Women's History Celebration 

March 1997 Franco-American Women's Institute 

 "Did She or Didn't She?: 

Franco-American Women in Parochial Schools"

Some Proceedings from Panel Presentations


panel presenters

Women's History Celebration March 1997, Women In The Curriculum, University of Maine, Orono, Maine

"Did She or Didn't She?: Franco-American Women in Parochial Schools" panel with members of the Franco-American Women's Institute:  l to r, Christine Théberge Rafal, Lanette Landry Petrie, Yvonne Mazerolle, Bonita Parent Grindle, Ethelena Shorette Hill, Amy Bouchard Morin, Barbara Ouellette Ouellette, Deborah Ouellette Small, Katie Bossé, Rhea Côté Robbins.
On The Panel:  Did She Or Didn't She---I Didn't

By Amy Bouchard Morin

 It was very difficult for me to speak on how not going to Parochial School affected me. Since I didn't attend, I don't know. I can only work through it with words and see what comes out. I do know that I mostly liked the nuns that I had contact with. I attended CCD (Sunday school) after the 9 o'clock mass every Sunday until I was in high school, and then we had our CCD classes on Monday evening. Our classes consisted of learning from the Baltimore Catechism by rote...memorizing questions and the answers to them, and being able to spew them out the following week at CCD. I always studied my lesson and was a good spewer so I received a lot of little holy pictures (They were given by the nun each week if you knew your lessons.) 
 Actually, most of the contact I had with the nuns came when maman went back to teaching school as a lay teacher at St. Joseph's. The summer before the new school opened Father Ouellette came to the house and asked Maman if she would consider returning to teach kindergarten. Maman had taught kindergarten in the old school before she married my father, and Father Ouellette knew her and her teaching from the old days. After a family discussion, she decided to return to work, and my brother transferred to St. Joseph's from the Herbert Gray. I attended Herbert Gray School since we lived well over a mile from St. Joseph's, and the Herbert Gray School, where my father was principal, was practically in my back yard. My brother Denny did go to parochial elementary school from third grade on and graduated from John Bapst. At the time maman went back teaching at St. Joseph's I was in ninth grade. The following year I received my drivers license and would pick the car up at the Herbert Gray and go pick maman up at St. Joseph's. Sometimes I would sit and do homework while she finished up her work, and many of the nuns would pass through her room on their way back to the convent. They were very friendly to me and were good friends with my mother. One in particular I just loved...Sister Veronica. I remember on certain days she would come get me and bring me down to her room where she had some kids push the desks back, and she was teaching them how to square dance. If she was short on a square, I would fill in. It was great and I had a ball. I think everyone that knew Sister Veronica loved her. 
 The nun that I came to know best of all was Sister Yolande. We still correspond today. She was the music teacher at the school and gave piano lessons. I had taken lessons for eight years from a piano teacher in town and completed the course that she taught. That teacher said she had taken me as far as she could, but I wanted to continue. Maman spoke with Sister Yolande, who was already giving lessons to my brother, and I started advanced classes with her. She was wonderful, talented and an absolute joy. I looked forward to my weekly lessons. In my sophomore year of high school, during one CCD class in October she came in and said that she was getting a choir ready to sing midnight mass. Anyone who wanted to join the choir was welcome to come with her---it would be during CCD class and we would be excused until January. My hand went up immediately. I loved to sing! What a great opportunity for me. I could sing and be excused from CCD, and spend more time with Sister Yolande! Wow. I was one happy young lady. I sure did enjoy singing that mass in Latin as well as all the beautiful French Christmas carols. There was just something about that high mass sung in Latin that touched my soul. As much as I enjoy mass today, it will never be the same or as spiritually uplifting as those beautiful high masses. They say they changed the mass to English (or the language of the country) so we would know what was being said. But, we knew what the Latin words meant...we studied them in CCD. The mass was not foreign to us. 
 You see my experiences were really quite good. I didn't have any Sister Hitlers in my life. I have spoken with Maman, who attended parochial school in Lille, as well as Mount Mercy Academy in Waterville. She said that most of the nuns were very nice. They were extremely strict (which is not news to anyone who knew nuns), but mostly they were fair and that she felt she received a good education. She remembers one of the nuns (who must have been quite young) would play ball or games with the children on the playground. That didn't last long because an older nun made her stop. Maman heard that the nun was told it wasn't dignified or appropriate and that she would lose respect. What a shame and loss for the children as well as the nun. 
 I remember when I was in ninth grade and our new classmates came to Helen Hunt School from St. Joseph's that I used to watch them. They hung out together and were a really close group. I used to envy them their closeness. Looking back I can see that they probably felt like outsiders, as if they didn't quite belong, and that they were probably getting their courage and companionship from each other...friends they knew and had been with since kindergarten. But, I felt excluded -- as if they wouldn't accept me. And, I was really one of them...Catholic and Franco. I always had friends in school---but no really close friends of my own culture. My best friend lived down the street from me, was a year ahead of me in school, and Protestant. She is still one of my best friends today. Just as an aside, she married my cousin and turned Catholic. But, when I was in the ninth grade she was in high school---so my best friend was not there and I really envied those girls from St. Joes. 
 As a final point, I feel I should say this...The nuns did not have a monopoly on meanness. I had a couple teachers in public school who absolutely destroyed my confidence and self-worth. They weren't nuns, but let me tell you they did a job on me just as some of the nuns did their damage on their students. The thing with the nuns was that they supposedly had GOD behind them. Having eternal damnation handed out to you along with the rest certainly added to the terror.

