I started catholic school in 1955, age 10, 5th grade. I moved from the public school by my own request to my parents. Our church had opened three years earlier but my parents, unlike many in our family, did not automatically move my sister and I to a new school. According to my aunts, "Father was not happy with your dad..." But we were doing well; so he left well enough alone. But by the fourth grade, most of the "ethnic" kids had left my public school. The Polish kids to their parish school, the Irish kids to their parish school, and the Italian kids to their parish school. I was an Italian American by heritage. I only spoke English but I had olive skin, really dark hair, and bedroom eyes. I did not look like the pretty little blond girls with curls that dominated my class. We had African American students in the school but back then classes were segregated by "ability" and very few ethnic kids of any kind made it to the high classes. Doris who was African American and I were it. At recess Doris had lots of friends and I did not. So I asked to be moved to where the kids from my neighborhood and my cousins all went to school. But I was scared, really really scared of the nuns.....
More over the fold....
I had heard the stories but I guess the loneliness and sense of not belonging were scarier for me than the strictness of nuns. And I was a good student. So I went and luckily my first nun, Mother Regina, (Cabrini nuns were all called "mother" as they were basically missionaries) was wonderful. She was an excellent teacher and she liked that I was such a good student. It was her first year of teaching and the diocese tested students from first grade on and teachers were evaluated on the tests. I was one of those people who always tests well. I suspected she liked that as well.
I had not gone to "catechism" classes and my parents were not that into the catholic church at all so I was not much into being catholic until then. My only experience up until 5th grade was learning about communion, learning how to go to confession and trying to figure out at seven years old what sins I had committed and how many and being sure to remember them all. I did however, once at my catholic school, like many young impressionable girls, get into it because of my teachers. I went to mass all the time. I prayed the rosary. I brought in $0.10 weekly to save pagan babies. I fretted over babies going to limbo, my parents missing mass, and all the poor people who were not lucky enough to be catholic. I wondered how I would feel if I went to heaven and my parents did not. I cried a lot alone in my room fearing the loss of my parents' souls.
By the 8th grade, I was thinking of becoming a nun. I did novenas. I questioned and read and tried to learn. I saw movies like "The Children of Fatima" and was afraid of miracles, not because of seeing some long ago dead person but because I feared I would not be brave enough or strong enough to stand up to all the horrid things that might happen. Once my 8th grade teacher, a nun I liked and respected very much, told us that one out of four of us would lose our faith and leave the church. I remember (all of us) looking around and counting and trying to guess who it would be. I remember saying a prayer that it would not be me. Then I laughed at myself, secure in the knowledge I could never leave. I was still thinking of joining the convent with a goal of going into commie countries to bravely bring catholicism and save souls.
In 9th grade, I went to a much more strict school with much tougher nuns and priests. Early on I started losing interest in becoming a nun. A big part of that was hormonal. As puberty hit, I discovered boys. Oh I had had boys as friends all my life but it was different now. It felt different. Sex was still a whispered mystery to me but I had crushes and I felt "stuff" and learned (on my own) how to take care of my own needs (which of course brought yet another fear of hell with which to deal). But still sex between a boy and a girl was a mystery. Other than it being about "procreating for God" I knew nothing. And so my education began and the more I learned, the more I questioned.
We had "retreats" every holy week. Boys and girls were separated. But the priests spoke to all of us. I remember that first retreat. Father X told us at that first retreat in 9th grade, "Girls have double the sin, double the consequences for any any sexual misbehaving." Immediately, I was taken aback. I was only 14 and yet the unfairness of that statement was totally unacceptable to me. Why would anyone give boys a pass? They were bigger, stronger, and could physically overwhelm girls. My dad was a cop and I had heard his whispers when talking about some police work with my mom. As well I could read. And I did. How could it be all the girls' fault??
As each year of my high school went by, the fear of hell, the fear of being struck by lightning, the fear of the commies coming to force me to renounce Jesus, lessened. As that fear decreased, the anger at the blatant sexism increased. The top three academic students in my class were girls. I was tied with my friend B for #1 and our friend V was # 1. We were the only three girls in all the advanced science and math classes. Our math teacher gave us weekly tests and our seats in class were assigned by grade. Much of the year we were in the first three seats. Yet when we graduated two boys were picked to do the valedictorian and salutatorian speeches because we were told, "Boys are better public speakers than girls...." In my senior year, only two of us scored high enough on the PSAT to be semifinalists (myself and one boy). Yet when we graduated neither I or any other girl was given any scholarship monies. Guys who graduated as high as 15th in the class got scholarships. Only V, our #1 student, who happened to be female, got a scholarship and she only did because her father was killed in WWII and the veterans awarded her one. Our school, the Knights of Columbus, and the co-ed catholic colleges ignored us. The girls colleges then were small and elitist and expensive. Few from poor families went to them.
College came. I read for American Lit, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards. It literally gave me nightmares. And that was the real break for me. It was not overnight but little by little, I wondered why I would want to be a part of a church that saw me as an inferior being. I wondered what was appealing about a god that according to his representatives on earth (priests, bishops, the pope) did not consider me good enough to represent him, touch his stuff (communion) or have an opinion. I began to read more, from the Gnostic gospels to the Bible itself but I did so with a more open mind. The more I read, the more I questioned. Then I got into discussions with other women. Why are women blamed for their own rape? Why are women told by priests to stay with an abusive husband? Why did the church say Mary Magdalen was a whore? Why, when it was the women who were brave enough to stay with Jesus when he was executed did the church honor and empower the men who cowardly fled his side?
To this day, I have no regrets. I find my spiritual needs met through Zen. I am an agnostic. I love science and math and learning about the universe. Whatever started it all amazes me. I am in awe of the wonder of the universe. And if my patent leather shoes did reflect up, so f*cking what. I am woman, I am good and so are all my parts and I refuse to be denigrated by a bunch of dirty old men who so fear their own sexuality they have tried to make women all feel bad about themselves.
To those of you still finding solace in any organized religion, I am OK with that. Your choice. For me, I prefer a community of love and not of fear; a community of open mindedness and tolerance. I know, or have heard, that some religious communities are that way. I am glad for those that need that and want that.
But I truly think it is time that women and the men that support women and love them empty the pews of the churches insisting on keeping women as chattel. Seriously, the paternalistic authoritarian churches, like the catholic church, is not going to change as long as people keep allowing them to be the masters. As Martin Luther King Jr said: We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.