and the Christmas Angel
During my sophomore year at Ste. Therese Academy, a girl named Celeste Grandmasion joined our ranks. Celeste looked like Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet.” At her old school she had been a cheerleader, an honor student and star of every drama production. I have no idea why her parents chose to send her to Ste. Therese, whose students were either future nuns or future felons. The recruiting nun must have pulled out all the stops, because we
Celeste’s father was the first French-Canadian lawyer in their city, and her mother, an older version of Celeste, served on committees and boards. Celeste spun stories of her brother, a star forward at Boston College, and her adorable little sister, Paulette.
I didn’t have much to do with Celeste. My friends were people like Steffi Gatsos, the school bully. But Celeste was as nice as she was pretty, and we were all suitably dazzled. Within two weeks, she had taken the entire school. One notable exception: Sister Scholastica.
Time has mellowed my memories of Sister. I see now that she probably suffered a touch of jealousy. She had not, I sense, had the meteoric high school career of a Celeste. Few people did, and in a small school, a Celeste shone even more brightly. But at the time, I thought Sister was plain mean.
Sister didn’t let anyone get away with much, but she was tougher and tighter with Celeste. Things Gatsos and I did, venial sins she overlooked in preparation for bigger ones, were meticulously noted for Celeste, and meticulously dealt with. She called Celeste “Miss America,” in a tone that showed she meant anything but. Celeste, who usually charmed teachers, fought back. The rest of us stayed out of their way.
But even Sister couldn’t hinder the Centennial Christmas Concert. When Signo Buono, the choir director, heard Celeste’s unearthly soprano, he assigned her three soloes and forbade Sister to give her detention on chorus days.
Gatsos and I, long since banished from choir, were assigned to the ticket table. Concert night was clear and cold, with a foot of new snow. As people poured into the fir-scented auditorium, we spotted Celeste’s family right away. The tall, handsome father. The mink-clad mother. The brother in a letter sweater. What a nice surprise for Celeste, I thought.
The sister. She had Celeste’s black curls, her porcelain skin, the
twin to her wine velvet dress, and the round face and slanted eyes of
a Down Syndrome child.
Gatsos clutched my arm. “The kid’s a retard,” she hissed.
I make no excuse for Gatsos’ attitude, or mine. We were products of our time. If Paulette had been born five years later, she would have had early intervention, tutors, a special-needs preschool, and mainstreaming. Mr. Grandmaison’s money would have bought her everything the public schools couldn’t provide, and the whole family would have walked with their heads up. But this was 1965, and kids like Paulette were a problem – especially to a teenage sister.
Celeste, in her wine velvet, looked and sang like a Christmas angel. She held her head high and did not look at her relatives. When she soloed on “O Holy Night,” even Gatsos was moved. “That song,” she said gruffly, “was made to be sung at Christmas.”
After the concert, Gatsos joined the swarm at the refreshment table. I had to slip back to the dorm for something. As I ran up the stairs, I heard sobbing echo through the empty building. I peeked into the boarders’ living room.
It was Celeste, slumped in a chair, and crying for all she was worth. “Why,” she rasped, “why did they have to come?”
Sister Scholastica held her. “There, there,” she crooned. “It’s all right, Celeste. They didn’t mean anything by it. They’re just so proud of you…”
I tiptoed past them, into my room, and grabbed my sweater. As I ran back through the frigid night to the auditorium, I felt somehow lighter.
Sometimes the best Christmas presents are the strangest.
Ste. Therese: Suffering for a cause
In my junior year at Ste. Therese Academy, a convent boarding school, a shortage of young women with religious vocations led to a teacher crunch. Our principal ended up recruiting two part-timers, from the men’s Catholic college down the road. Mr. O’Banyon was
cheerful, friendly, married and looked like the kind of guy you
would borrow a lawnmower from. Mr. Chevrefils was something else.
Mr. Chevrefils looked like Elvis Presley. Actually he looked like
himself, but The King was probably the closest celebrity look-alike.
Mr. Chevrefils got stuck with biology, chemistry and junior and senior
religion. Do not ask me why they couldn’t find a nun willing to
teach junior and senior religion. I don’t want to know.
