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Catholic Education and Assimilation


(Note to the Reader:  The following is a presentation I prepared for Loyola’s Italian/American Studies Program.  It’s a bit longer than my usual blogs, but I thought you might find it worthwhile.)

I remember my very first day of school in 1949.  There were exactly sixty of us Sister Edna’s class.  We all sat in uncomfortable wooden desks that were bolted to the floor.  The boys sat on one side of the room, and girls sat on the other.  Sister told us to fold our hands and close our eyes while she said a prayer.  Afterword, she began to take the roll.  Because I was bilingual and very nervous, when she got to my name and called out “Alfred Gini”, I responded “si, sono io.”  Sister glared at me, but not unkindly said, “speak English Alfred”.  And, I responded “ora parlo Englese.”  Sister was out of her seat and reached my desk in a flash!  She stared at me, pursed her lips and sternly told me to “stop being bold and impudent!  “Never,” she said, “never, ever disobey me.  And never speak Italian in this classroom again”.  She then asked me if I understood her, and I fearfully replied, “si, ho capito”.  She wacked me hard, just once!  Needless to say, I never again spoke Italian at school!

In retrospect, I want to defend Sister Edna’s pedagogical technique.  After all, there were 60 of us and only one of her, and she was all of five feet, three inches tall, and probably didn’t weight more than 100 pounds soaking wet.  Years later, I found out that she was only 24 years old when I had her in class.  She was also just in her second year of teaching, and she had not yet finished her degree.  I have a feeling that she was more frightened of us than we were of her.  Therefore, she adopted the basic strategy that her best defense was to never offer us an offensive opportunity!

Putting aside her youth and relative lack of experience, Sister Edna and every nun I had from first to eighth grade, were committed to the proposition that organization, discipline, and absolute obedience  were the cornerstones of a good education.  We were required to attend mass every morning before class.  Talking was never allowed.  Pushing, shoving, of any kind, was forbidden.  Failure to finish a homework assignment resulted in silently reciting the rosary three times, while kneeling next to your desk.  Not knowing an answer when called upon in class produced a sever tongue-lashing and writing out the correct answer 100 times.  Back talking, or rowdy, rebellious behavior, of any kind, resulted in a solid wack with a ruler or a vice-like pinch that turned your bicep black and blue for a week.

Sister Edna was a BVM, order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we called them Black Veiled Monsters!  Although I’m relatively sure that was none of my sister/teachers had read Kierkegaard, their demeanor produced “fear and trembling” in all of us!  When they spoke, we listened, and we did exactly what we were told to do.  No questions asked!  But again, in retrospect, it makes sense to me now.

We were a classroom of first and second-generation immigrant kids.  They needed to control us, keep us focused if they had any hope of achieving their three-part goal: Catholicism, Literacy, and Assimilation.  And achieve their goals, they did!

I can still recite large portions of the Baltimore Catechism.  I can also recite, in Latin, an Alter-boys’ opening prayers at the foot of the alter.  I learned to read, and more than that, I was taught to love reading and to regard it as both a privilege and an obligation.  I learned how to diagram sentences.  (Does anyone remember diagramming sentences?  Does anyone do it anymore?).  I was taught the Palmer method of cursive writing.  Sadly, a craft I was never able to master.  I also learned a lot of basic history and geography.  But, I have to admit, math and science, were woefully neglected subjects.  But in the good sisters defense, those were pre-Sputnik days and no one in our immigrant neighborhood saw the urgent need to produce professional mathematicians and scientists.

But more than just in the classroom, these nuns literally influenced my perception and understanding of the world around me, even when it came to something as seemingly mundane as watching television.  As an only child growing up in the 1950’s, I spent a lot of time watching TV-sitcoms – such as, I Love LucyFather Knows Best, and Ozzie and Harriet.

These shows both fascinated me and confused me.  The lives and families I was witnessing were nothing like my life or the way we lived as a family.  The women always wore tea-aprons and their hair was always perfect.  The men wore ties to work and kept them on when they got home.  They always ate dinner in the dining room, and no where on the table, was there any evidence of a bottle of Chianti or olive oil.  After dinner, these TV families went into the living room – what we used to call a parlor – sat on opposing matching couches and talked to each other in civilized tones.  At night, when they all went to bed – the husband and wife slept in separate beds and always wore pajamas and a robe.

These TV families, in no way, resembled my own.  My father only wore a tie to weddings and funerals.  My mother didn’t even own a tea-apron.  We always sat in the kitchen and only ate at the dining room table on holidays.  We only had one couch, and family discussions, sounding more like shouting matches rather than cleaver badinage!  Furthermore, my parents did not own pajamas and shockingly slept together, in the same bed.

For a long time, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.  And I was convinced that my classmates and I, were condemned to live out our lives as second-class citizens.  But, here’s where the good sisters got involved.  They too were watching these TV sitcoms.  They too were experiencing many of the feelings that we were having.  But they knew the difference between a cathoid tube and real life.  TV, they said, was about stories  (d’storia  not historia).  TV was melodrama, and not a documentary.  First of all, “don’t be fooled by the TV families,” they said, “nobody is royalty here.”  “Everyone in America came from somewhere else”.  Lizards and dinosaurs may be native inhabits of North America, but not horses and human beings.  They told us, whether you are Italian, Greek, Irish, German, or Polish – we all came here for the same reason – opportunita!  We all came here for a chance to have a better life, to get an education, and a good job.  Work, they said, becomes the true mark of your identity.  Work becomes your signature on the world.  Hard work, they drummed into our heads, was the only passport we needed for both success and full citizenship.  It was the “gateway” to being a true American.


They drummed it into our heads that work was the “gateway” to being a true American.  They taught us that there was dignity in work, a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in earning your own way and providing for our families.  They taught us that an honest person should never be too proud to do whatever was necessary – no matter how humbling or backbreaking the effort – in order to earn an honest dollar.  They taught us that all honest work was honorable and that, unpleasant, unsatisfactory work could never be used as an excuse for not working at all.  Perspiration, they argued, was the precondition to assimilation.

In the end, the good sisters of my youth taught me about dignity and discipline.  They exposed me to the value and purpose of spirituality, courtesy, and charity.  They drilled into me the benefits and responsibility of living in community with others.  And, thank God, they introduced me to the importance of the life of the mind.

So, thank you Sister Edna!

Granzie, tanti, e’ ti vollu tanti bene!


  • By Eric on 6.23.2014 at 11:13 am

    I love this.
    As a fourth-generation middle-class white kid born in America, I had to work hard to put myself into situations where I would grow and learn the kinds of lessons you did early on in school. I did this by busting my tail at a state school to come to Loyola and Jesuit education after bombing out in high school due to lack of effort completely on my part, and then again by leaving the country for the first time to live in China for five months. Both of these experiences have made me who I am today more than anything else.
    Your account reminds me very much of the stories from my grandparents, who were second generation Italian immigrants themselves. They speak like you do, and in that sense your post has made me very nostalgic. Indeed, it was their stories and the lessons they had learned “the hard way,” that I think, made me seek out a bit of that for myself.
    I’ll close this exceptionally long comment simply by saying that upon discovering Jesuit education at 20 years old, I have only wished I had been introduced to it sooner.

  • By Danielle on 6.25.2014 at 11:25 am

    This is such a great post. It made me think of stories from my own family – Polish, Catholic, and very eager for assimilation in the 1940s/50s. Discipline and hard work was definitely the name of the game. Catholic education gets a bad rap as being harsh and even cruel, but your story proves that it can instill excellent values as well.

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