by Linda (nee Dandl) Harley
On June 3, 1973, we eighth graders at St. Francis de Sales attended the 9:30 a.m. Mass; each of us all dressed-up and well coiffured. It was our chance to showcase our style without our customary uniforms. It was graduation day and all of our parents gathered outside to take pictures. While most students seemed elated to be moving on to high school, I felt a bit melancholy inside, knowing we were all leaving something very special behind.
We would never again be inside those hallowed halls where we bonded, where right from wrong was clearly defined, and where we had grown into young adulthood. It all began when sixty or so of us walked into first grade the fall of 1965 with a blend of trepidation and excitement. There we were lovingly instructed to sit with our hands neatly folded upon our desks and to put on our “thinking caps.”
Yes, ours was the great fortune (thanks to our moms and dads) to be able to attend St. Francis de Sales School and to be taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame along with a few extraordinary lay teachers. Each taught with dedication, placing the greatest importance on our education. Our days began with prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, before moving onto a full academic schedule. From Art Class to Science, English to Singing, Math to Physical Education, all the subjects, and with Recess to boot. All disciplines and academics were given their full measure; their full due.
Goodness and grace itself stood directly before us instructing us each day. Discipline, building character and spirituality were as much a part of the curriculum as anything else, if not even more so. Virtue and discipline were vital; no one was getting off the hook. Teaching each little soul was paramount to the good Sisters.
As the nuns made their way each day from the convent to the school and back again, I imagine the day’s events were played over meticulously, perhaps even graded. I am certain that every single student was remembered in their prayers each and every night too.
These nuns were accomplished grammarians and educators to the highest degree. To this day I believe any one of them, given a ruler, a chalkboard, and a good textbook, will out-teach anyone anywhere, and all without a single computer. If I could give them all a gold star I would. I can only say thank you with the deepest gratitude in my heart.
Our years at St. Francis de Sales consisted of glitter and glue, jars of caterpillars on old radiators, collected fall leaves, brown lunch bags with names upon them, single file lines to the restrooms, the Monsignor handing out report cards (just enough intimidation to keep the cobwebs out), clouds of white billowing from clapping erasers after school for the lucky ones chosen for the task, giant teeth and toothbrush demonstrations, strange powdery substance poured over the vomit of some poor soul by the janitor, a sense of pride and comfort in siblings inside the same school, mimeograph paper, milk monies, spelling bees, the giant playground alive with bouncing balls, shouts, jump rope, sing-songy hand-clapping games, Red Rover Red Rover, Farmer in the Dell, and Duck Duck Grey Duck. It was a time when being handed your paper back with a gold star on it really meant something. And it all happened between dignified processions to church as well as to the school library where you awaited your turn to check out books like “Little House on the Prairie,” and whatever books the boys checked out.
At that time many of the housewives wore dresses, cats-eye glasses, had perms, and snap-clasp purses. Many of the men wore suits and ties with shined shoes. Parent-teacher conferences were held and a science fair one year. Holidays were huge. We had a stage in the gym for Christmas pageants, talent shows, and the like! One year a symphony orchestra even came to school where we all sat in awe listening and watching. During the Christmas season we sang carols in church with such enthusiasm and vigor that surely the Sisters must have beamed. Together we all received our sacraments and our lessons equally.
Fundraising was necessary to keep it all going. Booyas and bingos were held each year as well as the school carnival. The home-made cakes seemed iced and frosted with magic by housewives who really knew their way around the kitchen. Their baked goods would put Martha Stewart on high alert. Our mothers were instructed to save the box tops off certain food products that were somehow transformed into profit. That era also saw us selling candy bars door-to-door — World’s Finest!
We had a gym teacher who tested us all on national standards each year and who coached teams for many years. So great a teacher was he that, decades later, he was thanked by students as they handed him the keys along with their hearts to a brand-new car! He is none other than Jim Pachall who served in WWII and made a promise with his life to teach children. He resides in St. Paul still.
St. Paul’s neighborhood parishes consisted primarily of immigrants settling amongst themselves, finding comfort and familiarity in speaking the same language and a shared culture; all eager to embrace America. St. Francis de Sales was the German parish with names like: Funk, Schovanec, Rudolph, Dandl, Kautz, Bredemus, Leitner, and the like. Growing up on West Seventh Street it was common to be asked what nationality you were, making one feel proud even if some good-natured ribbing came along with it.
To honor this heritage, to this very day, at every Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, the choir director, (and classmate too) conducts the choir in the most beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” sung in German, “Stille Nacht”. It is incredibly moving. My own grandparents immigrated from Austria-Hungary and spoke German. It is a lasting, beautiful tribute (thank you Paul).
Sadly, in 2013, St. Francis de Sales grade school closed after 129 years. A celebration was held wherein a few students were reconnected. And now with the help of Facebook, our class of ’73 has slowly come together, trying to locate all our classmates for our 50th reunion to be held on August 26, 2023.
Those years at St. Francis de Sales were filled with life, love, and lessons. I believe every student carries in their heart a lesson from the good Sisters, or a special memory from St. Francis de Sales. It would be impossible not to. As we are all unique individuals some memories will be good and others perhaps not so good. Perhaps we’ll compare notes at the coming reunion.
Coming back together no matter how many the miles or the years, past any wrinkles, pains, achievements, successes or failures, we will all be able to see each other for who we truly are. For our very essence was already in place those many years ago.
As the 50th eighth grade class reunion of ’73 approaches, I find it is not what we left behind that day in June of 1973; but rather, it is what we took with us out into the world. For that we are blessed.