Chevrefils quickly earned the nickname “Elvis” and cut a swath
in our pious existence. He drove a black Mustang convertible. Except in winter he put the roof on. Most of the high-school girls developed
crushes on him, for lack of anything better to do. Chevrefils
surveyed the herd and settled on a senior, one DeeDee Desruisseaux.
DeeDee looked like a doll and had a brain like cotton candy. Her real name was Dorothy Elaine, but she’d changed it in honor of Annette Funicello and the Beach Party movies. She did her senior research paper on the history of makeup. But she was practically the only girl in school who looked good in the uniform, and it didn’t take much for Elvis to topple.
They began to see each other on weekends. The nuns suffered in silence. They couldn’t do much about it, because DeeDee was a day student and they had no control of that part of her life. But by May and the Ste. Therese prom, they had to take a stand.
DeeDee wanted to go with Elvis. Mother Superior said, “No way.” She said a good many other things too, but you get the idea.
Anyone else would have given up on the prom, but DeeDee didn’t have much else to live for. She had a good chance of being crowned Prom Queen. She dragged her parents into the fray, and even her hometown priest. But Mother Superior remained implacable. She did not approve of students dating teachers, and certainly not at a school-sponsored activity.
Elvis, grim and silent, assigned us tons of homework and made us do it in class. DeeDee’s schoolwork, already in a fragile state, collapsed under the burden. She had dry heaves between classes.
A nascent hippie, I had no use for proms, but I did have the hippie instinct for a good cause. On the advice of my good friend Steffi Gatsos, the school bully, we organized a hunger strike. “It always works in reform school,” Gatsos said.
All the girls were enmeshed in the DeeDee/Elvis tragedy. We began our strike the next day.
It wasn’t much of a strike. Most of us were on teenage diets anyway, and the food at Ste. Therese wasn’t all that great. It was prepared by 80-year-old, half blind French nuns, and the recipe books were in English. Most of us also had food stashes from home. But on paper it was a strike, and it created all kinds of leftovers problems.
When enough parents complained, Mother Superior gave in. DeeDee got her prom. Elvis was her date AND a chaperone, so they got their money’s worth from him. She became Queen, and they looked great in the photos.
I forgot DeeDee and Elvis until many years later, when I got roped into a Ste. Therese reunion. The cuisine hadn’t improved any. I don’t think they were even trying any more. They served a make-your-own sandwich buffet. As I followed Gatsos around the buffet table, I asked about our old schoolmates, and wondered aloud about the Romeo and Juliet of 1965.
“Oh, they broke up,” Steffi said.
“Is that right,” I marveled.
Steffi speared a kosher dill. “Yeah, he got a job in Rhode Island and she met someone her own age. It didn’t even last the summer.
Pass the baloney, okay?”
Once again, I did it gladly.
Ste. Therese: The Sisters and
This year I expect local merchants to begin their back-to-school hoopla early, perhaps even before the ink is dry on the report cards. With all due respect, they don't know nothin' about back to school.
When I was 14 my parents, for reasons obscured by time, enrolled me in a convent boarding school, The Academie of Ste. Therese, run by the Little Sisters of Pain in the wilds of Central New Hampshire.
Ste. Therese did back-to-school to a fare-thee-well.
Our checklist, besides the classic pens and notebooks, included sheets, blankets, pillows, hair dryers, nightclothes, underclothes, towels, stationery, stamps, dimes for the phone, a prayer book and rosary. We also needed at least three blazer, blouse and skirt uniforms. These were plaid, tailor-made, and only to be dry-cleaned. Since only the day students could get out to a dry cleaner, by Christmas a classroom at Ste. Therese smelled like the locker room in a normal school. But our worried parents checked the things off the list, and off we went.
In 1965 the Sisters of Pain (a very free translation from the French) sensed their way of life was running out. They couldn't compete with the ideas exploding through the rest of the 1960s. They reacted by running a tighter ship. Among other things, they tried to impress on us the great sacrifice our parents were making to send us to such a fine school. Since many of my classmates were there because a, they wanted to be nuns or b, they had been kicked out of public school, that line of defense fell to me.
