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Heretic or Hero: The Great Fourth Grade Rosary Battle

May 3, 2020

Helle 2020

I’m going to tell you a story about that time I went to Catholic school for a year in small town Ohio during the early 80s. It’s now almost 40 years later and every time I think about my friend in this story, it makes me smile. You know how Ferris Bueller got over on Mr. Rooney? Well my friend Dena did that with Sister Francis in 1981. Except it was more glorious. I think I might have even heard the angels singing on high.

Now, you need to know some things about Dena first. Both of her parents were academics and she was an only child. They provided her with the neatest toys I had ever seen. In my old age, I now recognize these were educational toys, but back then they were magical creations that could only be found one street over in the immaculate, calm house with purring fat kitty named Tigger. I couldn’t take my eyes off the prism; a stunning triangular piece of cut, shiny glass that made an amazing light show with a ray of sunlight and a flick of the wrist. And there were always healthy snacks. Most kids might turn their noses up to such a thing, but for me they were intriguing. For me, entering Dena’s house was like entering Narnia.

So anyway, Dena and I were both in Sister Francis’s 4th grade class at St. Peter’s Elementary School. Sister Francis was the epitome of the old school Catholic nun. She was old. She was large. And she was mean. I still remember her weathered hands with brittle, ridged nails, which appeared to be bitten back by her gnarly teeth. The lady never smiled. The whole atmosphere of the classroom was gloom and doom. It was almost like God hadn’t sent his only begotten son to sacrifice his life for our sins and that we should be grateful for that.

After several months of torture, Sister Francis gave us an assignment. We were ordered to replicate the highest of Catholic symbols – the rosary. Now, even as a child brought up in the Church, I felt this task was well beyond my expertise. Plus, I was a latch key kid whose mother worked and never helped with projects, so it seemed like the most daunting of tasks. I mean I was 10. How in the fuck was I supposed to get to a craft store to get the supplies to make an intricate piece of religious symbology? Somehow it happened and I don’t really recall how.

But what I do recall is the day that we were all supposed to come to school with our rosaries. I had somehow fashioned a haphazard string of wooden beads with a cross. Lauren had her rosary. John had his. Everything was fine until Sister Francis called upon Dena. Dena proudly stood up and said that she did not have a rosary to share with the class.

Sister Francis sternly asked her why she did not complete the assignment, to which Dena replied that she was not Catholic and therefore would not be creating a relic of religious symbology to entertain the Sister (OK, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. It was almost 40 years ago).

What followed was a very heated exchange, nothing like I had ever seen in my 10 years of life, and I had an alcoholic father and distant mother who married and divorced before I was even born, so the visitation exchanges were lit, y’all!

However, I do remember Sister Francis calling Dena a heretic in front of the whole class, to which Dena responded that it wasn’t possible for her to be a heretic because she wasn’t Catholic. That really got under the Sister’s skin. I quietly laid my head into my crossed arms and smiled while thinking to myself that Dena was my hero and in a few short hours maybe I’d be at her house eating carrot sticks with peanut butter and raisins (and I loathe raisins) and playing with that cool ass prism.

I think Dena’s parents got called to the office after that. I don’t know all the details but I know that Dena had to make the rosary after all. But, it was the most untraditional rosary I had ever seen – made completely of seashells. It was actually quite beautiful. And of the 20 kids in that class, it is the only rosary I remember almost 40 years later. Actually, when I think about it now, that rosary is the one thing I can clearly remember after all these years.

Many years later, Dena told me that she remembered her mother taking her to the craft store to buy the supplies to make the rosary. She picked the shells because she felt they were the most antithetical to what a rosary should be. It was her one last fuck you to Sister Francis.

And while she made it, the shells crumbled and cut her hands. It was her own personal stigmata.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 6, 2020 5:37 am

    I loved the story and the your impressive friend Dena. Dena’s parents also are quite inspiring given how a some parents like to spoil their kids with toys that add totally no value to their child’s life.

    I think you are really lucky to have such a great friend who stands up to have her voice heard.

    Best wishes from The Strong Traveller and have a great day

    If you got some time then check out my blog. There is some travel and lifestyle content which you may find interesting. We try to come up with new and interesting things every day. Do follow if you like it 🙂

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