Sunday, November 05, 2017

Convent, gone

All that remains. November 5, 2017. I never realized until I saw this rubble that the mortar used on these bricks was purple. Yellow bricks with purple mortar. All these years, and I never noticed that.

The former convent at the old St. Mary's school in Nanticoke has been torn down.

St. Mary's church (background), new rectory (left), convent (right), November 6, 2005 - twelve years less one day ago.

Perhaps some explanation is necessary. In the olden days, a Roman Catholic Parish consisted of several physical parts. Central, of course, was the church itself. This was the gathering place of the members of the parish for weekly attendance at Mass, and for special masses throughout the year. Next to the church was the rectory, the home of the parish priest - or, often, priests. This also served as an office for the priest, a place for him to meet with members of the parish for parish business or private conversations. Near to the church was the parish school. At one time, Catholic schools were the primary alternative to the public school system in many areas. These schools were small, but each parish usually had its own, and even in a small city like Nanticoke this meant multiple Catholic schools for the multiple parishes. Next to the school was a convent. The convent provided dormitory-like housing for the parish nuns, who also served as the primary teachers at the Catholic schools.

The whole system has been in decay since before I was born. My parish, Our Lady of Czestochowa (commonly called St. Mary's), had already combined its school system with that of crosstown parish St. Stanislaus. Kindergarten was at St. Mary's, as were first grade and all subsequent odd-numbered grades; even-numbered grades had classes at St. Stan's. This arrangement ended before I made it to sixth grade, at which point all classes were being held in St. Mary's. There just weren't enough students to sustain two schools.

"New" rectory, convent, and school, March 2005

There also weren't enough nuns to teach all the grades. Kindergarten was taught by a lay teacher, as were second and third grade. At least one other class was taught by a lay teacher - sixth grade, I believe. The nuns were getting older, and more of them went to the retirement home in Reading each year.

I graduated from eighth grade in 1981. Not long after, St. Mary's and St. Stan's combined their schools with the nearby Holy Trinity parish. (Another parish, St. Joseph's, had closed its school a few years earlier, sending its handful of students to St. Mary's.) All of the classes were held in Holy Trinity's school. St. Mary's school closed.

With the closing of each school, the associated convent became superfluous. While nuns provided other services in the parish, their primary role was educational. Without students and a school, the nuns were no longer needed. They moved out of the convents, which, like the schools, were either repurposed or left vacant.

And so the convent at St. Mary's has been vacant for over thirty years. Until this week, when it was torn down.


The Nuns' Bridge, which allowed them to walk directly from the convent to the school. Below is the entrance where my mom and her fellow students would enter the convent to take shelter during air raids. The nearness of the buildings captured any wind and turned it into a raging vortex. Photo taken November 6, 2005.

My mom went to the same grade school as me. This is a strange thought, that she and I walked the same hallways, climbed the same stairs, sat in the same classrooms.

She has her own memories of the convent. For me it was a dark and forbidding place. I was only inside it a few times, and only to serve Mass, during the periodic but infrequent masses held inside the convent exclusively for the nuns. I remember nuns on kneelers, clutching rosaries.

I also remember the smell of baking coming from the basement of the convent sometimes. This was the basement that my mom remembered, the place that would serve as a shelter during air raid drills. She grew up during World War II. Air raids were a real concern.

I drove her past the rubble of the convent after Mass yesterday. Her breath caught as she remembered those long-ago days of seeking refuge in a place that is now no longer there.

Church and convent. The area where my mom and her classmates would take shelter during WWII air raid drills is in the foreground, now covered with creeping weeds.

The rubble that was once a convent.

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