September 18, 2012

Growing up Catholic in religiously diverse Levittown, New York in the 1950s

Kathy Stahlman on her confirmation day in 1956 in front of her house at 99 Butternut Lane.

By KATHY STAHLMAN ZINN, class of 1963

I grew up as a Catholic girl in Levittown. I had spent my first seven years in Elmhurst, Queens, right across the street from the church and school which my mother had attended. There I was christened, started school, and "made my first holy communion", as Catholics say. Much of the Irish/German neighborhood was Catholic. Looking back, it was a very insular world.

Moving to Levittown was a great dream for my and other post-WW II parents. Our fathers, and perhaps, a few mothers, had gotten to know people of various faiths and ethnicities in the war. That diversity, in a limited form, was repeated in our new community, partly through religion.

It seemed to me that neighbors, teachers, and classmates were roughly 50 percent Catholic, 25 percent Protestant, and 25 percent Jewish. No statistics are available, as far as I know. One of the large photos in the 1961 yearbook is a threefold image of St. Bernard's Catholic Church, the Israel Community Center (which no longer exists) and the Levittown Community Church.

Many of us found each other interesting, and often tried to learn about the others' faiths, sometimes attending special occasions in a friend's home or place of worship: christenings, first communions, confirmations and bar/bat mitzvahs. But it was the Catholic faith and practices which dominated my family life. I was the product of a "mixed marriage". My father was a German Protestant from western Pennsylvania, my mother, a New York City Irish girl.

I loved this fact, and enjoyed attending Sunday School in the Methodist church when we visited his family. When he formally became a Catholic on my 14th birthday, I did not see it as a "conversion", but rather as a way of his being even closer to us.

I also used my father's religious origin as an argument to my mother for why I refused to attend a Catholic school. Since Levittown was still so new, the nearest Catholic school was in Hicksville. I did not want to go because I didn't want to leave my friends at Summit Lane. I told my mother that "Catholic school kids were prejudiced against non-Catholics", which would include my father (this was before he joined our church). To some extent, I was correct. She relented. Instead, I attended "Religious Education" at our church.

Most Catholic churches do not have Sunday School. There is not enough time with all the Sunday services ("masses") that serve the large families. So, on Wednesdays Catholic kids were given "Released Time" to leave school early and walk to St. Bernard's. I don't remember if this continued in junior and senior high. We were unescorted by anyone but our friends. Imagine today bunches of elementary school children walking by themselves, through a shopping center, crossing Hempstead Turnpike, to say nothing of the issues of separation of church and state, and preferential treatment for one religious group.

We lost a few along the way, to the attractions of the shopping center, and some probably even snuck home. But most were thrilled to get out of school early and be free for the half-hour walk, despite our destination. In 2007, I learned that the St. Bernard's church building had originally been an airplane hanger. I wonder if my father, who flew B-17s, and became an airline pilot, ever knew that.

Our religion teachers were Dominican nuns, who wore the full black and white, floor length, imposing, "Habit". Few nuns wear such clothing today. We were instructed in how to be good Catholics. The "Baltimore Catechism", our main text, was set up in a question-and-answer form - quite boring, actually. Howard Whidden (class of 1962) agreed that Protestant kids seemed to have a lot more fun in Sunday School.

We were also instructed in the sacraments, first communion for second graders, and confirmation for sixth graders. Most kids stayed in religion classes at least through confirmation, because you got to pick a confirmation name - a privilege much anticipated. I chose the name "Jacqueline", the feminine form of Jacques, or John (it had to be a saint's name). "Jackie Kennedy" was unknown to us in 1956. My choice was based on the very pious reason that my favorite cousin, a Methodist at that, was named "Jackie".

Girls were encouraged to help with cleaning and decorating the altar on Saturdays. But altar boys assisted the priest at mass on Sundays. Girls were not even to think about such a thing. Becoming an altar boy was, informally, the path to recruiting boys into the priesthood.

In the 1990s, the argument that being an "altar server" was only for boys because of the priesthood was abandoned. Girls were now permitted as well. When girls first appeared on the altar of my parish in Virginia, I told my priest how much it meant to me and many other women, who, when girls, would have welcomed the opportunity.

I have many issues with the Catholic church, but I am still practicing. This is partly for family reasons, and largely because I see the best and deepest part of the religion in which I was raised as coming from the same core as all other faiths - like the people of Levittown.


Donna Tomasulo West said...

Kathy, we could be twins! Except I was born in Buffalo in 1961. I wonder what you look like today?

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