Once upon a time: Women religious and school days gone by

One young student recalls the influential role sisters played in local Catholic education

Many times people ask me when we’re talking about history just how deacons, brothers, sisters, third orders and associates fit into the picture of the growth and vitality of our Church.

We look at all these things through three windows—the window of our Church from her English-speaking U.S. beginnings in 1790; from the beginning of the diocese of Nashville in 1837; and from the beginning of our own diocese on Sept 8, 1988, the silver jubilee of which we shall begin to celebrate big time in 2013 and 2014!

My window for this column is a much smaller one—the day-to-day adventures I encountered with the religious Sisters of Mercy of Cincinnati from first grade (we had no Catholic kindergartens in Knoxville then) at St Mary’s School, 414 W. Vine Ave. in downtown Knoxville.

Immaculate Conception Church was just a few feet west of the venerable school building that had a four-story convent facing Vine and a three-story school building attached to its rear side, complete with (only) six classrooms, five of which were used for classes and one reserved for the fine arts, especially music with violin and piano. If one wished proficiency at the pipe organ, it was available in the choir loft of the parish church. Sister Loretta Gresham, RSM, a native of Knoxville and Chattanooga, whose brother Joe, became one of our priests of the Nashville diocese in summer 1942, comes to mind during this time.

My wonderful experience began (I think) the day after Labor Day in September 1941. The principal was Sister Loretta and she ran the school from the eighth-grade classroom, which was the only other classroom on the first floor. The first and second grade (one room) classroom was to the west of the other one and we could look out one of the three large windows on our left (as we faced sister’s desk) to see the east side of the church about 20 feet away.

There were five rows of desks with 14 or 15 in each row. The second grade was lined up in the two and one-half rows along the black boards (real slate) and we first-graders occupied the other two and one-half rows. We were seated according to height so I was next to the last one in front of very tall, for his age of six years, Edmund Fitzgerald Jr. Bernard Hartman was as tall as I but he was assigned to the desk in front of me.

There was a second-grader to the right whose name I suppose I never knew because they had a completely different schedule. But to our left were people whom I grew to know and love over the years.

One was Joe Ann Hughes, who became Sister Mary Jolita, now long gone to God but so well known for her ministry as a teacher and principal at “Mercy” schools in Tennessee. Another was Sara Jean Elder, the oldest of four girls, who married Gordon Clem from Holy Ghost parish in 1955. The teacher of both grades was Sister JoAnne Marie, RSM.

Standing about five feet tall, Sister JoAnne Marie was an excellent disciplinarian and our spiritual leader too. For it was she who prepared us for first Holy Communion in the first grade and for confirmation in grade two.

Those were the days when the teachers figured more prominently in sacramental prep than parents—a decided flaw in the system but with teachers like Sister JoAnne Marie it worked out well. Father Christopher P. Murray was our eccentric but beloved and respected pastor and he saw to it that basic improvements were made in our classrooms.

Over the years the desks that had been screwed to the tongue-and-groove hard pine floors were placed on runners (the great granddaddy of flexible seating); the three ivory-globed lights that hung from the ceiling in each classroom were replaced with six new fixtures with larger bulbs and globes that helped with the illumination, especially on cloudy days.

In the third grade we moved upstairs to the classroom above our former room. We began the year with Sister Mary Josephine, RSM, whose kindness and skills were already well known. She was an innovator; she introduced us to supplemental reading. Our textbooks were still our bibles, some costing as much as a dollar, but Sister Josephine added the weekly issue of Timeless Topix, which had lives of saints, facts about World War II (this was the 1943-44 school year), games, puzzles, etc.

Sister became ill during the school year and we were fortunate to have her replacement, a non-sister lay teacher, Mrs. Nora Winstead, who stayed on and became a permanent part of the faculty for several years.

I was apprehensive about beginning grade four. The smallest sister, yet the strictest I had ever known, was Sister Mary Athanasius, RSM. She ruled from the dais at the front of the room. Love had been the catalyst for law and order since first grade. Now it became fear. A merciful God took Sister to some other assignment during that year and she was replaced by the smiling and energetic Sister Mary Ethelbert Hobbs, RSM.

