Sister Mary Elephant

Sister teaching a class 1960'sCertainly my experiences in the parochial schools of Philadelphia were no different from anyone else in the late 60’s/early ’70’s.  We had nuns we loved and respected.  And then there were those we resisted with every fiber of our being, in many cases for no other reason than they expected way more from us than we were willing to give them, with no appreciation for their efforts to prepare us for the outside world.  The clarity of hindsight forces us to recognize that those Sisters – despite our rebellions and organized disobedience – always had our best interests at heart.

But that’s beside the point.

Whenever opportunity provides for a group of Catholic grade school products to gather, their stories and laughter inevitably address those unforgettable experiences at the hands of the more colorful creatures in dark-colored habits.  They tend not to dwell on those less-than-memorable nuns who were simply great teachers.  No, the best stories involve those blessed religious figures with the unique personalities, quirky mannerisms, and – in some cases – borderline psychoses that rendered them unforgettable.

Of these I had a few …


“None” looked like this though …

My fondest memory by far was of saintly Sister Ann David in the first grade at Immaculate Conception (1962-66) in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.  (The school was located on E.Chelten Ave, but was lost years ago to a fire.)  She had me hook, line, and sinker as a wide-eyed, overwhelmed fledgling.  She was kind and gentle … an excellent choice for the task of quelling my grade school terrors.  Another sterling example of what Sisters could offer in terms of positive childhood experience was Sister Bartholomew, who taught at my second parochial school, St. Jerome (1966-70) in the Holme Circle section of Northeast Philly.  She was the perfect mix of grandmotherly love, combined with a stern refusal to put up with the antics of a herd of prepubescent teens.

The characters-in-habit that I remember most – however – were those in my later grades at St. Jerome.  There was Sister Cecelia in the fifth grade, whose seemingly non-stop lotion-rubbing hands were always held almost prayerfully at chin level, as if preaching her lessons to her flock.  There was also the bent-over Sister Mary Magdalene, always short-tempered with a face reddened by boiling blood pressure.  She once beat a fellow student so crazily she actually peed herself … or so the legend goes.


… more like this.

Needless to say, said fellow student probably got what he deserved; and it’s hard to look back on those days, when kids our age enjoyed expressing our independence and testing the limits of religious patience, without a good bit of guilt.  Exasperating the tender inclinations of the good Sisters (Okay … To be perfectly honest, not all of them had tender inclinations.) as they tried to instill in us the favorable qualities of the Palmer Method, the Baltimore Catechism, and long division were not our most Catholic of moments.

But I digress …

By far our most “Sister Mary Elephant experience” came in the classroom of Sister Margaret Leonore, a droopy-faced, ruddy-complexioned saint.  She was so clearly over-matched by the rebellious miscreants who swept through her classroom every day.  Her venue was the vehicle for my only foray into the realm of class clown, which may have been the height of my grade school rebelliousness.  For I was not brave enough to try it with any of the other nuns.  But Sister L always seemed like such a push-over, almost incapable of discipline.  And that was a recipe for classroom disaster!

So the patients ran the asylum.  Every possible disruption, class delaying tactic, and sophomoric stunt was trotted out to howling laughter and a slowly building pot of boiling frustration in the good Sister.  But it could only go on until the limits of Sister Leonore’s patience were breached and explosively overwhelmed.  If you listened closely, you could hear the tension rising in her voice; her aggravation level bubbling over.  You knew it was just a matter of time.

“Children …. Be Quiet.  OK … That’s enough.  Sit down, please.  OK, class, Let’s get back to work.  Class … Class … Please be quiet!  Class … Class …

“SHUT UP!!!”

Ah … the memories …


Of course, I’m sure we drove them a bit too far from time-to-time.

5 thoughts on “Sister Mary Elephant

  1. Some good stuff. As any Catholic school product can attest, even a rookie Nun has respectable disciplinary skills which include an ability to batter the human body effectively without leaving telltale visible signs. The Sisters of Saint Joseph almost terrorized me enough to actually learn and know the fundamentals of Algebra…..


    • The story of the nun trying to beat Algebra into poor Pat is the stuff of legend.

      Other horrors of Catholic school, I understand, were visited upon the same poor child due to the cruelty of a certain classmate, who shall remain nameless at this time, though known by many of us here.


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