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My Parochial School Experience

By Deborah Ouellette Small

  My name is Deborah Ouellette Small and I attended St. Joseph's in Old Town, Maine throughout my elementary years.  In the year of 1969, my eighth grade class was the last to graduate from St. Joseph's.  Because of the low enrollment, the parish decided to close the school.  In a ten-year span the student population dropped from 460 to 280. 
  The things I remember most about attending a parochial school are from my earlier years.  My kindergarten memories are wonderful.  My teacher, Mrs. Bouchard, was one of the few lay teachers that taught at the school.  I remember her as being structured in a very positive light.  She was good, kind, and had a flair for not favoring a particular student over another.  Coming from a family that had little, her classroom exposed me to a different world I never knew existed.  The abundance of toys, books, pencils, paper, and crayons were all elements that never were part of my life before.  I remember them all neatly placed on shelves near huge windows.  I found comfort in that classroom surrounded by the primary colors and shapes.  Here I learned by seeing colorful pictures of baby Jesus, twelve-year-old Jesus, and the man Jesus. I couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to stay in Mrs. Bouchard's safe zone forever. 
  But unfortunately I had to move on to first grade.  This time I had a nun who was from the order of the Sisters of Good Shepherd.  She was very strict and structured.  I hated being part of her daily rigid routine.  I never questioned her strict rules and I blindly obeyed them.  Every movement made was controlled by her hand bell or her hand clicker.  Nothing was out of order and every activity was on schedule, even bathroom time.  There was no disobedience to her rules.  If one didnít live up to her academic standards, you were severely punished.  She asserted her authority by slapping you with her hand, a ruler, or humiliation in front of your classmates.  I was one of those students and my life was a nightmare.  My emotional being was at great risk and I was too young to realize the damage she placed upon me.   She stripped away whatever self-esteem I possessed at age seven.  At the end of those two years (I had her for second grade too) I became anxious, fearful, and shattered.
  Today as a middle age women, I am still fighting the battle of low self-esteem. A personís abusive role on another is so powerful, especially to an innocent child.  My experience at a Catholic school was not a pleasant one.  I know that there were many wonderful sisters who taught children, and I did have some of them.  But as the saying goes "It only takes one rotten apple to spoil a whole bushel". 
  Other memories I have are the grand silence in the school yard when the bell rang.  Everything was taught by rote. You didn't dare formulate and express any opinions of your own.
  All my friends had the exact Catholic upbringing as me.  My existence outside my territory was limited.  I knew no other world.  I lived by the Catholic hierarchy which consisted of God, the Angles and Saints, Priest, Mother Superior, Nuns, Boys and then the girls. 
  Second Vatican II took place from 1962 to 1965 and was a period of drastic revision of rules and customs. Finally, a breath of fresh air for the sisters. The new habits were much shorter and less confining.  For the first time I saw nun's hair and legs.  That change didn't evolve until I was in sixth grade. 
  The strict conditioning of my religious training and conditioning left me with an overpowering guilt when I acted or thought different than what I was being taught in religion class. 
  Lastly, I would like to mention when I was in third grade, I had Mrs. Bouchard again and at that stage in my young life, she generously passed on her love for reading to her students.  She introduced us to the public library. This was quite a treasure for me because the school had no library and I was not exposed to books in my home life.  Since then, I have passed on the love for reading to my own children. 