At breakfast, we received our jelly in those little plastic packets. Like most 14-year-olds, I was on a diet. But I couldn't stand the idea of the jelly -- for which my parents had lovingly sacrificed -- going to waste. I formed the habit of dropping a couple of packets in my blazer pocket.
Later, they found their way to a cardboard box under my bed.
The Sisters of Pain was a relatively young order, and the Foundress, in her 90s, still lived in the Mother House in Montreal. One day Sister Scholastica, the nun in charge of the boarders' daily life, announced that Mother Foundress was coming in from the Foundry for her annual white-glove inspection. A general shakedown was in order.
I knew that my rock-group posters would never survive the purge. They, and the Ouija board, were the first to go. In a panic, I remembered the jams, jellies and marmalades gathering dust under my cot. Under cover of darkness, they went into the dumpster.
I got to go home for that weekend. Really, I didn't want to be within 100 miles of the Foundress. I came back to Ste. Therese late Sunday night. On Monday morning, Sister Scholastica assembled the boarders.
The inspection, she announced, had been a success. (The subtext was, "We will stay open.") But in her own preparations, she had unearthed some strange things.
She fixed us with her best glacial stare. "Some demented person," she said, "collected 200 jelly packets and then threw them out. This is an unconscionable waste. I want to see that person in my office after breakfast."
My mouth hung open. I could not believe her naivete. Did she
really think someone would own up to doing something that
dumb? I mean, really. On the other hand, maybe she already
knew. Not much escaped Sister Scholastica. Perhaps she was playing some strange cat-and-mouse game, expecting the culprit to come forward on her own.
I never owned up. But I never stashed jelly again, either. Nor did I try to save my parents money. But to this day, I eat what's put in front of me.
It's the least I can do.
Ste. Therese: Crowning the May Queen
In the 1960s I attended Ste. Therese Academy, a convent boarding
school. We had our share of arcane traditions and festivals, and some time in May, we participated in the crowning of the May Queen. This usually involved gathering in the grotto, around a weatherbeaten statue of Mary, and singing ""Tis The Month of Our Mother," usually off-key. We all wore long dresses, and the junior girl with the highest average in religion class got to place a flower wreath on Mary's head. Our families came, and people from other parishes. It was the most excitement some of us saw all year.
I was reasonably certain that the crowning honors would fall to me. Boarding students were subjected to a total of four hours of study hall a day, exemptions permitted if you were running a temperature. Under this regime, my grades had soared. There was nothing else to do but study.
I had cajoled my parents into buying a slightly higher-end dress than they'd planned, and I began practicing how ethereal I'd look, how holy. If anyone could outshine the Virgin Mary, it would be me...
My best friend and roommate, Steffi Gatsos, seldom even showed up for religion class. She was a mouthy bottle-blonde who had been expelled from several public schools and her local Catholic school. She tried strenuously to get herself expelled from this one. Only the fact that the nuns were tougher kept Gatsos' academic career afloat.
Gatsos had recently served as junior bridesmaid in her mob-connected uncle's wedding. She had a lovely blue gown, the color of a robin's egg, with sheer sleeves and a satin sash. It was elegant and understated, a far cry from the usual Gatsian mode of off-duty clothing. She liked short, tight -- and sparkly, if she could get away with it. But this time there wasn't a sequin in sight.
I began practicing
how ethereal I'd look,
If anyone could
outshine the Virgin Mary,
it would be me.
Centennial concert with the Buonos, far left and second from right.
The Cardboard Nun, Part I
I first saw Steffi Gatsos combing her hair in the girls’ room at L’Academie de Ste. Therese. “Lousy bleach job,” she groused. “I
can’t even see the roots. Hey, kid, got a smoke?”
When Gatsos, as she preferred to be called, took her tough-kid-from-Lowell show on the road, Ste. Therese was her first stop. She had
already been expelled from a public high school, her local Catholic
high school, and an alternative program for troubled children.
And if Lowell couldn’t contain a spirit like Gatsos’, there was simply
no hope for a convent school in New Hampshire.
