OPINION: 50 years ago, our parish was microcosm of the times. Still is.

Credit: Sue D'Amico

Credit: Sue D'Amico

Last week, I found myself in the principal’s office of Christ the King Catholic grammar school on the South Side of Chicago. Again.

Last time, I was an eighth grader getting slapped in the face by Sister Roselina, the principal. My infraction? I’d vehemently protested a teacher’s accusations that I misbehaved in Mass.

“That’s a lie!” I said as the teacher, Mrs. Hogan, stated her case. (Back then, teachers didn’t have first names and nuns didn’t have last names.)

Her accusations were largely true, but not entirely. But Sister Roselina, a short, fierce, cigarette-smoking defender of the Faith wasn’t interested in my quibbling.

“That didn’t hurt,” I said, with the best gritted-teeth defiance a shrimpy kid could muster.

So, she smacked me again and immediately phoned my mother, who volunteered at the school, to tell her “why I had to slap Bill.” Mom agreed wholeheartedly the hierarchy must remain intact. I got more of the same after venturing home.

It was a different era when it came to the theory of punishment. I must note that years later, my mom often shared my columns with Sister Roselina, who enjoyed my humor. Actually, she was pretty funny herself, except when facing impudent kids.

Ten years ago, I came to realize why the good sister and her cohorts might have been dyspeptic. I toured the vacant convent, as nuns have virtually vanished in America and the parish was renovating to add rooms for the adjoining school. Upstairs were numerous tiny bedrooms (”cells” as they were called) connected by dark, narrow hallways lined with small metal lockers to hold the nuns’ meager belongings.

I envisioned the bewildered thoughts a new, young nun might have had after joining the order and moving into such an environment. I grew sad at the thought.

But perhaps that’s my modern-day sensibilities.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

During my recent visit, I was guided on a tour of the school by my sister, Ann, who teaches there. We popped into the office to briefly chat with principal Ann Marie Riordan, who was buzzing with excitement as Christ the King had been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. That means it is high-achieving and the distinction is hard to earn. (Just six schools in Georgia got the award this year.)

The current principal, who is not a nun, was overjoyed because this gave her and the parish a sigh of relief. Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese has been considering closing or consolidating schools and parishes as church going has fallen off and families no longer have eight, 12 or even 14 kids as they did in our day. In fact, there was talk Christ the King might get folded into the bordering — and rival — parish, the larger St. Barnabas.

The closings and consolidations in old Rust Belt cities is the opposite of the trend seen in cities like Atlanta, where new parishes and schools are growing with a burgeoning population. Atlanta’s former Archbishop Wilton Gregory spent lots of his energy closing parishes in his native Chicago before coming here.

The award should give Christ the King momentum to remain its own fiefdom. It’s a warming thought that part of your past — as well as your sister’s present — will remain intact.

I was in Chicago for the 50th anniversary reunion of the CK Class of 1972. People are surprised when I tell them of attending a grade school reunion. But for those of us who grew up there, such an event has a greater draw than high school or college reunions. There are few stronger bonds than a shared childhood, of having to negotiate your place in the world with others. It was sometimes a joyous place, sometimes cruel. But it helped forge one’s path going forward, for good or for bad.

Forty-some members of our class from the 80 surviving graduates gathered Saturday and many of us attended Mass before the celebratory beverages. We marched into the large, sparsely filled church and were greeted by the pastor, Father Larry Sullivan, who remarked we attended during a tumultuous time in our country, city and neighborhood.

JFK was assassinated during kindergarten and Watergate happened as we graduated. In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated and we were suddenly sent home early from school, and instructed to hurry home, because of the growing riots. Months later came the Democratic Convention, where protestors were beaten by police. Some of my classmates’ dads were cops, so there were mixed sympathies at the time.

The neighborhood was white and largely Irish and several nearby parishes (as neighborhoods were called) had recently changed racially. There was a siege mentality at the time, with a lot of angst, fear and bubbling racism. An old friend from the class still won’t attend reunions because of those old feelings.

The parish is now racially mixed, as is the school, which might have helped earn the prestigious Blue Ribbon award. Many people have moved along in their racial feelings, although some of the animus and anxiety exists, especially as crime and divisive politics dominate the news.

Hopefully, the recent class of graduates, the Pandemic Kids, will have a similarly joyful report at their reunion in 2072.