The Catholic school experiences of the twentieth century were juxtaposed against a time period in which each decade saw tumultuous changes in American society. As American culture went through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the Fabulous Fifties, the Counterculture of the 1960’s and the Me Decade of the 1970s, the Catholic school experience stood consistent with its values towards education and prayer. For some, it was a wonderful experience. For many others, it was a time that left them jaded towards the Catholic school experience forever.
St Brendan’s was a school that did not just define an educational system, but a school that represented a community. A neighborhood that was a product of the first and second immigration waves of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is vitally important to recognize that the parents of the St Brendan’s community sent their children to St Brendan’s with total commitment towards the practices established by the Catholic School system. It was a commitment that many of their own parents had made to them when they were children. This is the story of a school, a neighborhood and a time period that are all connected. This story focuses on one school, but it is a story that is echoed throughout the entire Catholic School system of New York in the twentieth century.
The Origins of St Brendan’s
The origins of parochial schools such as St Brendan’s goes back farther than the history of The United States. From just the perspective of the Northern American Continent, we can trace the development of Catholic schools back to the Franciscans in 1606 in the southern part of North America. Along with the Jesuits in the North, the origins of Catholic education developed in the face of heavy Protestant denominations.
St Mary’s was the first Catholic School, to open in the United States. St Mary’s opened its doors in 1784, one year after the end of The American Revolution. Fourteen years later, in the year 1800, St Peter’s would become the first Catholic school to open in New York. The school was located on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan. The school’s original enrollment listed only one hundred students. A little over one hundred years later, St Brendan’s would open its first parish school in 1911. The school would host almost the same number of students as St Mary’s did in 1800. Over the course of one hundred years that Catholic School system had grown tremendously. That growth would continue until the mid-1960s when the last of the Baby Boomers entered elementary school. In 1967, St Brendan’s School would add the last of the extensions the school had been adding since they opened the current building in 1923.
The Dominican Sisters of Sparkhill
In the mid to late 1900’s there was extreme poverty in many American cities. The Irish famine of 1845 to 1952 had devastated Ireland and forced many to leave their beloved country. Many women left Ireland to find work as maids in the United States. The large wave of immigrants resulted in extreme poverty for many of these women. Movements began to develop in some of the most populated cities in America. Jane Adams founded the settlement house movement in Chicago which resulted in the establishment of shelters and homes such as Hull House that were run by wealthy women to take care of women in extreme need.
In New York, a woman by the name of Alice Mary Thorpe and her sister Lucy had begun to take care of poor women and children who had no food or shelter. Alice Mary Thorpe and her sister were not wealthy women like Jane Adams. They simply shared the same compassion for helping the poor. Alice Mary Thorpe had moved to the United States from England. Eventually, Thorpe would convert to Catholicism and take the Holy Vows that led her to become Sister Catharine M. Antoninus. She started the Congregation of the Holy Rosary in 1876 after approval by Cardinal John McColosky. Sister Catherine M. Antoninus and her sister would wear the white habits of St Dominic. 
Over time, the nuns of The Congregation of the Holy Rosary would shift their focus to taking care of homeless children. Education would soon become the focal point of their mission. The congregation of nuns moved to Sparkhill, New York in 1884. These Dominican Sisters of Sparkhill would be the nuns that served the community of St Brendan’s since the turn of the twentieth century.
A common opinion shared by many of those who attended St Brendan’s in the twentieth century is that the school was a product of the times and the philosophies of the parents who sent their kids to school there. Former St Brendan’s student Ellen Purtell, who attended the school from 1966 to 1972, argued that parents sent their kids to St Brendan’s with expectations that they would be disciplined in class the same way they were at home. This is a very important point in understanding why the physical punishment that occurred at times was accepted by some parents. One cannot write a story without looking at the level of discipline that occurred within those school walls. It is not the focal point, but it is a part of the story, more for some than others. Furthermore, not all parents disciplined their kids the same ways. Additionally, not all kids told their parents that they were being hit by nuns. There was a fear that if one admitted they got in trouble in school, it would result in further punishment at home. Consequently, some things were kept quiet.