Steffi set herself on the merry path of getting herself expelled from Ste. Therese. But she encountered a formidable obstacle: Sister
Scholastica, the nun in charge of the high school boarders.
Sister Scholastica didn’t like Gatsos any better than the other nuns did,
or most of the students. But she was, in her own way, a hardened
case. She would not give Steffi what she lusted after: dismissal.
When Gatsos picked on a younger student, Sister put her in
isolation. When she picked on someone her own size, Sister gave
her an extra study hall. When she showed up with Communion
wine on her breath, Sister gave her a bottle of mouthwash and two
days of kitchen duty.
With all of this Gatsos was still bored, and a morbid fascination
with evil led me to spend much of my free time with her.
We became experts in going where no student had ever gone. When
the sisters were at a meeting, we ran the gauntlet through their
dormitory wing. We found a loose board in the snack cupboard, but we could only reach the Baby Ruths. And we explored the attic, a certified no-no. It held little besides a few locked trunks. Gatsos
was disappointed not to find a mad sister or a young woman being held against her will.
But she did find the Cardboard Nun.
She must have been made for a celebration, a festival, or a recruitment drive. She stood as tall as a human, and her habit, that of the Little Sisters of Pain, was perfect in every detail. She wasn’t
smiling. That would have been too much to ask.
I saw little use for the effigy, but Gatsos’ criminal mind was more
finely tuned. Her eyes gleamed. “Let’s get Robichaud,” she said.
Suzanne Robichaud was Gatsos’ polar opposite, a toadying
goody-goody. She wrote religious poetry. In French. She was a dorm proctor and a student tutor. She bemoaned the fact that the Order no longer admitted girls at 14. And she hated Gatsos.
We planned the prank for Sue’s bath time. While everyone else was at afternoon tea, Gatsos and I muscled the cutout down from the attic. We hid it in Gatsos’ closet. Her roommate never went in the room if she could help it.
Suzanne always took her bath right after dinner, then went straight to our evening study hall Gatsos and I excused ourselves from dessert, on the pretext of study. We raced up to the boarders’ wing.
Wearing gloves, we positioned the Cardboard Nun in Robichaud’s favorite bathroom. Then we went to our own rooms, propped up textbooks and waited.
It didn’t take long. A scream that would have frozen blood made all the girls, us included, shoot from our rooms. Sister Scholastica held a babbling, shaking Robichaud. “It looked real,” she sobbed. “It looked real.”
Nobody was ever able to officially charge it to us. But later
that night, Gatsos found a note pinned to her pillow.
“I’ll get you,” it read.
To be continued
The Cardboard Nun, Part II
When L’Academie de Ste. Therese celebrated its centennial,
Mother Superior wanted to do something special. She settled on a
gala Christmas concert. As always, the Sisters’ idea of “gala” was open to interpretation, and as always, the responsibility for organizing this debacle fell on the shoulders of her right-hander, Sister Scholastica.
For such an event, the convent music teachers simply would not do. Sister trolled the music community, eventually coming up with a former Italian opera conductor, Signor Buono.
Signor Buono, snowy-haired and built like a fireplug, always wore a tuxedo when he worked, even while directing high school girls on a
Tuesday afternoon. His wife, whom he called “Mama,” accompanied us on the piano.
Signora Buono was six feet tall and solidly built. She wore floor-length gowns, carried a lorgnette, and could not speak a word of English. At every rehearsal Signor presented “Mama,” and we had to bow to
her before she took her place at the baby grand.
My best friend Steffi Gatsos and I dearly wanted to get in on this dementia. We had never seen anything like the Buonos, and entertainment at Ste. Therese was limited at best.
For a couple of days Gatsos was even good. But I had a range of one
octave, and years of smoking had left Gatsos with a voice like a bullfrog. After a flowery speech of regret, Signor Buono excused us from his “so beautiful choir.”
Sister Scholastica despised idleness, and she got really nervous
when Gatsos and I were the idle-ees. She got the not-so-brilliant idea of having us serve afternoon tea to the girls and the Buonos. I didn’t mind all that much (free stale cookies), though Gatsos was bored stiff.
