberty experience to be when you separated boys from girls? We actually had segregated sections of the playground. I can promise you that girls knew nothing of boys and boys knew nothing about girls.

A healthy understanding of sexuality does not grow from repression. Hence, the Catholic Girl myth grew. So misogynistic. What about Catholic Boys?

You got a brand new soul
And a cross of gold
They built you a temple and locked you away.

My favorite priest, Father O’Grady, has long since retired, and I understand from friends that he still says an occasional mass at a church in a town just south of me. I really want to go and see him. This icon of my youth, my memory of years at St. Theresa, and of a time when life was so much simpler. I know he wouldn’t recognize me. But, I can always remind him.

“My mother’s name is Jacque.”


Photo: ©Dori Owen

  1. Oh, where to begin? Your essay was fabulous. Certainly not ephemeral! I loved it, and I bought the book on Amazon! I was in school long after Mary was, but it did bring back many memories. I cannot wait to read it. Thank you so much, Paula, for taking the time to read my blog and comment. You know I’m a huge fan of yours and really appreciate you telling me about the book!

  2. That’s so interesting, Mary, because my mother ended up pulling both of my brothers out of St. Theresa, for different reasons, and they ended up thriving at public schools. My parents decided I was too far along and no way was I going to be let loose in public schools, so I stayed. Fortunately there was not a convent in Phoenix, haha.

    I did get a stellar education, no doubt. I think I floated through the first two years of high school.

    Thanks so much for always reading my essays, Mary, you’re my best fan!

  3. You know that only the good die young… I’d rather laugh with the sinners! You know, I would not trade those years for anything. Not only did I get a private school education as a takeaway, but in between bad behaviors I actually did learn some self-control and discipline. I was talking with some friends about the beauty of the pageantry of holy day processions–something you’d have to experience to understand. There were moments. Thanks for reading, Miss Jackie, it means so much to me ❤️

  4. Lovely, and accurate Dori Owen. So many fond, wonderful memories of Catholic school days. I’m a twelve year veteran, and proud of the values and fear instilled.

    Thank you, for your poignant and funny essay.

    Billy Joel gets me everytime…

    Come out Virginia, don’t let ’em wait
    You Catholic girls start much too late
    Aw but sooner or later it comes down to faith
    Oh I might as well be the one
    Well, they showed you a statue, told you to pray
    They built you a temple and locked you away
    Aw, but they never told you the price that you pay
    For things that you might have done
    Only the good die young
    That’s what I said
    Only the good die young
    Only the good die young
    You might have heard I run with a dangerous crowd
    We ain’t too pretty we ain’t too proud
    We might be laughing a bit too loud
    Aw but that never hurt no one
    So come on Virginia show me a sign
    Send up a signal and I’ll throw you the line
    The stained-glass curtain you’re hiding behind
    Never let’s in the sun
    Darlin’ only the good die young


  5. Lovely post, Dori. It evokes so many memories of my days at Catholic school. Funny, I also have two younger brothers, and when the older of them, in 4th grade, got an F on his report card in some subject because the nun couldn’t read his handwriting, my mom went to the principal and withdrew him. The next day, he started at the town’s public school. My younger brother also went to public school, so I’m the only one in my family with a lot of Catholic school experience. And like you, I didn’t mind it most of the time. There were crazy rules and that business of separating girls and boys at recess was whacked, but I don’t feel scarred by it the way some people do.

    Sadly, though, one of the priests at our church (who I liked and trusted) was actually abusing kids, including a girl from my neighborhood, and I’ve heard that she’s not OK at all these days.

    Still, my first teaching job was at a Catholic elementary school (in the late 80s/early 90s) and I really enjoyed being part of that institution. All the nuns, priests, and teachers there worked very hard to give the kids the best education they could.

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