Part II: The Experience
Anyone who attended St Brendan’s undoubtedly always remembers the names of those who taught there. The first day of school is a dramatic experience for first graders. My first-grade teacher was Sister Henrietta. In the mid-1960s, many of the nuns were wearing modern habits in which their head-piece only covered the nun’s top of their head. The modern habits of the 1960’s allowed for some freedom of hair to flow out from the top of the piece in front of the forehead. It was a friendlier look and much less intimidating in the eyes of a young school child. I can only imagine that modern habits must have been more comfortable for the nuns.
Sister Theresa Anthony and Sister Cagatan
Sister Theresa Anthony was my first grade teacher. I have no recollection of her at all. From a photograph, I can see she was a young nun. My only recollection from that first year, is not wanting to go to school. In my mother’s record book, I found a page that said I threw up in school my first day. The whole school experience was incredibly frightening at six years old. My poor mom had to literally drag me down 207th street every morning to school, usually past a few other kids desperately grabbing those metal house fences on 207th street. Some kids were fearless, and had no problem attending school, not me!
Many of the former students of St Brendan’s that I spoke with have found memories of Sister Henrietta. She was referred to many times as being a very loving sweet nun. She may have looked intimidating, but it was probably just the habit. From just a logical standpoint her, placement as a first grade teacher was probably due to her caring personality. First graders are not an easy group and it takes a special person to handle kids that young.
Sister Cagatan was my second grade teacher. My memories of St Brendan’s become clearer starting with second grade. In 1968, Sister Cagatan may have been the oldest nun at St Brendan’s with maybe the exception of Sister Henrietta. During those days, Sister Cagatan spent most of the class periods sitting at her desk while teaching. We were too young to understand the pain of aging, but thinking back, teaching young kids must have been incredibly difficult at an older age. It says a great deal about the dedication that these nuns had towards their faith and the desire to teach as they continued for so long.
As some nuns began to age and less women were becoming nuns, changes began to occur in the Catholic School system. While the 1970’s loomed on the horizon, St Brendan’s began hiring more teachers outside of the order of nuns. One can see in the two faculty pictures featured in this article, the differences in staff from 1967 to 1974. Forty something students and I experienced that change in third grade when we were placed in a class with a female teacher outside of the order of nuns. There had been civilian teachers at St Brendan’s already teaching there for some years, but this was our first experience.
Attending third grade with a very friendly, young, sweet, female teacher was a completely different experience after spending my first two years with Sister Cagatan and Sister Henrietta. Our class was also in the school building extension that had opened in 1967. It was not a large extension as it may have only held two or three classrooms. It looked odd from the outside as it did not match the exterior of the school in any way. The extension was built onto the side of the school building next to the Church. It was cool to be in the new part of the building. Little things like that were very special to kids at St Brendan’s. It almost felt as if we were attending a new school. That feeling would only last for a year.
Sister Henrietta was my fourth grade teacher. Sister Henrietta was an older nun who at the times seemed to be possibly in her 70’s or 80’s. She may have been older, or younger, it’s tough for a nine-year-old to judge age in an adult much less a nun. Sister Henrietta did not conform to the newer habits. She wore an old habit that completely covered her entire body including her forehead. Sister Henrietta was an intimidating figure to a most kids. I don’t have many memories of Sister Henrietta. I can remember her head shaking in anger, staring at me with an intense look and being scared to death. The fact that most of my memories of Sister Henrietta have vanished is probably a testament to the fact that some pretty bad stuff happened in that classroom with her. I truly believe some sort of survival mechanism has erased my memory of my entire fourth grade year.
Sister Catherine Frances and Sister Mary
If there ever was a nun that put the fear of God or the devil in students, it was Sister Catherine Frances. While my memories of Sister Henrietta have vanished, sadly I have not been able to lose the memories of my fifth grade year. That was the year in which I had Sister Catherine Frances as my teacher for the entire day, every day, every week, every month, of the 1972-1973 school year. I was not sure how to approach the topic of Sister Catherine Frances. Former students who had Sister Catherine Frances undoubtedly understand what I am talking about. There are many stories that alumni have shared about Sister Catherine Frances. In the end, I have decided to describe just one day in the classroom with Sister Catherine Frances. A day that was not out of the ordinary, at all, in that room.
I used to stop at the candy store on the corner of 206th street and Bainbridge Avenue before school every morning. For seven cents you could get a box of candy. The days were long at St Brendan’s and having a box of candy in your pocket could help at some crucial moments. Of course, candy was not allowed in the classroom, so one had to be a little sneaky when placing the candy from pocket into mouth as quickly and as stealth as possible. This was very dangerous, and in Sister Catherine Frances’s class, it was almost suicidal.