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Parochial School Story 

By Lanette Landry Petrie

   I was born and raised in a small town in central Maine called Bradley. I'd  guess 90% of the population was Franco-American with several generations of  the same families living very close by. We had/have a Catholic Church,  Baptist Church, Post Office, Fire Barn, 3 general stores and a public  elementary school. There were two sections of town - the village and the  lower end. The village was the part of town where the Churches and stores  were located. The lower end was exactly that - the lower end of Bradley. It  was the part of town that would have been on the wrong side of the tracks if  there had been tracks. The majority of the Franco-American Catholics lived  in the village. Almost everyone in town could be considered blue collar  workers with only a very few reaching lower middle class. Even though we  were poor, the lower end kids were really poor. Today the lower end of town  has become a suburb of the village where older people struggle to keep up  their big homes, many of which have turned into apartments, housing people  "from away" or college students. 
   I started kindergarten in 1947 along with my husband and a dozen or so others  in what is now known as The Viola Rand School. The teachers were English  (the description for everyone who wasn't French) and taught us from that  perspective. We were taught things such as making placecards for  Thanksgiving dinner. In Franco-American families we are so glad to have  company for dinner we never care where they sit. My aunts who came from  Massachusetts for the holiday were always very kind and sat where we placed  their name. We would put on great St. Patrick's Day musicals - all these  French kids. I can sing lots of Irish songs but only one French song. At  least St. Patrick was Catholic. We said the Our Father each day and stopped  after "deliver us from evil." At least in those days we were allowed to  celebrate Jesus' birth in school at Christmas. It wasn't until I started  talking to others who attended Parochial school did I realize I had missed  attending school in my own culture. 
   St. Ann's Parish had two Good Shepherd sisters assigned to us but who lived  in the convent in Old Town three miles away. They would come to Bradley  after school and week-ends. We went to Catechism every other night with  choir rehearsal in between. On Saturday mornings we had choir then stayed to  clean the church. Most of the sisters were very nice. We loved them. They  were strict but a kid's life was governed by lots of rules in those days.  There wasn't much difference between church, school or home when it came to  discipline. 
   When it was time to go to high school we could choose to go to the public  high school in Old Town or the Catholic high school in Bangor because the  town paid tuition as we had no high school in Bradley. For most of us it was  clear cut as to which we would attend. The Baptists went to Old Town and the  Catholics to John Bapst. For a few Catholics, it was not so cut and dried.  Every year at graduation there would be a separation for some friends who  chose to go to the public high school - sometimes in order to play sports,  take shop classes, or business classes. I went to John Bapst High School in  Bangor about 15 miles away. It was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy and  Christian Brothers. For the first time I was separated from the boys - girls  on one side of the building, boys on the other. I never minded much accept  when it came time for graduation and I didn't know many of the boys making up  half the class. I always was a good student and the sisters liked the  Bradley girls because we had to make such sacrifices to attend. There was no  official transportation so we got rides where we could. My freshman year I  rode with my uncle who worked for the Air National Guard at Dow Air Force  Base in Bangor. He left home in time for us to get to school on time. In  the afternoon we would take the city bus to Old Town and walk the three miles  home. The boys did lots of hitch hiking which was much safer in those days.  Other years I rode down with a senior boy who had his own car then I got a  job in Bangor after school riding home with my father who worked there.  After school activities were impossible because of the distance. This added  to the isolation from our classmates, but the kids in Bradley always stuck  together so we had friends. Again, the sisters and brothers were strict but  we expected it. The Sisters of Mercy were friends of my family as I have an  aunt who has been a Mercy for 60+ years. I credit them with a good education  and firm grounding in my faith. 
