Innocent looking Jim McGrath in his St. Bernard's first-communion garb.
By Frank Barning
A wide variety of topics and memories have been covered in our blog since it began last July. Carefully avoided have been politics, sex and religion. That changed with Kathy Stahlman Zinn's April 2 story, "Growing up Catholic in religiously diverse Levittown".
She wrote a fair and balanced account of her experiences and the story was well received. Then came an email from Howard Whidden '62 suggesting that we ask blog followers to reply to the question, "What do you remember about your religious education growing up in Levittown?"
I had doubts that this would work, but Kathy encouraged me to move ahead on the topic of religion. So I sent the question to a cross-section of people (Catholics, Jews and Protestants) who are active blog followers, old Levittowners who tend to comment on our stories.
Holy smoke! The replies have been large in number and strong, if not daring, in content. In fact, there will be two or more additional posts on the topic because so many replied. Oddly, only people who grew up as Catholics and Protestants participated. Most of what has been sent for publication would have offended the parents of the responders. My mother would not be pleased with what I wrote. But like most of the parents of the earliest Levittowners, she is deceased. My parents' ashes have been scattered in the Pacific Ocean, speaking of Holy Smoke.
See the bottom of this story for information on how to respond to the question about your religious education.
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Jim McGrath, class of 1960
We attended St. Bernard's Catholic Church and part of our ritual was mass on Sunday morning followed by a trip to the Peter Pan bakery for hard rolls to have with bacon and eggs. My grandmother would even feed our Irish Setter those eggs. I think he knew when Sunday came. I've never found hard rolls like those anywhere else.
No one wanted to go to the "mean priest" for confession, so we'd stand in a long line to get the "nice" one. I always avoided telling about the really bad stuff I did, but would own up to arguing with my brother and sister and disobeying my parents. I felt I covered everything else with "sorry for these and all the sins of my life, especially for the sin of disobedience."
Sometimes Joey Forte, Ralph DelPiano, my sister Gerri and I would stand in the back part of the church outside the closed interior doors and talk during mass. Looking back on it now I realize the talking must have been quite annoying to others around us. On a few occasions I remember being asked to leave by an angry usher. When my mother would find out she would become extremely angry. I, of course, always told her that the other three were responsible. She only bought it the first time.
Sandy Adams, class of 1960
I remember being jealous of the kids who got out of school early to go over to St. Bernard’s for religion classes – of course, many of them did NOT go to their classes. I wondered why our Community Church didn’t have the same type of schedule or if I should change religions to join my Catholic friends.
Lillian Smith, class of 1962
I remember St. Bernard's Catholic Church and the priests, Father Barnwell, Father O'Brien, and Father Minogue who wouldn't hesitate to interrupt their pedantic Sunday sermons with a reprimand to mothers with crying babies, summoning them to the "crying room".
I remember the nuns wearing bowling ball-sized rosary beads, and one particularly mean Sister Mary Mark, with her ever present white eye patch, who thought public humiliation was proper punishment for the smallest indiscretion.
I remember Sister Martin De Porres who taught private piano lessons and smacked your hands if you made a mistake. Holiness back then was associated with punishment and sacrifice with an emphasis on attending mass, prayer, and fasting.
God is love? Ha! We feared God back then. The fires of Hell beckoned at every catechism class where mortal sins could be as trivial as an impure thought. But we behaved! There were few discipline problems, and there was respect for authority. Catholicism was not for sissies back then. And there was real accountability for one's behavior. Today, with society's penchant for all things easy and convenient coupled with the permissiveness that exists on all levels, Catholicism has become but a shadow of itself, unrecognizable as the austere, yet somewhat mysterious religious role model it once was. It's just too hard.
The Catholicism I grew up with has lost its edge, its boundaries, its credibility, and inevitably, its respect. St. Peter must be turning over in his grave.
Frank Barning, class of 1960
My religious education in Levittown was boring, no juice. I could not feel the Holy Spirit that they were preaching about. To experience something that was inspiring, I tuned my radio to a church in Harlem on Sunday nights.
The worst thing that happened was when the Levittown Community Church changed bibles. It switched from the King James Version to the Revised Standard Edition. All the prayers and psalms that I had studied diligently for more than six years were no longer valid. According to Wikipedia, the Revised Standard Edition "aimed to be a readable and literally accurate modern English translation of the Bible."
I can understand why many Catholics were disappointed/shocked when the mass was no longer conducted in Latin.
On the positive side, the Levittown Community Church held dances opened to everyone regardless of their religion. And I was proud that our confirmation indoctrination included learning about Judaism and Roman Catholicism. As I recall, my Jewish and Catholic friends knew next to nothing about other faiths.
Karen Biro Hewson, class of 1960
Unfortunately, I really didn't have a religious education in Levittown. I tried the Levittown Community Church, but I never really found any kind of an attachment to it. Rather bland.
Before moving to Levittown I was a regular attendee of the Steinway Dutch Reformed Church in Astoria - I started going there when I was about six - Sunday school, then regular church services. I was pals with the pastor's daughter and much to his chagrin spent quite a bit of time at their home playing noisily on the front porch while he was trying to write Sunday's sermon, and running up and down the church aisles in off hours - there was plenty of room to run and no one usually bothered us.
It was quite a social church - trips to Lake Ronkonkoma, Christmas pageants, Strawberry Festivals, great fun. So all I can say about my Levittown religious education is - there wasn't any.
Jon Buller, class of 1961
What I remember about my religious education growing up in Levittown was that it was extremely confusing. The primary reason for this was that my mother was Christian (Methodist) while my father was Jewish. And to add to the confusion, my mother had some degree of real, if shallow, religious belief, while my father, although he was ethnically Jewish, was a hard-core atheist. So I not only had to reconcile my half-Christianity with my half-Jewishness, but my half-belief with my half-atheism.
Over the years, I think I have pretty well worked out the childhood conflicts that I felt about all of this. But I still utter a little “Aha!” of satisfaction when I read about someone and find out that they are, like me, half Jewish, and I immediately add them to my list. I’m not sure why I keep this list. Maybe it makes me feel less alone in this situation, as I often felt in high school.
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