Through Any Given Door

1.53 Holy Cards, Hell, and High Water

Summer 1949 • Sonora, California ~ Sonora was a backwater with no Catholic school, so every summer a fleet of young Franciscan nuns in black habits and white wimples were imported to bring the local schoolchildren a proper Catholic education, as much as they could cram into their small heads in two weeks anyway. And for that short time, those five nuns had complete charge of the Catholic children of Tuolumne County. The Sisters did their best to inoculate the impressionable students, dispensing a heaping dose of guilt to tide them over to the next summer. Claudia took to the vaccine. Larry, Carleen, and Betty had already built up their 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.

It was during summer school when Claudia, barely seven, learned about brass hand bells, and that when the nuns rang them, there was to be complete and total silence. The young charges single-filed in by the bell and genuflected by the bell. They sang, knelt, sat and rose by the bell. When practice was over, the children made the sign of the cross, genuflected again and single-filed out by the bell, forty miniature soldiers obediently marching in God’s army.

The Sisters didn’t go into the Bible; that was Father Gilmartin’s job, which he solemnly delivered during Sunday sermons. The nuns took on the task of ingraining the Baltimore Catechism in these youthful minds, preparing the children for their First Holy Communion and Confirmation. They taught them the Ten Commandments. They drilled into them the distinctions between mortal and venial sins. They told them stories of saints, famous and obscure, and the three miracles performed by each necessary to propel one to sainthood. The saints were important to these novitiates faithfully serving God.

As rewards for knowing the right answers, the nuns gave out felt scapulars and scores of holy cards. Knowing all the answers (and she took no duplicates, “no, I already have that one, thank you”), Claudia got the most, which was easy as there was no shortage of saints. 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 up towards God were carefully folded and tucked away in her panty drawer.

In the beginning, Claudia was a believer, but by the time she entered 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?” She knew the boys did and none of them got blood in their mouths.

“How come only men can be priests? Did God say that?”

“Why can’t girls go behind the altar rail?”

“How come girls have to cover their heads in church?”

“Why do women have to give birth to children in pain?”

She didn’t get any satisfactory answers, other than somehow most of this was Eve’s fault; our downfall began with her. And then when Claudia found out that Eve was made out of Adam’s rib, well, that little tidbit made it clear to her that women were not as good as men from the get-go. The only answers 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.” These responses 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

Coming out of the Sonora Library (the library and the church tied for first place as Claudia’s second home), one of the nuns recognized Claudia and stopped her and to pat her seven-year-old head. “What a pious child you are!” Sister Bernadette beamed. “You’ll grow up and make a perfect nun.“

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

“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.”

My sister took everything to heart, even jokes. “You are such a literal child,” Mom would say to her. And she was. With her soft dimples, upturned nose and innocent cherub chin, Claudia didn’t think people would go around lying about things.

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

“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 yet another exposition of hell, high water, and common sense.

to be continued…

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. I hope Claudia finally sorted out all the contradictions (how confusing could all that conflicting info be?!) and found her own spiritual path! What’s that line in the CS&N song Winchester Cathedral: “Look at all the harm that is done in the name of…….”. Another good, provocative story… thanks Catherine!

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