   Those of us who went to John Bapst were taught to believe that we were better  in some way then the others who went to public school. John Bapst was very  well respected as a college prep school which turned out well educated, well  trained students. I went into the business course where we were thought less  bright than the college prep students. Most of us were from families with  little hope of college due to lack of funds. My business course girlfriend  from Bradley was Salutatorian of our graduating class. The two honor  positions were alternated each year between a boy and girl. It just happened  to be the boys year on top. We didn't lack brains just opportunity. I was  approached in my junior year to contemplate a religious vocation. The next  two years were a bit emotionally schizophrenic as I was drawn to the life of  a nun but had already been in love with my husband, on and off, since  kindergarten. Life in the late 50's for good Catholic girls in Bradley was  very sheltered. By the end of my senior year, I decided not to enter the  convent and take my chance on a job and, hopefully, marriage and a family -  the only choices for poor girls. 
   Presently, I have been married to my kindergarten classmate for 30+ years,  have two grown daughters, and one granddaughter. My oldest daughter attended  John Bapst its last two years as a Catholic school. My granddaughter,  Mallory Anne, lives in Bangor and has attended St. Mary's Grammar School for  three of her four years of formal education. The principal is a Sister of  Mercy. Our family, including my granddaughter, has been very happy with this  experience so far. It amazes me the amount of information Mallory has about  Jesus, the saints and life as a Catholic. Her school life is still not in  French but today's world is much more aware of the importance of one's  culture. The principal is Franco-American as well as the school secretary  and several teachers. Mallory has had the opportunity to express her  Frenchness in several ways. One in particular is when asked to make a  musical instrument out of things at home, she made spoons. She and I had  spent time playing spoons with French music at home. 
   My parochial school experience has left me with some negative experiences but  by and large I have benefited from the years at John Bapst High School on  several levels. Most especially I was taught respect for myself and others.  Much of my formation of conscience happened in those days and has served me  well. I have taken that foundation and developed an adult relationship with  Jesus which has allowed me to make choices for my life where the law fails to  meet the situation. I trust the Holy Spirit to continue to move in my life  and guide me to the Father. 

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Excerpt from Wednesday's Child, winner of the 1997 Maine Writers and Publishers Chapbook Award

By Rhea Côté Robbins

  My view on Catholic parochial school comes from the era in which I was in school, both schools I attended where located in Waterville, Maine. I went to Mont Merici Academy for kindergarten 1958-58, and then Notre Dame School, 1959 to 1967. Our class was the last eighth grade graduating class of the Notre Dame School. For graduation, we had our formal portrait taken with the priest. For that occasion I convinced my maman I needed a pair of three-inch heels. It was the buy-out to freedom in my eyes. Nylons with a garter belt and three-inch heels. After the photo, still dressed in my white graduation dress, walking barefoot in nylon stockinged feet, the heels were too tight for a two-mile walk home, we laughed and talked our way toward the future. I stare at the photo of the thirteen graduating young women of the class of 1967, and I see innocence tempered with rivalry. Bouffant hairdos imitating adulthood. We blamed our lives on our fates. I went on to become more of myself in the public high school, but it is with a retrospective glance that I now realize what I was given in all those years of Catholic education. The courage to go on with whatever my life manages to dish out. And the writing. I was given the love of writing. We wrote and wrote for days with our favorite nun. But that was when we we older. The following is a chapter excerpt from the book I have written about the earlier years at Notre Dame School. The pre-Vatican II years. The Baltimore Cathechism years. It is the title chapter, Wednesday's Child. I believe that my early formation speaks to my life as a Franco-American woman today. 