My classmate Michael Mcgrinder sat behind me in Sister Catherine Frances’s class. We sat in the last two seats against the wall as far away as any students could get from Sister Catherine Frances. This was not our idea, it was where Sister Catherine Frances seated the two of us. It seemed she might have wanted us as far away from her as possible. Michael Mcgrinder knew I was sneaking in candy to the classroom. He used it against me. Every day he would wait until the moment when Sister Catherine Frances would be distracted by someone. At that moment he would ask for a piece of candy. To keep him quiet, I always obliged. After a while it became a little annoying.
One morning I brought a box of Hot Tamales instead of my typical box of Chocolate Babies or Junior Mints. Hot Tamales were exactly what they were described to be, especially for ten years olds. I slipped Michael Mcgrinder a couple of Hot Tamales at the right time. The move from my candy box through both our hands and into his mouth happened in a flash. No time for Michael Mcgrinder to see what kind of candy he had just placed into his mouth. A minute later, I heard him coughing. I turned around to see Michael Mcgrinder’s face was completely red as he struggled with the spice in the candy. I turned back around and began to laugh. It was at that moment when I heard Sister Catherine Frances yell my name. The laughter ended immediately, and the realization of the pain to come sunk my spirit into an abyss of doom and gloom.
Sister Catherine Frances stared me down and curled her finger in a gesture for me to come to her front desk. That long walk up the aisle towards her was like walking the plank. There was no conversation over what I did, no trial, it was straight to the punishment. Any argument for leniency would have just been futile and even risky. Sister Catherine Frances told me to stretch out both my hands, palms down in a clenched fist. She had a long four-foot wooden ruler behind her desk. The sound of the ruler swooshed past my ears, I pulled my hands back quickly as the ruler crashed into the floor. This infuriated Sister Catherine Frances and resulted in an additional whack. That’s the way it worked. After my knuckles were hit the second time, I was directed to go stand in the closet. Sometimes, one was not directed, but rather pulled by the hair into the closet. The hair, the ears, or the tie were the usual spots a nun would latch onto before hurling you into a blackboard, a corner, or the closet. After a while, another student would be thrown into the closet until there was usually three or four of us in there. It was a large walk through closet so there was plenty of room for all of us. Eventually, the school day would end.
Sister Mary had a very different ways of handling students than Sister Catherine Frances. Instead of the physical beatings and sheer terror that Sister Catherine Frances would inflect on students, Sister Mary used psychological warfare. Sister Mary liked to declare that last row in the classroom next to the closet the “dummy row.” Yes, that what Sister Mary called the row, “the dummy row,” If a student consistently answered incorrectly, they were placed in the dummy row. Sometimes a student would be placed in the dummy row for just chewing gum. Once placed in the “dummy row,” you no longer existed in the classroom. Being sent to the dummy row was the worst thing that could happen to you. It was embarrassing and kids made fun of you once you were sent there. Some kids were sent to the row for just a day, others would spend almost the entire year in that row. Modern day special education teachers would have a heart attack if they saw how some students were treated that struggled academically.
Mr. Hayes and Mr. Scheibe
In sixth grade I had a male teacher named Mr. Scheibe. There were only two male teachers at St Brendan’s in 1973. Mr. Hayes and Mr. Scheibe. Both teachers were very popular. Mr. Hayes was a big man with short hair. He still had that 1950s’ look. I remember him also being a bit of a wise guy. Joanne C who was a 1973 St Brendan’s graduate remembers Mr. Hayes laughing hard with a group of St Brendan’s boys as they saw kids slipping on the ice outside St Brendan’s one day. She also remembered running home to watch Mr. Hayes on Jeopardy. She said he got all the science questions right but whiffed on all the others.