One afternoon we had just finished folding the last napkin. We could hear the rehearsal breaking up, the swell of voices coming toward us. Suddenly we heard the sibilant whisper, and felt the onion breath, of Suzanne Robichaud, Gatsos’ private enemy number one. “Have fun, kiddies,” Robichaud whispered.
When we turned, Robichaud had gone. But the Cardboard Nun stood in her place.
We could hear footsteps, a groundswell of hungry girls and classical
musicians. Sister Scholastica’s brisk tones led the way. There was no time to hide the Cardboard Nun.
Gatsos smirked. “Far out,” she said. “I’ll get dismissed for sure after this one. Distinguished guests and all.”
But I wasn’t so sure that was what I wanted. I didn’t like Ste. Therese any better than Gatsos did. Even at 15, I knew this kind of school was an anachronism. But when I left, I wanted it to be with my head high. Expulsion wasn’t good enough for me.
With a creeping numbness, I set out cups.
Signora Buono stood before me, majestic as a battleship.
I poured, and Gatsos did the cream-and-lemon bit. I searched my mind for polite Italian phrases. There weren’t any in there.
But Signora wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes had fixed on the Cardboard Nun. She let loose with her own stream of fluent Italian. It sounded effusive, and it was directed at our cutout.
Behind me Gatsos breathed in cathedral tones, “She is blind as a bat. And she thinks it’s REAL. Oh wow.”
Signora finished her one-sided conversation with the effigy. She moved on, satin skirts trailing, and Signor followed her to a white-clothed table. Gatsos and I dealt with the rush of hungry teenage girls. As Gatsos threw cookies on plates, she muttered, “They’re nuts. They’re all of them nuts.”
I thought so too. I worked fast, but inside, I sagged with relief.
And as Sister Scholastica passed, I could swear she winked at me.
More concert with the Buonos.
Continued from previous column
One day I came into our room and found her trying it on. She turned an
excited face to me. "Guess what? They want ME to put the wreath on. Sister says it's a shame to let this dress go to waste. 'Course I don't believe in any of this crap, but..."
I just looked at her.
The atmosphere in our room became glacial from that day on.
Gatsos, never the most sensitive of women, may not even have noticed I was cool to her. But it was a small school, and everyone else noticed.
The April rains dried off. I moved like a lump through the preparations for May Day. I returned the dress of my dreams for a less-expensive model and pouted through rehearsals. I read magazines in study hall, and sometimes in religion class. Why bother?
It didn't take long for Sister Scholastica, the long-suffering architect of May Day, to pick up on my anger. On the morning of the main event, she found me brooding in the TV room.
Subtlety was never Sister's style. "Kathleen, are you upset about Stephanie crowning the Blessed Mother?" She was the only one who ever dared call Gatsos by her given name.
I had perfected a great adolescent shrug, and I used it then.
Sister was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Kathleen, if we
went by the religion grades there'd be no question of you crowning Mary."
I already knew that. I waited.
Her voice was uncharacteristically gentle. "When you graduate next year, you'll probably go off to college. You may not, but it's your
choice. And when you go home this summer, it will be to two parents who love you. Do you have any idea what Stephanie is going home to -- if she's lucky?"
I had a pretty good idea. Gatsos' real father was long gone, and her mother had given up on marriage - but not on men. In her downtown Lowell neighborhood, Gatsos was known as the goody-goody.
"Maybe she'll pull herself out of that life, and maybe she won't," Sister was saying. "But even if she doesn't, this ceremony could mean a lot to her. Can you let her have this? Some day you'll understand."
But Sister was wrong. For once in my life, I understood right then.
I joined my classmates queueing up for the May procession. Gatsos, near the front, was checking her gobs of eye makeup in a tiny mirror. "I look like garbage," she worried. "I'll never be able to pull this off."
"Yes, you will." I took a deep breath. "Gatsos, you were born to crown the May queen."
It was the closest to vulnerable I'd ever seen her. "You think so? Great." She snapped the compact shut, and some of her old bravado returned. "You think there'll be any cute boys there? 'Cause I don't want all this to go to waste."
"God only knows," I said.
The Sisters lend their voices of joy to the Centennial Concert.