  "Roneka, The Forest Queen" is the title of an original operetta written by a young lady of this village, to be performed at Town Hall on Friday evening of next week.  The parts will all be taken by young ladiesóamong whom will be musical talent that promises an attractive exhibition.
    óThe Waterville Mail, Vol. XXIV, No. 20, November 11, 1870

An Attractive Exhibition
 Wednesday's children are those who are born in the middle of the week.  Somewhere in the middle of it all.  Wednesday's children get it from both ends.  Sometimes it is something good and sometimes it is something not so good.  They used to say Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day.  That was for the Italians.  There were not too many Italians in the town I grew up in.  The French people ate spaghetti anyway.  Too much, according to my older brother.  He refuses to eat "spaghet" to this day.  When I married I learned to make spaghetti so good, people told me I must have Italian somewhere in me.  What I wanted to do, was to make an economical meal which reminded you of wealth.  Of nights in Italy which came through the sauce.  Sometimes, I'd bake an Italian bread, too.  Mostly, I made white bread.  Four loaves every week when I was first married.  It would cost me ten cents a loaf to make.  Friends would come over and hope it was bread baking day.  You do something that often, for a long time, you get good at it and then the heart goes out of it and the skill goes somewhere back there in memory like a great being or presence it is.  Some days, I let my bread baking come back to me.  I wonder who I used to be and what I was like back then.  Before I had my children, or before people died, or before I had cancer.  Nobody who was close to me was dead yet.  I think of the time when I began to sort things out for myself.  Coming from where I came and going to where I am going. 
 I step away from my French beginning often.  From my Franco-American neighborhood.  I am on a search for a classical existence. One of white lights only on the Christmas tree.  I arm myself to the teeth in hopes of leaving myself behind.  The one who lives in a neighborhood of French speaking peoples. 
 Neighborhood as concrete sidewalks sloping sideways on the way to school.  Fighting who would walk next to whom.  I was always fighting for the middle.  The middle meant you could hear everything that was said and that you could be the one next to the popular girl, which was not the one in the middle, but the one on the end and the other girl on the other end had to be kept away from the popular girl. We played a dodge game when we walked home.  A fight for space or place where our importance in the social order fell in step with who walked closest to the popular girl.  I was the highest in the social order because of how I figured out to walk in the middle.  Until I told no one, my status walking home was quite high.  I fought for the middle spot and we would walk home jostling each other to maintain the horizontal queen of the sidewalk.  Popularity came to a person by a special benediction from God.  No one needed to point out this special benediction from God because we could feel the dispensation in the girl.  She had the longest, dirtiest finger nails on a little girl I had ever seen.  Her nails shocked me, but her sense of person was so fine that we only mentioned the nails once amongst ourselves and that was years later when she had discovered the miracle of the fingernail file.  My own nails were kept clipped short and bleeding at all times.  I practiced several forms of cannibalism and self-destruction.  I also ate my brown paper bag book cover off my books and the mohair yarn from Gabrielle's newly knitted beret.  I gutted pencils and used their erasers as chewing gum.  The nun would say, "Spit out the chewing gum. And stay after school tonight."
 I'd spew chewed eraser into the trash and go home on time. 