The kids loved Mr. Scheibe. He was fun and kind of cool. Mr. Scheibe had that Mod Squad vibe and really stood out among the faculty at St Brendan’s. He also was very young and seemed to be a prime candidate to be drafted into Vietnam. I am not sure what his specific draft status was, but I do remember him talking about it often in the fall of 1972. In January of 1973, President Nixon announced that no more young men would be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. When I heard the news, I immediately thought of Mr. Scheibe. I made it a point to bring it up with Mr. Scheibe the next morning. I remember it like it was yesterday. I asked Mr. Scheibe if he was happy that he was not going to be drafted? He gave me such a look of relief, that for the first time I saw someone who was not just a teacher, but someone connected to the real world. There was a separation from reality in St Brendan’s most of the time, but in that moment many things made sense. The nineteen sixties did not really end in 1969. The nineteen sixties ended the day the draft was shutdown. In just two more years, society would complete change. Disco, punk, the Carter Years and many other cultural changes were on the horizon. It was if a new century was beginning even though it was still the mid-1970s.
Part III: Extracurricular
St Brendan’s connection with the community stretched beyond the classroom desk and the church pew. In 1936, the Archbishop Of New York, Patrick Cardinal Hayes composed a letter arguing that the Catholic Church of New York needed to establish an agency in connection with the Catholic School system that would embrace the parish youth’s leisure time in a positive fashion. Patrick Cardinal Hayes argument served as the catalyst for the development of the Catholic Youth Organization, more commonly known as the CYO.
Two of the CYO’s most successful programs were the after school sports programs and the summer day camp. The CYO summer day camp would take day trips to various locations within the Metropolitan area. I attended the CYO day camp in the late 1960s and early 1970s every summer. We would meet in the school’s basement in the early mornings, get into our groups and wait for the famous yellow Blue Bird buses to take us away for a day. Every day was a different adventure. Some days we would go to the beach. Rye Beach, Rockaway Beach or Orchard Beach were the usual destinations. Occasionally we would go up to Bear mountain which was a long ride for a day trip. The most common destination was Tibbets pool in the Bronx.
The fencing and basketball programs all took place in the school auditorium when we weren’t running around through the school. The auditorium served many functions at St Brendan’s. Besides its use for athletic activities, it also had a stage in which school plays were performed. That same stage would eventually be converted into a very small library.
Many of the students who attended St Brendan’s also got involved in scouting. There was also the Alter Boy program. These are two huge topics to be put aside for their own separate discussions. In the end between the camps, CYO, scouting, Alter Boys service and a host of other activities, St Brendan’s kept their students and families very active. Just like Cardinal Hayes had argued. the more active kids were in their parish, the least likely they would become involved in temptations that did not always end well. At least, until they become teenagers.
In the 1960’s and 70s there were not many art programs being taught at St Brendan’s. There were no music programs, no concert bands or orchestras, no serious music classes. Unlike public school programs that start kids on instruments in fourth or fifth grade and place their students in either an orchestra or band, St Brendan’s at the time had no such program.
There was an art class that was taught usually once a week by an older woman named Mrs. Dunn. She may have been close to 100 years old when she was teaching my class. Mrs. Dunn would always come in walking very slowly and draw a wheel of colors on the board which we would have to copy. I don’t remember anything creative about it, just a circle with lines of color. We did the same thing every week. Sometimes it seemed she would fall asleep while she was drawing. She would just stand there frozen in time as we all just looked at each other in amazement. Eventually, her hand would start moving and class would kind of resume.
While St Brendan’s did not have a music program, the school did put on plays. My brother Greg Kachejian who is a New York actor and playwright, credits Arnold Mungioli’s performance in Scrooge as the inspiration for wanting to become an actor. Arnold Mungioli was probably also inspired by his own performance as he went on to become a very successful New York casting agent.
One of the most exciting episodes that the parish of St Brendan’s experienced was the time when a young boy of a St Brendan’s family became immensely famous. One early 1970s morning I was walking up the steps by the main office at St Brendan’s when I saw a large group of nuns in a circle smiling and talking to a young boy. I had never seen so many nuns at one time smiling and laughing. It turns out that they were taking to little John Gilchrest.
Little John Gilchrest had just risen to fame due to the famous character he played called Mikey in the Life Cereal commercial. He was too young at the time to be attending St Brendan’s because he looked about four years old. It was right outside of the office, so he must have been there with his mother. However, his older brothers and sisters all were attending St Brendan’s at the time. His sister Patricia Gilchrest was in my class. I will never forget seeing her in one of the various Life Cereal commercials they shot sitting at the table with her brothers. The “Mikey Likes it,” commercial was not just a popular commercial, at the time it had become a mass cultural phenomenon. Little John Gilchrest who played the Mikey character would go down in history as one of the most famous commercial characters of all time. There have been many famous people who came out of that Norwood section in the Bronx. Nonetheless, there was just something incredibly special about attending St Brendan’s in the early 1970s and seeing classmates on television when your ten years old.
