Thursday, August 23, 2012

St. Therese and St. Mary

When I went to St. Anna this week, it made me realize that one thing I missed in my own childhood was the continuity of growing up in a single parish. I had two primary childhood parishes; the first was St. Therese.

St. Therese Church and School
This is the parish where my parents were married, in the winter of 1963. The school is to the left and I was a student there from 1st to 4th grade. It's a big complex and takes up over two city blocks when you include the playground that sits behind and beyond the left edge of the picture I've posted. I received my first communion at St. Therese. The school has been closed for a long time now and the parish itself is one of the few in the Green Bay Diocese that offers Mass in Spanish, which is a blessing for the small but growing Latino community in Appleton.

After we moved across town, I spent two years going to public school but eventually I ended up being a parishioner at St. Mary's, which is on the edge of downtown Appleton.

Church of St. Mary

St. Mary's was one of the first parishes in town. It had been traditionally the Irish church in Appleton; when Appleton was established in the late 1840s, the Irish were arriving in large numbers from the coffin ships, escaping the famine. These were the families that built St. Mary's.

The German immigrants began arriving in the 1850s, many of them Bavarian Catholics who were trying to avoid conscription by the Prussian Kaiser, who favored Bavarians for cannon fodder in the seemingly constant wars against the French. The German immigrants who arrived in Appleton attended St. Joe's, which was built only two blocks away:

St. Joseph
By the 1970s, the ethnic distinctions had largely faded away, but the two parishes remained very different places. The kids from St. Mary's and St. Joe's shared some of the same neighborhoods. We grew up together and were often bitter rivals, which was something I learned once I got to St. Mary's. We joined forces with the St. Joe kids by the time we all got to Xavier High School, but the basketball games in each other's gyms were pretty tense.

St. Mary's was my home parish during my later school years and I attended the school for 7th and 8th grade.  A number of my St. Therese friends ended up at St. Mary's at the same. While there was continuity in the Catholic education I received at these two different schools, there were definite differences. As we entered the mid 1970s, Vatican II was well established and some of the old school teachings my parents had experienced were fading quickly. St. Mary's had a retired priest named Father Nicholas Gross, who had been ordained in 1921.

 He would have been about 85 years old, but he still came in periodically to teach religion classes to the students. I'm almost certain that Father Gross baptized my mother, since Fr. Gross was pastor at the parish her family attended. By the time I met him, he was fading quickly and we had little idea what he was trying to tell us. He was an old school priest and pretty severe in his manner, which didn't work well with a bunch of kids who spent most of their days listening to Top 40 radio and wondering if it were possible to break into the sacramental wine. And truth be told, he smelled a little funny. We thought Fr. Gross was, frankly, a little gross. We liked our lay teachers a lot better and while we continued to encounter religious in our studies, going to Catholic school in Appleton wasn't substantially different than going to public school. To the extent that religious instruction was offered, it tended to be humanistic. The catechism was something that existed but never really came to life for us. In truth, while Fr. Gross had an important message to share, there was no way we were going to hear it. Now, 35 years on, I recognize that I missed an opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Great memories, Mark. Fr. Gross, I remember him well. I share your comments on religious education in the 1970s and early 1980s. Catholic education did change with Vatican II, and America changed with Roe v. Wade, IMO. But I do value those nuns and priests who taught us in grade school and later at Xavier. Their example, if nothing else, was important and is one of the reasons why I so value my Catholic faith today. There is much freedom in following the teachings of the Catholic Church. And the sacraments keep us close to God our Father better than anything else in this world. On a separate note, I am somewhat surprised you didn't mention Sr.(Bucktooth) Theoneda.

Mr. D said...

We do have a lot of good memories. That much is certain.

I may have to do a separate Sr. Bucktooth Theoneda post. Lots of possibilities.

Bike Bubba said...

It's worth noting that another great cause of 1850s immigration was the failure of the 1848 socialist uprising. Which might have had something to do with the Hohenzollerns sending lots of Bavarians to the front, really.

(interestingly, though, Bavaria marched as "Bavaria" into World War One--Bavarians might have been conscripted more, but they at least had some protection of their own generals in the matter)

Mr. D said...

Which might have had something to do with the Hohenzollerns sending lots of Bavarians to the front, really.

Well, yes. There was the Lutheran/Catholic thing, too, but it was a factor. I know the ancestors on my mom's side of the family were absolutely trying to escape from conscription.