Sister Clothilde, UFO’s and Catholic School
My sister and I went to St. John’s elementary school in Greece, NY. It was a dour place with dark cavernous hallways and black habited nuns who wore long black veils, smelled like a box of Kleenex and clicked like clocks when they walked because their oversized wooden rosary beads, which hung from their waists, rhythmically clicked with each step, kind of like the crocodile who ate the clock in Peter Pan. Tic tock, tic tock, you always knew where they were but it would also send a chill up your spine.
One of the nuns that taught me was Sister Clothilde. She was shaped like a dumpling and had a white doughy face with hands to match. The nuns were totally covered up by their habits, almost like a Berka, except for their faces and hands were in full view. Everything else was covered in black except for a halo of white starched cotton wrapped tightly around their heads and necks that also formed something like a bib on their chest. If a nun bent down towards you to help you with your schoolwork, you could see under the black veil and check out more closely this white tight fitting head and neck gear. It always made us kids wonder; did she have hair? Was she bald? Have a crew cut? Did she wear this when she took a shower? Our imaginations went wild.
I remember seeing Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. What a bad movie! But in it there is a scene where she gets her hair cut off in order to wear the habit. It was a very dramatic moment in the film. Audrey looks transfixed as another nun shaves her head altering her appearance to be the “Bride of Christ”. She was then sent to the Belgian Congo as a missionary but fell in love with the doctor she was working with there, Peter Finch. She ends up leaving the convent, putting her original street clothes on, revealing her shaved off hair again.
My all time favorite religious movie that solidified my faith and connection to the Virgin Mary was called The Miracle. I saw it on a class field trip with the nuns in 1959. I was eight. I remember this in part because the nuns controlled us kids by using little hand clickers, kind of a miniature soda can that you press and hear a metallic click. One click meant stop, two clicks meant go, three clicks meant kneel and four meant stand up.
Anyway, I remember being in a large, dark city movie theater, hearing the clickers going as we filed down the aisles, past seats, then sitting in unison with one final click.
The movie was about a young woman who can’t figure out if she wants to be a nun or lead a normal life. She prayers to the statue of the Virgin Mary and at one point the statue comes alive in a glowing, wavy special effect that blew my mind away as a kid. The statue then walks off the pedestal! From then on whenever I went to the Novenas with my mother and aunts, I prayed like mad for this to happen. I’d squint my eyes tight for extra prayer power but nothing ever came of it.
Sister Clothilde had a mean temper. When something set her off, like boys being boys, she would storm down the aisle like a bull, her eyes wide and beady, her nostrils flaring, her face blotchy red and flail her arms and hands like a whirling dervish batting the poor kid who was her target. She seemed to like to hit the sides of heads and bat the ears. She was by far the meanest nun of all.
I had her for seventh and eight grade. I was pretty good at staying out of her way. She never hit the girls, but then the girls mostly knew how to behave and give her what she wanted...total domination of our souls!
Eighth grade was a transition for me. I was paying more attention to my appearance. My mom and sister taught me about make-up and hair dos. Seventeen Magazine taught me about what clothes and styles would looked good on my body type and had Q&A columns about boys, kissing and why not to wear white before Memorial Day.
I was a frustrated fashionista. Our dowdy school uniform was a polyester plaid jumper with a regulation white blouse. It allowed for no embellishments in any way except maybe after school when the “fast” girls would hike up their skirts, put on lipstick and smoke. Make-up was not allowed in school and would be scrubbed off your face if the sisters saw even a hint of it on you. I settled for hair as a means to express my self. In eighth grade I let it grow long. I might wear it straight with a hair band or in a ponytail. The only school rule about hair was not to have it teased too high. There was actually a measurement of how high it could be! One day I decided to pull my hair up and back from the front and the sides into a mini ponytail. I was copying something I saw in Teen Beat Magazine. It was a “mod” style, hot from London. My parents saw me go to school with this new hairstyle and complimented me on it.
I felt pretty cool that day and in a good mood as I walked into the classroom, put my books into my metal pop top desk and sat ready to begin.
Sister Clothilde was at her desk checking roll call when her eyes looked up and caught me in their crazy gaze. She stood up abruptly and yelled, “Dale Wenglowski, come up here now!”
What the hell, I thought, trying to digest her summons. Would she HIT ME? She didn’t hit girls. She never hit the girls! What did I do wrong?
I was thinking things through when she barreled down the aisle towards me flapping her black wings wildly, her voice honking like a rabid goose. I remember the room went into a hush as she started to turn red, honking at me and calling me a slut for wearing my hair up. She tried to hit me as I ducked from side to side, avoiding her by inches. Then another nun who was walking by our classroom called to her. “Sister Clothilde, what is going on here?” Clothilde backed off, immediately drew her wings in and walked towards the classroom door.
They spoke for a while and Clothilde calmed down, came back to her desk and finished the roll call like nothing had happened.
I was humiliated and freaked out by this crazy nun. When school let out, I ran home sobbing. When my parents arrived home from work I was hysterical and sputtering, telling about how this nun almost knocked me out.
My father got furious when he heard the story. He already had his own run in with the head of the parish, Father Luxe. He’d gone to the rectory one past Sunday afternoon to talk to him about, of all things, a business deal. Father Luxe was drunk when my dad arrived. As he told it, the priest belittled him and his idea, and then became belligerent. They had a huge argument. My father swore that he would never to go to that church again.
My story set him over the edge. He called up the head of the convent, Sister Xavier, and read her the riot act! I can still hear him yelling at her.
The next day I went to school and we had a substitute teacher! Clothilde was gone…for good! I was ecstatic, but wondered were did they put nuns that acted crazy like that? Rumors persisted that she had a nervous breakdown after my father called and complained about her. I imagined that she had been snuck out of the convent in the dark of night, whisked away in a windowless van and sent to the Congo as a missionary never to be allowed around kids again.
