The Boston Globe recently had a wonderful article about nuns, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, (www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2016/10/13). Reading this brought back so many memories of the parochial schools and parishes in the North End and throughout Boston that existed sixty five years ago.
At that time Boston was a city of ethnic tribes, Italians in the North End, East Boston and parts of Roslindale, Irish in Charlestown, South Boston, Dorchester and West Roxbury, Jews in the West End, Dorchester and Mattapan and African Americans in Roxbury. The glue that held these neighborhoods together were the parishes especially the Catholic ones because Boston was a Catholic city where people were defined more by their parish boundaries than by their neighborhood. Where one was baptized, married and buried was determined by parish boundaries. Many churches had marching bands, Holy Name societies and Sodalities but membership was strictly limited to those who lived in that parish.
Dorchester had thirteen parishes, more than any other section, and St. Peter’s was the largest and wealthiest parish. In 1947 it had 226 marriages, 574 baptisms and 10 Sunday Masses, all well attended. Many a Boston political career was launched by being active in the parishes of Dorchester.
Several months ago it was reported that Mayor Walsh moved from Savin Hill to Lower Mills in Dorchester. That meant nothing to me or to people of my generation. What really happened was he moved from St. William’s parish, a working class neighborhood of three (never triple) deckers to upscale St. Gregory’s which was almost Milton. This was a move up the social ladder for Mayor Walsh.
When my middle daughter began working in city hall as a young attorney she was introduced to Mayor Menino. Ever the city boy, he asked where she grew up and was pleased when she said the North End. “What about your mother”, he asked, “which parish did she grow up in”? Elizabeth was stumped. She knew my wife lived in Jamaica Plain but she couldn’t imagine why the mayor wanted to know the specific parish. She called home that evening and my wife explained that when they left the West End they first lived in Our Lady of Lourdes, a poor parish near Franklin Park but soon moved to St. Thomas’ across from the Arnold Arboretum, a solidly middle class, lace curtain Irish parish. When Elizabeth related this to the mayor his face lit up because now he knew all that was important about her family.
The picture I’m sharing today is of my grammar school class, St. Mary School class of 1958. We had a class of about forty five students all ruled by one sainted, long suffering nun. For years there were the same thirteen boys in my class and the nuns called us Jesus and the twelve apostles. In the eighth grade Marilyn Sarno was chosen as the most Mary like girl and got to place the crown of flowers on St. Mary’s head during the May procession. I was the most Christ like boy which I thought was an honor until I remembered what the Romans did to him.
When “Sister” walked into the classroom all chatter stopped and anyone who got out of line suffered serious consequences. The intellectual range of students in my class was enormous and the newly arrived immigrants didn’t speak English. Almost all the nuns were young women from working class Irish families so teaching in the North End must have been quite a culture shock. We had three parishes in the North End; St. Marys’ on North Margin St, St. Leonard’s (which we called St. Anthony’s) on Prince St, and Sacred heart in North Square. Each parish had a slightly different character. St. Marys’ had Jesuit priests so it had a more intellectual atmosphere. St. Leonards’ was the largest parish and had Franciscan priests. Because of its ornate, Rococo interior, St. Leonards’ was always the church of choice for fancy Italian weddings. Sacred Heart was the most Italian of the parishes. It was staffed by the Scalabrini fathers, an order specifically founded to minister to Italian immigrants.
Each of these parish churches had a grammar school staffed by different orders of nuns. Seeing nuns in full habits walking in the North End was a common sight and the academic year revolved around the Church calendar. We celebrated Holy days, Ember days and Saints days. The nuns marched us to church for confession and Mass several times a week. We spent hours practicing for the Christmas Play and the May procession. Schoolwork faded into the background but we somehow managed to learn how to read and write.
Franny Capodilupo Gannon kept in touch with my third grade teacher, Sister William Mary and we went out to eat with her a few years ago. She was a lovely woman and our class was the first class she taught right after she took her final vows. She remembered many of my classmates and asked about Juliet Tammaro, Marilyn Sarno, Gene Rapacelli, Anthony Gambale and many others. Teachers always remember their first class.
Sister told us a great story that could only happen in the North End.
Across the street from St. Mary school on the corner of Stillman St. was a bookie joint called Brother Bill’s. It was a rough place where Jesse and his gang hung out. Every month or so the nuns would receive a beautiful fruit basket from someone named Brother Bill. They of course assumed it was from one of the religious brothers assigned to St. Mary church and they always sent a thank you note to the pastor. Years later they found out the basket came from the bookie across the street that sent it to them whenever he made a score.
I really love nuns.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.