Sister Mary McCaffrey
To say that I am nostalgic and gloriously joyful when I think of my grammar school days is an understatement. St. Catharine’s in Pelham, New York, was a haven where we met wonderful people, learned amazing things, and played after school until the six o’clock whistle blew for us to go home for supper.
The Sisters of St. Francis (Hastings) were caring people whom we looked at, very respectfully, as our friends. There was nothing we hid from our Sisters, probably told them all the little things we wouldn’t even tell our moms and dads. In our childish minds, our Sisters were goddesses.
The school building for my first four years was a tiny church hall (called a lyceum) with no kindergarten. The 1st grade was on the stage where the rest rooms were. All the other classes were doubled, separated by partitions. But we learned. Some of the students even won archdiocesan prizes and contests. To paraphrase a bumper sticker I saw once: ALL I EVER LEARNED, I LEARNED IN GRADE SCHOOL. Of course, my high school, college, and graduate education fleshed out the ideas, but we were taught all the basics in dear old St. Catharine’s.
Kids really wanted to learn in the 1930s and 40s, and the school got many high school scholarships to. We had special lay teachers for art, music, and gym, and the priests came to the classes once a week.
Extracurricular activities after school and on week-ends were other happy experiences and included every age group from 7 to 13: Angel Sodality, Children of Mary, Girls’ Choir, Altar Boys, Cub Scouts and Brownies, and Boys’ and Girls’ Scouts.
Our priests were very visible and very friendly, not only in church, but also in the school and on the playground. During 2nd grade, Msgr. Hammer came out on the playground every lunch hour to be with the kids in his big cape and biretta. One day he wasn’t there, so some of us went to the rectory and asked the housekeeper if Monsignor could come out and play!
In those days social activities centered around the parish. We had great family spirit and everyone knew each other. I was so impressed in my grammar school mind that all I wanted to do in life was teach 8th grade in a small family parish like St. Catharine’s. (It never happened!)
There were religious vocations from our school and parish—12 students entered our Community. Eight have died, but Mary Alice Howley, Rose Jerome Kenlon, Roberta Smith, and I are still hanging on.
It was a sad day when St. Catherine’s School closed. . . and ironically, I had to close it. . .one of my most difficult experiences.