A Catholic Education: Eight Years at OLMC

As I previously wrote, I attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic school from first through eighth grade. While the previous post gave an overview of my academic experiences, this one focuses more on the religious education I received, or lack there of. Let me start by noting that the parish and school were founded and run by Carmelite priests. During most of my tenure there, the parish housed two Carmelite priests, one brother, and one very loveable dog name Mr. Frisky. I knew some better than others, and I learned early on that all priests are not created equal. Some are better administrators, some are better public speakers, and some are more congenial in social situations than others. And just for the record, our parish never had any known issues with sex abuse.

Besides the normal school subjects, we of course had religion class every day. We just plugged through lame text books most of the time. There were two separate school Masses each week, one for grades 1-4 and the other for grades 5-8. One homeroom was responsible for picking the songs and providing readers for each school Mass. A few times a year the whole school would squeeze together for an all-school Mass, usually on a Holy Day of Obligation.

There were only two habited nuns who worked at the school in my time there. Sister Claret was the librarian until they built the new library. My class was the one who finally put Sister Ernestine into retirement; we were her last class of third graders. One of my classmates actually broke her wooden pointing stick. She never hit anyone with it, but I am sure she wanted to. I really wanted to break her pitch pipe. She’s the only teacher I remember praying the Rosary with us or walking us through the Stations of the Cross.

I received my First Holy Communion in the second grade. I mainly remember working in these gold hard-cover preparation workbooks. At one point, we were each given either a little paper fish or a little paper brown square with our name on it and we had to place it on a banner in church to form a cross with fish swimming around it. I wore the same white dress that had belonged to my sister, but I got my own veil which became a favorite for playing dress-up. Afterwards we were allowed to bring in one of our gifts to display for the class. While everyone else brought prayer books and rosaries, I brought in the Care Bear Cousin, Braveheart the Lion. Most of my family was Baptist, so that’s what I got for my FHC. When I needed a Rosary for third grade, the only one my mom could find was the plastic one off of my First Communion cake.

First Reconciliation was in fourth grade. For that one we had to work with our parents to cut out our names and religious symbols from felt so they could be put on a banner to hang in the church. Unlike what you see in the movies, most churches that I’ve been to do not have confessionals where you slide the little door and talk to an anonymous priest through a window. Whenever we went to confession, we basically went into a regular room with one chair for the priest and one chair for you, and you talked face-to-face. They usually had two to three rooms set up at time and you randomly got which ever priest had the shortest line when your turn was up.

After our first Reconciliation, we were required to go to confession twice a year as a class. Teachers never walked through a true Examination of Conscience with us. They just told us to think about the Ten Commandments, but they never explained how they might apply to an eleven-year old. As a result, these were the thought processes of me and most of my classmates: “Well, I didn’t commit adultery, murder anyone, covet my neighbor’s wife, or worship another God; I’m off the hook for four out of six. I don’t remember stealing anything or using the Lord’s name in vain recently. I’m sure at some point I disrespected my parents. I’ll go with that.” We half-lied because we just couldn’t think of anything “that bad” that required confessing. One year I remember sitting in the pews making up dirty poems with my girlfriends while we waited our turn and still not knowing what to confess.

In eighth grade was Confirmation. We had to choose a sponsor that was not a relative. Said sponsor made us a scrapbook with pictures of ourselves. We had to choose a saint’s name (if our given name already wasn’t already the name of a saint) as our Confirmation name. We then had to write a report about that saint and draw a shield with the saint’s symbols. The actual ceremony was in early December. They told us that Confirmation was our initiation as an adult in the Church; it was our turn to decide to be Catholic. Like most of the people in my class, I went along with it because I didn’t want to be the outcast. There was only one girl who refused to be Confirmed; I later wished that I hadn’t at that time. Since then, though, I’ve learned that what I was taught about Confirmation is completely wrong.

I don’t remember much about religion class other than Sacrament preparation until seventh grade. The man who taught seventh and eighth grade religion (he also taught English) had us memorize the books of the Bible in order and the Nicene Creed (which we mostly knew from Mass anyway). We also had to learn about “Valuing Values”. This part basically discussed sex acts and sex in society but never discussed the Church’s teachings on modesty, chastity outside or inside of marriage, or artificial birth control. The only useful thing about “Valuing Values” was a list of questions about our parents dating expectations that we had to ask them.

I know we picked up a lot of information and misinformation by osmosis, but our education was very incomplete. The basic thing I learned was “God is Love” and “Sin is Selfishness”. While both things are noteworthy and true, they are very incomplete guidance for how to live as a Catholic Christian. Looking back I realize that the school was really just a private school with religion classes. There were some kids in my classes whose parents only converted to Catholicism to save money on tuition. The whole thing really fed the idea that religion is only for religion class and Sundays.

This experience seems to be fairly typical of many Catholics who attended Catholic schools from the seventies on. There were not any classes on Church History or apologetics. We just learned the basics of the Liturgical Year. We missed out on a lot, though. I have a very vivid memory of one of the priests telling my class to “genuflect” on our way out of Mass and then becoming very angry because we didn’t know what “genuflect” meant (kneel and make the Sign of the Cross). This would have been unthinkable when my dad attended Catholic school in the forties.

As I began to learn more about what the Church teaches in high school, I remember getting upset one day feeling that I had been cheated or lied to in grade school. I felt like I had been spoon fed only part of the story; what I had been fed had been ground and watered down so much that it had no flavor or texture and didn’t even resemble its original form. Of course, I also could have gotten upset because I was extremely hormonal in high school. I’ll have to get into my high school religious education next.

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