Then came a much younger sister for the rest of the year, Sister Mary Ethelbert Hobbs. She had two other sisters who taught in our schools, Sister Mary Alphonsa, RSM, and Sister Mary Rita, RSM. Ballpoint pens had come into the world as the messiest writing instrument ever invented and I became a victim. It was Sister Ethelbert who came to my desk and practically smothered me with her veil. As an asthmatic, I could hardly breathe the regular air on smoke-filled Summit Hill with the coal-fired trains in the Southern Railroad yards below Vine Avenue that gave us smog on days when others breathed much cleaner air.

I’ll never forget the sentence of condemnation Sister issued, “You are the messiest boy I have ever tried to teach. In the future you will use a pencil.” I remember Sister also as the first sister I ever saw teach physical education to first- through fourth-grade boys. Other sisters who came during those years were Sisters Mary Noreen, RSM (honey came from her mouth), and Sister Mary Martinez, RSM. We had an unusual set-up in the sixth grade: the girls were taught by Sister Martinez along with the fifth-grade girls on the top floor, still the same side of the building, and we boys were taught by Sister Mary Jude, RSM. Also in our classroom on the other side of the building, which faced a tenement apartment building, much closer than the Church was for grades one through five, was the entire seventh grade. I always have loved double grades, with not only more people but also more learning and reviewing.

The seventh grade was as close to heaven as I’ll ever get in this life. Our teacher was Sister Mary Francis Gleason, RSM. She had two blood sisters in the Mercy order. One of them, Sister Mary Denis, already was a legend among master teachers. Sister Francis was not far behind. Indeed, she was the very best teacher I was ever privileged to have. She told us altar servers, “Never utter a response in Latin that you do not already understand in English.” That is good advice to this day when we still grapple with the formulae of the extraordinary form of holy Mass.

Sister Mary Francis used to tell me after I was ordained, “You were the second best student I ever taught.” “Thank you, Sister, and who was the best?” I would ask. “Francis Shea,” she would say with enthusiasm and reverence. Francis Shea was a student at Holy Ghost School when she taught him in the 1920s. He later became pastor of Knoxville’s Immaculate Conception Parish in 1955 until he was made the third bishop of Evansville, Ind., on Dec. 10, 1969.

Our eighth-grade teacher was Sister Mary Celestine, who managed all of us as well as being principal in the first-floor classroom a floor beneath our seventh grade placement.

We indeed were all “one big happy family.”

Going to lunch in the cafeteria, which was in the church basement, was another adventure every school day. Although a distance of a few feet from the school, it’s simply amazing how wet or cold we could get making the journey over and back each day.

The school day began with holy Mass in the church, usually much too warm from the steam pipes beneath all the pews! We traveled back to the sacred space for Stations of the Cross every school day during Lent and for the special practices required in receiving new sacraments, the May procession, and graduation. There was a sister everywhere, “one at every corner” as one of my classmates quipped. It was wonderful and they were wonderful.

In my opinion, the very greatest thing that Bishop Richard F. Stika has done for our diocese is to increase the numbers of women religious in our diocese. Next time: secondary school sisters.


Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.

Comments 2

  1. Post

    Sisters Mary Ethelbert (born Agnes Joseph “Aggie” Hobbs), Mary Alphonsa (born Clara Elizabeth “Claire” Hobbs), and Mary Rita (born Alice Regina Hobbs) were my grandmother’s sisters. Aunt Aggie, as I knew her, remained mischievous and energetic to the end. She often talked about caring for “her poor”. Aunt Claire, as well, remained a caring and dedicated soul. As she’d often promised, although in failing house for many years, she waited until all of her siblings were safely shepherded to heaven before allowing herself to pass (with the one exception of that mischievous Aggie…). I had never had the opportunity to meet my Aunt Regina, as she passed several years before my birth.

  2. Post

    Attended Holy Ghost School from 1954 to 1962 ( last 8th grade graduating class). The 7years with Sister Marie Therese as principal were outstanding for both education and compassion. Proof that outstanding education does not require outstanding facilities. Still treasure my years as a neighborhood protestant kid who was nurtured and accepted. A real shame someone doesn’t do a page about the school!

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