By Joann M. Ringelstetter
This week is Catholic Schools Week. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, "National Catholic Schools Week is the annual celebration of Catholic education in the United States. The theme for National Catholic Schools Week 2019 is ‘Catholic Schools: Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.’”
During the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, the older kids in our family attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School in the small town of East Bristol, Wisconsin. This school was built in 1905 and our mother and her siblings also attended school there. The school served grades 1-8, with two grades in each of the four classrooms. There was also a small library. The school building was similar in size and design to this old school in Rock Springs, Wisconsin.
The Sisters of the Divine Savior staffed St. Joseph’s school and, in fact, inspired three of our mother’s sisters to join the convent. The nuns wore black habits and were fairly strict, but I think they had to be. With two grades in each room, there were close to 50 students being taught by each of the four teachers. And while they taught a subject that was suited to only one grade, the other grade had to keep quiet (no small management task for these courageous nuns).
When anyone misbehaved, they were either banished to the cloakroom for a while or sent to stand shamefully behind the piano that was in the corner of the room. Unfortunately, I have a vague memory of having to stand behind the piano once. I’m not sure what the offense was, but it was probably for talking while Sister was trying to teach. With that many kids in one room, our desks were very close together. And we sat in alphabetical order by our last names, so Ruth and I were both sitting next to our cousins.
In spite of a few memories like that one, most of my memories of attending St. Joseph’s School are very good ones. Thinking about that piano in the corner reminds me of one of my favorite classes – music. We had these large hard-covered songbooks that had so many good songs in them. I remember enjoying singing so much and found myself singing these songs often when I was away from school. This was one class that could be shared by both grades in the room. And how talented those nuns were to be able to teach all the subjects they did for two grades, not to mention being able to play the piano.
I also liked our weekly visits to the small library, which was a long narrow room between the two upstairs classrooms. There were shelves of books on both of the long walls, and a window at the other end. It was barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side to look at the books on the shelves. And only two or three kids could go in at one time, so you had to make your choice quickly. You were only allowed to check out one book for the week.
In front of the window, there was a podium where an older student managed the checkout process. You handed them your book, they took the cream-colored card out of the pocket attached to the inside of the book cover, and then they had you sign your name to the card. There was a series of books called Teenage Tales that were very popular and only 7th and 8th graders were allowed to check them out. I waited (impatiently) until I got to 7th grade so I could also read these books.
We started each school day with Mass in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which was next to the school. Because we received Communion during daily Mass, we had to fast beforehand. That meant bringing something for breakfast to be eaten after Mass. When we got back to the classroom, a square metal crate was brought in. It contained cartons of white milk, which cost a penny each. On Fridays, there was also a crate of chocolate milk, which cost two pennies per carton. Breakfast for us usually consisted of two pieces of cold buttered toast and I always looked forward to Fridays when I could have it with chocolate milk.
At lunchtime, we walked single file past the church to the church hall building. When you entered the hall, the steps led upstairs and downstairs. The upstairs of the church hall was used for church functions and wedding receptions. It was also used infrequently for school activities. At the far end, there was a stage that was used for school plays and music programs, including an annual Christmas program. One of my favorite things, though, was Lenten movie time. The nuns would set up a movie projector and screen, and the floor was filled with folding chairs. Once a week during Lent, we watched movies about the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
School lunches were served downstairs in the hall, which was filled with long tables and folding chairs. You stood in a long line and when you reached the front of the hall, you grabbed a tray and walked past the serving window where the ladies of the parish put things like scalloped potatoes and buttered carrots on your plate. Or a favorite (for some reason) of two slices of fried Spam, mashed potatoes with melted butter, and corn. On Fridays, when Catholics couldn’t eat meat year-round, we had tuna casserole or fish sticks. Meals were fairly simple and repeated regularly.
We would, of course, rush through lunch so that our recess time was longer. During warm weather, we played on the playground equipment. There was a set of swings and a big slide for the older kids and another set of swings and a smaller slide for the younger kids. My cousin, Judy, and I have fond memories of swinging as high as we could swing and giggling our heads off. There were also teeter totters, monkey bars, and a merry-go-round along with two ball diamonds where there were always games being played.
In the winter, when conditions were right, there was a skating pond where one of the ball diamonds was located. We brought our skates to school with us and spent our lunchtime recess skating on the pond. And remember how I called the nuns courageous? Well, some of them would don a pair of skates and come out and skate with us, in their habits, of course. What fun!
One other fond memory I have is a day of prayer in the Catholic Church called Rogation Day. It is a special day set aside around the time of spring planting to pray for the crops. On this day, all the school kids would line up behind the priest and altar boys and we would walk up to the cemetery and back while praying for the crops. Being a farm kid, this seemed very important to me. Below is a picture of the road we took up to the cemetery. It was gravel then, and I loved the sound of the gravel crunching beneath our feet as we walked and prayed. I probably also loved being outside rather than in the classroom!
We left East Bristol in the summer of 1968 and, as it turned out, that year was the last year the school served grades 7-8. In 1970, after the sisters were withdrawn from the school because of their declining numbers, the decision was made to close the school. It was the end of an era for St. Joseph’s parish. In 1993, the school was demolished. Before demolition, school items were for sale. If I had known, I might have tried to get my hands on one of those songbooks or a copy of Teenage Tales! The good news is that the convent where the nuns lived is still standing.
A couple years ago, we visited the site of the school and found a brick memorial there featuring the cornerstone of the old school. A bronze plaque reads, “On this site stood St. Joseph's School, erected in 1905. It was closed in 1970 and razed in 1993. This monument is in memory of the students who attended and a tribute to the sisters who taught here and served this parish.”
And speaking of a tribute to the Sisters of the Divine Savior who taught us at St. Joseph’s School, we feel that we owe them so much for the excellent education we received from them. After initially publishing this blog post, my sister Phyllis reminded me of the solid foundational skills we gained from them in reading, phonics, spelling, writing, and sentence structure, no matter how much we complained about the endless sentence diagramming! So, thank you, Sisters!
Happy Catholic Schools Week and Happy Shunpiking!
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