 The ritual of biting my nails to the quick and all the skin surrounding the nails was a point of pride and a show of extreme I-don't-care.  Biting the inside of my mouth seconded the air of nonchalance and furthermore ensured the middle ground I had acquired for myself on the sidewalk morning, noon and night.  I maintained a aura of I am tough and don't you mess with me by several female chest puffing rituals that I personally devised.  Some were taken from my brothers and family habits which I adapted and implemented with huge success.  In the land of parochial school in order to survive you had to have a gimmick.  My way of rising above the Christian, Catholic crowd was to refuse to run in any popularity contest when I failed to break through "Red Rover, Red Rover send Rhea right over" and was laughed out of the game and when the cheese began to smell when we played "Farmer in the Dell."
 "Farmer in the Hell," I think to myself now.
 Compared to Catholic parochial school, my sandbox guy friends were nice.  At least with them we could decide on a game or a way of being.  Catholic school children playing Monday through Friday on the Sunday church parking lot, because the church was on third floor over the school, develop a hardness of being which does not allow for touch of the humane.  We live a complicated system of reward and punishments.  Reward is singular because that came only at the end of the year; punishments were daily.  Mostly for who or what you were.  Ethnic cleansing in the case of parochial school meant to dehumanize you to the point of prayeróto be released from this private hell.  So, in order to survive, you develop tactics which are not healthy.  The abuse begun in the classroom, continued outside in the yard.  Every thing was divided according to sexógender.  Boys on one side; girls on the other.  A crack in the sidewalk determines your sex.  One step over the line while the patrolling nun's back was turned made you a hero or got you a punishment.  We all knew we were sinning when we stepped over the crack to the boy's side, but we sinned anyway.  If you were caught stepping over the line you got either a look of reprimand which you immediately mimicked when the nun's back was turned on her Angelus patrol or you had the opportunity to stand with your face pressed against brick for the rest of the recess. 
 One year, due to our continued unpious playing during the ringing of the Angelus, the nuns came up with a idea.  At the strike of noon when the church sexton faithfully rang the Angelus, we were to cease our pagan playingóstop all motionóand pray.  A short prayer, mind you, but with a mindfulness to our dear Godónôtre bon Dieu.  The message was delivered en masse to the entire school.  Tomorrow when M. Thibodeau rings the bells, stop your playing, and pray.  The nuns thought they had infiltrated the yard at last.  Our indoctrination would be complete.  The bells rang, the children stopped, but it is how we stopped that forced the nuns to rescind their request and to tell us to continue playing at the ringing of the Angelus. 
 As the bells rang, we froze in motion however we were.  Our grotesqueries grew with each passing day. We devised a contest to see who could come up with the best deformed body pose to pray in.  I often wonder at the tableau we presented to the surrounding apartment dwellers.  At the stroke of noon the entire school yard of 300 or more children would deaden to a silence and freeze in motion as if time frozen.  When the bells seized their ringing, action would resume with the feeling we had never dropped a second.  Crash the boy into the wall, jump the rope, tag the boy inches away just unthawed, twirl the girl, bounce the ball, roll the marble.  The anticipation before the bells rang grew to a pitch and volume of scream, delight and decadence to match Mardi Gras.  The nuns removed the request when they saw their only recourse was to jail us all.  The Angelus rang over the heads of playing, running, jumping, screaming unhypocritical children for the rest of my stay at Notre Dame School.  Give a good Catholic child a religious artifact and we could undo its mystification or power in five minutes.  We became expert at deflecting punishment. 
 Forced to eat the lunch?  Throw it up.  Go to confession too often?  Make up some sins.  Splash the holy water too fast with your fingers and before you know it the font is empty.  In later years, go into the church during recess and light all the candles or blow them out depending on how you feel.  All as a matter of sabotage and undoing the too strict ritual placed on ordinary children who were expected to be at all timesótemples of God.  Temples of Doom.

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Page uploaded:  December 30, 1998
Revised:  10-19-2005