This holiday season, a pocket full of memories!

By Rosalie Tirella

St. Paul’s at night. Photos: R.T.

The downtown Worcester space that I especially love this time of year is not the Ice Oval or the Hanover Theatre or the lit-to-the-max Worcester Common. It’s a much quieter, simpler space located on Chatham Street. It’s the St. Paul’s quadrangle, bounded by Chatham Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral Rectory and the old St. Paul’s High School. The buildings are set around a grassy yard, all fenced-in, but the wrought iron parameter isn’t forbidding – it’s no higher than my shoulders! The yard has trees, bushes, park benches, a stone walkway and statues of the saints. It is all a lovely anachronism. This is the Worcester of the 1940s, my late mom’s beloved city, home to Italian, Irish, Polish, Lithuanian and Swedish immigrants who lived in our three deckers and aspired to be AMERICAN. It is the movie “set” straight out of the Bing Crosby movie GOING MY WAY: deeply Catholic, august yet approachable, priests walking to their nearby Cathedral, brick buildings with leafy vines clinging to their walls, a green space in the inner-city. The benches, set by the statues of the saints, beckon you to sit awhile, calm down, breathe, be prayerful. This Worcester nook soothes me, makes me smile.

Old school saint, St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus.

I visited gal pal “Vo” today, director of the church’s elder outreach agency, now located in the old high school. I walked Jett and Lilac today around the saints; Jett peed by the Virgin Mary. He is 15 years old. I am sure the Blessed Mother excused his weak bladder … I had never noticed that Mary and baby Jesus stone – new to me, something I had missed during our previous visits.

The rectory – home to four St. Paul Cathedral priests – is all stately brick and set back from Chatham Street. Across the street sits the old Worcester Girls Trade School (now the revitalized Fanning Building). My late mom Cecelia went to “Girls Trade” – and loved it! A pious Catholic girl, she also must have loved going to class right across the street from the beautiful St. Paul’s quadrangle, just yards away from the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul’s rectory, left, and the old St. Paul’s High School, now home to church offices and church food pantry and radio station.

Girls Trade was also right down the street from the back entrance of the iconic Denholms Department Store, and it was a 10-minute walk from the gorgeous Chancery of the Catholic Diocese of Worcester and the WASPY old boys Worcester Club on Elm Street. It was who we were back then – not vulgar or money-grubbing or artisan beer-slurping. But religious, industrious, serious, with good fashion taste! Those few city blocks reflected our early- to mid-20th century values and dreams. The buildings are all beautiful and meant to be permanent, just the way God, education, home/family life were meant to last …

The old Worcester Girls Trade School is now the revamped Fanning Building

It was a city space for everybody: Catholic church goers, poor Worcester girls like my mom learning a trade so they could cook or sew or keep house for a living. My mother worked for the Bishop of Springfield as a housekeeper/cook during the Great Depression – her pots and pans and housekeeping know-how all sprang from her Girls Trade classes. She was a poor girl when she was a student at Trade, but she could visit the iconic Denholms just like anybody else could. And when my mother started making money from her full-time job at the Bishop’s house, she became quite the fashion plate and visited Denholms whenever visiting Bapy and Jaju in Green Island. Now she was a young woman – and a Denholms patron buying her Elizabeth Arden makeup at the Denholms makeup counter.

St. Paul’s quadrangle is located right in the middle of downtown Worcester, on Chatham Street.

In the wonderful film GOING MY WAY you see Bing Crosby, as Father O’Mally, walking his church’s quadrangle, which looks a lot like our St. Paul’s… These church quadrants must have been all over the country: a little Catholic church, the “heart,” and all the veins and arteries that pumped life into the community: the little church school building, the church rectory, the nuns’ convent, too … an immigrant’s haven, her touchstone.

Jett and Lilac sniffing by a few St. Paul’s benches.

In GOING MY WAY you see Father Bing eating supper at the rectory with the old priest he is supposed to prop up … You see the grand old church, hear the youth choir practice for their Christmas Mass concert, you see the rectory’s housekeeper carve the turkey … and it’s my old Worcester, too – St. Mary’s church on Ward Street five decades ago! With its pretty young nuns and strict unsmiling middle-aged nuns, our youth choir, our Polish organist, our church picnics and May processions down Richland Street … a whole world.

A beautiful stone honoring the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary can be found nestled in the middle of the inner-city!

I know the times were racist back then, and smart women like my mom had few career choices … The guys ruled. Catholicism, unlike Jesus, could be unforgiving! Cruel even! But Worcester’s factories were plentiful and hummed, and the old man from Poland who lived on Lafayette Street and only spoke three or four sentences in English was so proud as his son entered Holy Cross college (to become a high school history teacher) and his daughter bought the family’s first ever modern washing machine! America!