Once upon a time: Sacrifice is at the heart of Catholic education

Diocesan schools and their faculty always strive for excellence – in good times and bad

Public schools in the South had it very hard during the Depression years and still produced some of the intellectual lights of the 20th century. Underfunded, they made do with what they had, held more or less at bay by an electorate that held on to its purse strings for real life.

Catholic schools were in the same boat with some notable exceptions: Catholic schools had sisters for teachers who often taught without a salary, or if they did receive a salary, it amounted at most to a few hundred dollars for the entire year.

Those of us who are 75 and older remember the annual pantry showers for the sisters. The collection of staples was lifted during Sunday Mass or taken to the convent so that our sisters would have enough food to eat during the school months. Imagine what a treat it must have been for a convent to have received a beautifully cooked roast with all the trimmings from a hotel or restaurant that sensed the sisters’ plight and need for food. That cook or manager would have been so grateful for the education the sisters brought his way that he reciprocated in a most useful way.

Another great resource that Catholic schools had was the magisterium – the teaching Church. Although our families had little or no money and were poor, they were very rich in sharing a religious tradition of eternal truths that were priceless. The inclusion of a course in Catholic religion was an asset that made Catholic schools unique in the land. Oh, to be sure, public schools taught the holy Bible as literature or as Bible history but they did not go beyond that.

Two devices the sisters used for awards, costing no money but countless hours of skilled labor, were the holy card and the star card. I still have some. The holy cards had a picture of the Lord, His Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, one of the saints, or a written prayer on them. Some were black ink on inexpensive paper stock. Others were in color and some even had gold edges. In the days when a dollar seemed huge, a holy card was a priceless treasure.

The star card was developed as a reward for good conduct, academic progress, or attendance. Typically the card itself was about the size of a postal card. The name of the student was inscribed at the top or bottom and to the card were affixed in neat rows gold, silver, or red, green, blue or other colored stars. (In those days a box of hundreds of the adhesive-backed stars might have cost a dime!) A healthy competition existed among students to see who got the most gold stars by some arbitrary deadline. The stars were color coded as to value: gold was the best, then silver, then red, green blue, etc., on down the line. The sisters saw that every child received at least some stars, no matter how little that student contributed to class excellence. This was a 1939, 1940 way of preaching the “theology of the body” that is so much a part of our Catholic tradition today – the excellence of the human being, its dignity and worth.

On another note, Mary Ellen Campbell Helton died on May 18. Mary Ellen and I became good friends in the first grade at the old St. Mary’s School in Knoxville through our respectful rivalry over our star cards. As we sat in a half-circle in small chairs at the foot of a very small Sister JoAnn Marie, little did we dream that more than 70 years later we would still be close and dear friends. Mary Ellen, your star card is filled with all gold ones now. The rest of us are still trying.

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