Growing Up Catholic in a Small Texas Town

Growing up Catholic in a small Texas town, I couldn’t even imagine a different life back then. And there’s no regret or resentment now — not a shred. The only problem, as a child, was I took life too seriously.

Texas Style

Though I’ve driven by my old school hundreds of times since graduation in 1967, I haven’t gone inside. But I vividly remember each of the eight classrooms; the hallways; the stairs leading up to the second floor; and the “new addition.” I remember the smell of chalk dust, and beef stew, and sounds of kids shouting their order to Mr. Soukup, the janitor who operated the candy store.

And I remember the one and only time I set foot in the nun’s house next to the school. We called it the convent. It was a two-story brick building, and to me, it looked like a palace. My visit to the convent came after school and during one of our Junior CDA (Catholic Daughters of America) meetings sponsored by a few moms. (I don’t remember much about those meetings, except that we had cookies.) A friend of mine and I were dispatched to bring a note to the convent. It was dinner time, and the nuns were all seated at the table — laughing and chatting like there was no tomorrow. I was stunned, not only by their casual behavior but by their informal dress. They were not wearing wimples, coifs, or veils. They’d shed at least one layer of garment and had normal hair. All I’d ever seen were their faces below the eyebrows and above the chin. Without all that garb, they looked much younger and happier.

I learned that that the nuns also had a housekeeper. She not only cleaned the house, she did the laundry. She cooked their dinner and bought their groceries — I never saw the nuns anywhere in town. So I started to think, where do they buy their habits? Do they have more than one? Is there a nun-store somewhere? Do they know how to drive? What kind of shampoo do they use? Do they get to pick and choose, or does the housekeeper buy whatever’s on sale?

And how about money? The nuns were not allowed to have any because they’d taken a vow of poverty. I found this out when I overheard my mother talking to another mom. It was Christmastime, and several moms planned to collect money to give the nuns as gifts. When the moms found out that the money would be taken from the nuns, they simply asked them if they needed anything. Most of the nuns asked for stationery and fountain pens. Wow! That meant they had families and wrote letters. One nun asked for candy. How normal is that?

That one short visit to the convent really opened my eyes to nun-life. I was a little sad because their lives were so restricted. But everything evolves, and being a nun is no exception. Nowadays, most nuns are free to do as they please, especially in this country. They drive, shop, and eat out in restaurants, and drink beer if they wanted. Since the 1950s, they’ve evolved from conservatives to, in some cases, left-wing liberals. Look at the “Nuns on the Bus” who travel around the country supporting women’s rights. They’re involved in politics, and they wear whatever they please. They go to salons and get their hair colored. These women also speak their minds, and often loudly. When Benedict XVI was Pope, he ordered the Catholic bishops to wrangle in these renegade nuns. It didn’t do much good — thankfully. If I were a bishop, I sure wouldn’t want to tackle these women. I’d claim I never received the email. I think if Pope Francis had the opportunity, he’d hop on the bus with them.

I’m happy to report that St. Mary’s Catholic School is still there, thriving and churning out dozens of little Catholics every year. I’ll be in West in a few days. I think I’ll finally revisit the inside of the school. I’m wondering what memories churn up. Maybe some nuns will even be there.

If they are, they’ll still be serving, like they always have, and like they always will.

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Kathleen Kaska

Kathleen Kaska

Metaphor Writing Coach. Author of the Sydney Lockhart mysteries and the Kate Caraway mysteries. I blog about, “Growing Up Catholic in a Small Texas Town.”