Farewell, St. Mary’s School!

By Rosalie Tirella

So, it’s the end of St. Mary’s, the little red brick Polish elementary school on Richland Street, near the now Peanut-shaped Kelley Square! …

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Kelley Square: now a shadow of her former glorious self!

Its tough as nails pastor from Poland made the announcement to parents and students in the middle of the pandemic. The final blow for a school struggling to pay teachers, bills, administrators … The same fate befell St. Stephen’s parish school later this summer.

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Rose’s Polish immigrant grandparents used St. Mary’s schools and church as a life resource, support system and spiritual anchor for decades.

How my old Green Island Polish neighborhood has changed! Now it is Yes! to the Red Sox AAA team, $10 slices of artisan toast and trendy boohoo tea. And it’s No! to the genuine immigrant experience, Catholicism’s wonderful, oppressive teachings … the St. Mary’s elementary school filled with cute, round-faced Polish kids, the big concrete cross jutting over the school’s no-nonsense double front doors, St. Mary’s once cracker-jack boys high school varsity baseball and basketball teams, Monday evening St. Mary’s catechism classes for public school kids like me, with strict parents like my Mom.

Along with its attached junior and senior high schools – the teeny elementary school built almost a century ago – Worcester will no longer have a good little Catholic school to anchor and calm down what’s pretty much become an inner-city drug neighborhood. As the WPD Swat Team busts down the doors of Ward Street and Perry Ave apartments looking for baggies of heroin and AK 47’s, St. Mary’s school and small junior and senior high school buildings – add-ons from the early 1960s when the kids of Polish immigrants had grown up and assimilated into Worcester life and THEIR kids could aspire to college or high-end office work in Worcester’s many banks and insurance companies – will bid Worcester a quiet adieu. The neat brick buildings, with shiny hardwood floors and high old school ceilings (some decorative), will probably be snapped up by some Boston developer to be converted into chi chi Canal District condominiums. And so goes gentrification …

I believe my old neighborhood’s transformation is a reflection of Donald Trump’s America: It’s all about money and spending it on STUFF to impress yourself and others. It’s all about STUFF. Acquiring the best STUFF – and selling the rest of your STUFF to make MONEY. And now the trendy boo boo tea has arrived and, as always, the millennial pubs/barrooms with their expensive, glorified pub food, beckon. Places to see and be seen.

To heck with the Virgin Mary, God the Father, short, sadistic St. Mary’s junior high nuns (my two kid sisters, St. Mary’s students grades 5 through 12, knew a few). Goodbye to St. Mary’s high school’s pretty good cheer leader squad, May Day Virgin Mary processions to our Lady of Czechtohowa church down the hill on Ward Street. The holy parade began at the St. Mary’s schools on Richland, students from grades 1 to 12 lined up in pairs. It was led by the prettiest high school senior girl – usually blond haired, lithe and fresh as the delicate crown of flowers she wore! My late mother, a student at St. Mary’s until grade 8, when she had to go to work as a housekeeper for the Bishop of Springfield, remembered the holy songs they sang in Polish during the walk down the hill. She sang them to me: awful. Lugubrious. Like many Polish church hymns. Plus, my mother couldn’t carry a note. Like I said: God awful!! The female students, grades 1 to 12, dressed in their grey, red plaid modest school uniforms, skirts below the knees, and all the boys, even the adorable but sloppy six year olds, in navy blue slacks, white shirts and red ties … all following this vision of perfectly virginal young womanhood. A paen to purity!!! A symbol of love of God!!

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St. Mary’s schools were filled with statues of the Infant of Prague (like this one – Rose’s) and the saints – in all classrooms and hallways.

The schools’s teachers – all nuns in my mom and sisters’s school days – the classes were not as advanced as the best Worcester Public Schools classes, my educational petri dish, grades K through 12!! … but the St. Mary’s kids were all good kids – weren’t tough like the WPS kids I swam with – and the classes were solid, a good foundation for Worcester State College. The St. Mary’s classes, in the beginning, were bilingual, taught in English and Polish … the Three R’s were taught in clean, perfectly hushed classrooms. Memorization was a must, perfect penmanship expected, lots of reading about the saints – and America! You were taught to revere American history and to read lots of American poetry, my mom once said. The nuns honored Jesus – and Longfellow and Whitman. Ma once showed me her 8th grade English black and white comp book – yes, she saved it. In it, in her crisp penmanship, English sentences were diagrammed, verbs conjugated and “CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN!” was written out in her American Poetry section. All the students in Ma’s class had to copy the poem carefully into their comp books, as Sister Justine wrote the stanzas on the blackboard for them. Then they had to go home, memorize the poem, and the next day, stand up by their desks and recite the it in front of the entire class. For a grade. Best reciter got a special First Place rosary from Sister Justine!

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Rose’s mom, left, and auntie were St. Mary’s school students until grade 8. Then they went to work as housekeepers, during the Great Depression, to help support the family.

The funnest part of the St. Mary’s experience – for me, my kid sisters and half the St. M’s school population? The walk down Richland and Endicott streets after school was let out to Pete’s Dairy Bar, at the corner of Endicott and Millbury streets. A kind of Green Island Happy Day’s hangout bar, with rock n roll music playing on the juke box, kids slamming the sides of the big pinball machines by the windows – for a quarter, hot fudge sundaes and hamburgers, French fries and Cokes brought to your booth – or you could eat your burger at the counter and banter with the miiddle-aged owner-soda jerk. After school, for more than an hour, as kids waited for their parents to pick them up or buses or just to hang out with their friends, Pete’s Dairy Bar, on a great school day, was swarming with kids – 50 or 60 kids in uniforms, neckties loosened, the first few blouse buttons unbuttoned. St. M’s kids, all laughing, joking, a little rowdy, letting off steam – and sipping their root beer floats or Cokes. I was one of those kids, after a day at Providence Street Junior High, meeting up with my St. Mary’s kid sisters … and seeing their friends, kids with names like Barbara, Mary, Joannie, Joseph, Francis, Paul. … All good kids who graced Pete’s …

Worcester’s small parish schools did gangbusters in the early 20th century when fresh off the boat Polish immigrants like my Bapy and Jaju – who couldn’t speak a word of English – pretty much ran to their neighborhood’s ethnic Catholic churches and parish schools for HELP. They needed clothes, food, jobs, schooling for their kids – as well as a sacred place to pray to their God in their native tongues. As the decades wore on, the schools mission modernized but not by much. You still prayed before and during school. You made your first holy communion with your classmates, you studied hard and were respectful to your teachers. Worcester had a bunch of these church-parish school duos, all over the city: St. Stephen’s on the East Side for the Italians, St. Casmir’s in Vernon Hil for the Lithuanians, St. Peter’s in Main South for the Irish. A terrific immigrant support system and America rah rah!! machine!! You learned: SPEAK ENGLISH! WORK HARD! HONOR YOUR ELDERS! GOD IS GREAT! AMERICA IS GREAT! BE A SUCCESS IN AMERICA! STRIVE! ALWAYS STRIVE!

Now, all a memory.

Now, you brush the hair from your pandemic forehead and behold: all the homeless young people congregating and sleeping under the Green Street bridge, the sweet 15-year-old Ward Street kid meeting his man … he is so beautifully pale, ethereal. He is so sweet to your two dogs while sitting on the curbstone waiting for his man. You go home – and cry for him. The pretty Madonnas in bathtubs in front yards all along Ward Street, Perry Ave, Sterling Street – all gone. Most of the three deckers there don’t even have curtains on their windows …

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Homeless youth under the Green Street bridge.