Holy Cards, Hell, and High Water

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Summer 1949 • Sonora ~ Sonora was a backwater with no Catholic school, so every summer five young Franciscan nuns in black habits and white wimples were imported to bring the schoolchildren a proper Catholic education. Father Gilmartin, high in his pulpit, was deeply indebted to those five young nuns. During his sermon he’d beam at his young flock neatly assembled in the first four pews, the only two Sundays out of every year the little heathens sat still and behaved like proper Catholics. The Sisters did their best to inoculate the youngsters, dispensing a heaping dose of guilt to tide them over to the next summer. Larry, Carleen, and Betty had already built up an immunity; the majority of the teachings simply washed over them like a fine, quickly evaporating mist. Claudia was still impressionable, taking all the teachings to heart.

Confirmation card Sep 1948, SonoraDuring catechism, as rewards for knowing the right answers, the nuns gave out felt scapulars and scores of holy cards. Claudia collected the most, knowing nearly all the answers. She took no duplicates, “no, I already have that one, thank you.” She wore her scapular every day. After a month, when the felt strap and backing got too ratty, the Sacred Heart of Mary and the face of Christ looking upwards towards God were carefully folded and tucked away in her underwear drawer.

In the beginning, Claudia was a believer, but by the third grade, skepticism was gaining ground. During catechism she had many questions:

“How could the blood and body of Christ be in a wafer that came in a box from the post office? Would you really get blood in your mouth if you bit into one? How come only men get to be priests? Did God say that?

She didn’t get any satisfactory answers, other than somehow most of this was Eve’s fault: our downfall began with her. The explanations she gleaned from the nuns were, “some things you simply have to take on faith,” or “it is a mystery; no one knows the answer,” responses which simply increased her confusion. When she double-checked with Mom, her comeback was generally, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

circa 1949, Sonora nuns

circa 1949, Sonora nuns

One day a nun stopped Claudia and patted her seven-year-old head as she came out of the Sonora Library. “What a pious child you are!” Sister Bernadette beamed at her. “You’ll grow up and be a perfect nun.“

Alarmed, Claudia ran home and tore through the screen door. “Mom! I have to be a nun!” she cried. “I don’t want to be a nun!” Throwing herself against Mother, she relayed what Sister had said.

“Oh, for the love of God, Claudia, you don’t have to be a nun,” Mom pooh-poohed, much to Claudia’s great relief. “You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up. Now go outside. I’m trying to get dinner on.”

Mother spent much of her time countermanding what the church professed.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you’re not going to hell if you eat meat on Friday,” she’d snort, cleaning her glasses and shaking her head.

“No, you won’t go to hell if you don’t go to Mass on Sunday,” throwing her arms in the air in disdain. “And no, you won’t go to hell if you walk into a Protestant church.

“But those are all mortal sins!” Claudia cried, “Like murder!”

Mom clamped her hands on both hips in scorn. “That’s all a crock of hooey!”

“But they said… ” my sister wailed in response.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Claudia,” and mother, rolling her eyes, launched into another exposition on hell, high water, and common sense.


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  1. Thank you Jim Prunetti for photograph of the nuns! He says, “1949 was probably the date my father (Emilio “Aim” Prunetti 1924 – 2007) snapped the picture. I believe they were ‘visiting nuns.’ They came up during summers to teach the local Catholic children and then went back to their regular assignment.”

  2. Dee Mills says:

    I love reading your stories. My family came to Tuolumne county in the 1850’s. I was born in Sonora in 1953.

  3. Yvonne Willis O'Daniel says:

    Loving these posts

  4. Juliette says:

    You have a movie in the making. Keep it up. I believe

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