It was 1954 and there were little Catholics everywhere. It was the baby boom and Catholic parents were baby factories, moving to the suburbs and producing children to fuel the Catholic schools. When I started second grade in 1954, St. Camillus School in Maryland smelled of virgin concrete and plaster, blackboards that had never been written on. I remember the highly polished floors and asphalt tile blocks, and how strangely quiet it was, even with so many children there. Nuns glided down the halls, their heavy black wool skirts flapping like flags in a light wind while rosary beads, hanging from their waistbands, clicked in rhythm with the flapping of the black wool.
Before the school was completed, we were farmed out to existing schools. Like a little Catholic gypsy girl I spent kindergarten in St. John the Baptist de la Salle in Chillum and first grade at Our Lady of Sorrows in Takoma Park. And before the school was built we went to Mass at the local movie theater. We’d see John Wayne there on Saturday afternoon and Father Grace on Sunday morning. My father was so accustomed to going to Mass at the movie theater that he once genuflected when we went to see a movie. But when second grade started, I landed at St. Camillus School where I stayed through eighth grade.
Class sizes were huge. It now amazes me that those poor nuns were able to avoid pandemonium with so many children in their charge, hundreds of children ranging from 5-year-olds to 20-year-olds. I’m probably exaggerating—there weren’t any 20-year-olds, though some of the juvenile delinquent boys in eighth grade had been kept back so they were close to 15 and were starting to shave. Sister Claire, our eighth grade teacher, was doing her time in purgatory with 72 adolescents in her classroom. I pity that poor nun—a homely, gangly woman who bit her fingernails down to bloody nubs. I probably would have chewed off my own arms if I had to face 72 kids every day at the height of hormonal surges.
There was no cafeteria so we ate lunch we brought from home, silently, at our desks. No talking during lunch! Every morning they took a milk count. How many children wanted white milk, how many wanted chocolate? Even in fourth grade Joseph Symka ordered two chocolate milks and ate two sandwiches—bologna with mustard on Wonder Bread. He was a quiet big, big boy with strange teeth—one of his upper front teeth was smack dab in the middle and the other was behind it and looked like the dragon puppet in Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. I hope Joseph got braces one day. I’m sure he grew up to be a nice man, but he creeped me out in the fourth grade. I forever swore off both bologna sandwiches and chocolate milk after watching him eat.
Nearly every year the school conducted fund drives. For a couple of weeks at a time we brought in money to buy “pagan babies” in developing countries. Presumably, the money went to support the missions, but we were told that we were sending the money to baptize babies and save their little heathen souls. Otherwise, those unfortunate babies were destined to go to limbo where they would never see the face of God. For every $25 we sent, we could save one baby. To ramp up the motivation to bring in more money, we were divided into teams—boys against the girls. Competition got fierce, but the girls always seemed to pull ahead. I don’t think it was necessarily because the girls were more competitive, rather that they remembered to bring in money. And there may be a whole generation of middle-aged Catholic women with osteoporosis because they gave up their milk money for the pagan baby drive.
The first team to collect $25 was allowed to vote on the name that the specific pagan baby would be given when baptized. I find it hard to imagine that we actually believed that the money was going to a specific child in Borneo, and that child was just sitting there, unnamed, waiting for the fourth grade girls at St. Camillus to name her. We always chose a girl child to save and when the vote came to choose her name, invariably she was named Bernadette. Bernadette was a hot name in the 50s at St. Camillus. No one we knew was named Bernadette, but we were fully steeped in the miracle at Lourdes and the young girl who saw the Blessed Mother there. I wonder if somewhere in the third world there are a lot of women, now in their 40s, named Bernadette by the girls at St. Camillus who collected money to save their little pagan souls.
A long-time favorite Christmas recipe in my house. It seems simple but it’s deceptively hard to make. It’s beautiful though, elegant, understated, and delicious.
Almond Cake With Raspberry Sauce
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces almond paste
1 tablespoon kirsch or Triple Sec
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 pt. (2 cups) fresh raspberries (with 2 tablespoons sugar) or 1 12-ounce package frozen raspberries, thawed
For cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter and flour 8-inch round cake pan (springform works best). Combine sugar, butter, almond paste in mixing bowl and blend well. Beat in eggs, liqueur, almond extract. Add flour and baking powder, beating just until mixed through—do not overbeat. Bake until tester comes out clean, about 40-50 minutes. Let cool. Invert onto serving platter and dust lightly with powdered sugar.
For sauce: Combine raspberries with sugar in processor and puree. Gently press through fine sieve to remove seeds. Serve sauce as accompaniment to cake.