Sister Mary Catherine was a solemn but kinder, older nun, maybe in her 60’s. Her classroom had the bad luck of being right next to the “office” were the principal sat always erect, looking up from her desk as students passed by her doorway. No kid wanted to be sent to the office or could walk by it without a shiver.
Sister Mary Catherine taught English, my favorite subject. Most of the students seemed afraid of her. She didn’t smile much and her demeanor was serious, but she never lost her temper and only raised her voice occasionally when things got out of hand in her classroom.
She seemed to like me, too. I remember the day when she chose me to be in an honors English class for a summer semester. I was shocked and thrilled. I was an average student. My best grade was in spelling, in which I always got an A. In English I usually got B’s. When she called my name to tell me the good news I was surprised since I didn’t consider myself one of the smart kids. It was the first time I felt validation. I wasn’t invisible anymore.
The honors teacher was a young man who enthusiastically taught literature. He spoke to all of his students like equals. It was an uplifting class that made me love learning and what it could do for you. We read Antigone by Sophocles to start with. I was blown away because I was enjoying this play and could understand it. We read some Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emerson, Thoreau and finally Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. My mind was split open! We were reading about sex and it was ok! The world looked very different and reading became a passion.
My father was also a passionate reader and his night table was always littered with a variety of books and magazines. At the time I remember he was reading the novel Exodus, a book about the Civil War from the Book of the Month Club, and a magazine he loved called True, A Man’s Magazine. I loved reading True too.
In eighth grade I remember reading my father’s magazines, which had a lot of stories about UFO’s. It was a very popular topic at that time.
In 1962 Life magazine ran a lead story about Barney and Betty Hill who lived in rural New Hampshire and said that ET’s had abducted them. It was a huge story because everyone read Life, and if Life was writing about it, then it was probably true! Life was a mainstream periodical that came out weekly and no one missed an issue. It was known for its stunning photos with solid journalistic content. This story about aliens had legs!
True Magazine then picked it up. They expanded the story and devoted and entire issue to this topic. They linked the stories of all the reported UFO sightings by WWII fighter pilots to the present time and talked about the possible science behind everything as well. Of course, it was all speculation, but everyone at the time was talking about it. Barney and Betty Hill actually had a very convincing story with facts, dates and times and even drew pictures and diagrams of things they remembered. They also had a smattering of physical evidence on their clothes, shoes and in their car.
Anyway, Sister Mary Catherine said as eighth graders she wanted us to do a five page oral report on any topic we chose. You guessed it, I chose UFO’s! I remember pouring over True Magazine, reading the entire issue cover to cover, getting ideas for my report about extraterrestrial life. My father was also a big believer of this theory and often he and I went out into the back yard at night gazing up at the sky looking for UFO’s, like the geeks in Spielberg’s movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were definitely the nerds in the family when it came to this. I was convinced that I would see an alien spacecraft some day. Everyone else just made fun of us.
The day arrived when I got to read my report. It turned out to be much more than five pages because I had so much information to talk about. I rattled off stories and research about the military fighter pilots from WWll, and how after a while they were told not to report seeing UFO’s anymore. I talked about the information being published about Roswell and a possible cover up by the US military around this story. I did a show and tell about Betty and Barney Hill and made poster boards with the diagrams they drew cut out of Life magazine. It was a good report!
I remember all the kids in class just staring at me as I stood in front of them reading it. I remember one kid with his mouth open looking at me, scratching his head like he wanted to say, “wwhhhaaattt?”
Sister Mary Catherine didn’t miss a beat. She respectfully listened to the whole report and smiled at me at the end. Her smile made me feel like I had won a prize! She asked the class if they had any questions for me but no one looked like they could even figure out what I was talking about! I sat down pretty pleased with my work and it never occurred to me that what I reported was a little controversial or weird.
I think that it was because of this report that Sister Mary Catherine recommended I take the honors English class. It was a good move on her part because it was a life-changing gift that gave me the confidence to continue to be inquisitive and read more.
I graduated from St John’s in 1965. I was ecstatic to leave there. I hated that school and wouldn’t miss the eight years I had of the smell of stale air, pencil shavings, and old lunches left in our desks— or the fear and anxiety of kids trying to figure out how to learn and grow in such a stilted environment.
But no sooner did I graduate than my father informed me that I was to take the entrance examine for Cardinal Mooney High School. Argh!!!! I begged and pleaded my case not to be sent there, but it was considered to be a prestigious thing to do, to send your kids to a Catholic High School. Public school was for the common folk.
I wasn’t slick enough to try to fail my entrance exam. Trying to fail it seemed worse to me than having to go to the school. In the end I passed and got in.
It was the fall of 1965. It was two years after JFK died. It was two years since the Civil Rights Freedom March happened in Washington DC. In 1965 under Lyndon Johnson the war on poverty was declared, the Civil Rights Bill passed and 190,000 men and women were sent to Vietnam as the first military troops. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones, free love, drugs, abortion rights, women’s’ liberation were movements that were prying open the status quo and shaking everybody up, shattering old barriers. My life was about to change again in big ways.
The times were about speaking your mind, experimenting with personal freedom and seeing beyond the established views.
This unnerved my parents. My brother was tracked to be part of Wall Street and escaped much of this. My sister was working jobs she disliked and planning to get married and start a family.
I had no idea how things would open up and change for me. It was an exciting time to be 14 and heading into adulthood. It felt like the world was on fire and coming apart at the seams! What I was learning about myself was that I wanted to experience life as much as I could, and now life was barreling down toward me. It never scared me—it just made me want more!