Part IV: Epilogue
In 1974, my parents informed me that we were moving to Long Island. We were to be part of the mass exodus of families leaving the Bronx to the greener pastures of Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey. As exciting as it seemed, moving in the middle of seventh grade to a new town and leaving all my friends behind was something I was not really thrilled about. There was a teacher at St Brendan’s named Mrs. Carmody. It was her married name because she was formerly known as Mrs. Curly and I believe she was also a former nun. She was an amazing teacher that many students loved. I never had a problem with her. There were students who did. I have read stories from ex-students who endured some tough punishments from Mrs. Carmody. However, I caught a break with her.
Mrs. Carmody was known for throwing parties for students who were moving. I was sitting in her class one day in seventh grade and I whispered to my friend Kevin O’Donnell to go ask Mrs. Carmody if she would throw a surprise going away party for me. I figured no one else was going to ask, (I was not that popular) so I should take the initiative and set it in motion myself.
Kevin O’Donnell went up to Mrs. Carmody and whispered his (mine) idea. When he returned to his seat. Mrs. Carmody asked if I would take a paper down to the office. Yes, she was getting me out of the room to talk to the class about me. So cool! The plan worked. I returned to the classroom utilizing my best acting skills as if I had no idea what just happened. It was fun looking at some kids staring at me and not letting on that I knew exactly why they were staring at me. They planned the party for my last day of school which was about a week away.
My last day of school arrived and Kevin told me that the party was set to happen right after classes in the school basement as soon as school was over. We were sitting in Mrs. Horvath’s class during the last period of the day when the St Brendan’s School Principal Sister Cecilia Ann came barreling through the classroom door. She interrupted Mrs. Horvath in full sentence without even looking at her. The Principal had a very stern look on her face as she began to yell at the class. She said that she had heard there was a “surprise going away party,” planned for a boy in this class after school. She began ranting that no one had notified her or asked her permission. (It didn’t matter that it was a teacher who planned the party not the kids) As the Principal was ranting on about obedience and respect and all that, every kid in the class started staring at me thinking “wow the Principal just ruined the surprise.” (wink wink)
At the end of the stern lecture the Principal gave to us and poor Mrs. Horvath who had nothing to do with any of this, the Principal stared at us in silence for a few seconds and then seemed to enjoy immensely the next few words she would say, “There’re will be no party today here at St Brendan’s.” She then stormed out of the room. With that, my St Brendan’s Catholic school experience ended forever. It was a fitting ending for what I have been through for the past seven years. However, on the bright side, my friends and I ran down to the basement kitchen and took all the sodas and goodies planned for the party home with us.
I walked home that day, feeling strange that I would never spend another day at St Brendan’s. I would never walk down 207th street again in the morning and get in a line arranged by height to go into the building and start my day of school. There would be no more nuns to fear, no more insane penmanship tests, no more all day hunger pains. No more boy scouts, no more altar boys service, no more day camps. The same place that I feared for my life so many times, was in some sad way difficult to say goodbye to. I had no idea that some of those beatings I took and so much of that verbal abuse and fear would never be forgotten. I thought it was over when I left. And here I am writing about it over forty five years later.
 USCCB. “History of the Catholic Church in the United States.” Catholic Bishops of the United States. Accessed January 21, 2019. http://www.usccb.org/about/public-affairs/backgrounders/history-catholic-church-united-states.cfm.
 “Two Centuries of Transforming Lives.” Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of New York. Accessed January 21, 2019. https://catholicschoolsny.org/about-us/history-of-schools/.
 “Our History.” St. Brendan School. Accessed January 22, 2019. https://stbrendanschoolbronx.org/our-history.
 Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Hull House.” Encyclopædia Britannica. January 31, 2018. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hull-House.
 Poust, Mary Ann. “‘New Possibilities’.” Catholic New York. Accessed January 24, 2019. http://cny.org/stories/new-possibilities.
 “Pastoral Letter from His Eminence Patrick Cardinal Hayes.” Catholic Youth Organization. Accessed January 23, 2019. http://cyony.org/Page.asp?n=75197.