There were a dozen or so Roman Catholic sponsored grade schools scattered across the city of St. Cloud in the 1950s. Holy Spirit was the newest grade school on the scene when it opened in 1952 and, as it turned out, students such as the 11 children of the Statz family found ourselves under the guidance of a group of Franciscan Sisters (nuns) whose mother-house was in Little Falls.
I would venture to say, many of those, including me, who attended grade school back then did not fully appreciate how lucky we were to have had these kind, young, dedicated women as our teachers. But, looking back, there is no doubt we were in good hands with the Franciscans as our mentors.
Unfortunately, there is only one teacher from my era at Holy Spirit still living: that would be Sister Mary Kenneth (Zirbes). I remember her as a smiling, small-statured, spitfire of a nun who was our first principal.
As luck would have it, I met up with Sister Kenneth a few years back when she was just turning 90, and there she was, the same tiny, smiling lady I left behind 70 years ago.
Inquisitive as I have always been, I took the opportunity to ask her the questions I’ve carried from grade school days until now about what it was like for those nuns back then. Surprisingly, she was forthcoming with anecdotes and facts about what life was for her and her conferees teaching young baby-boomers in St. Cloud during the middle of the 20th century. Here is a summary of what she said:
*When they (the group of nuns) arrived at Holy Spirit Parish to teach grades 1-8, they were forced to stay a mile away from their workplace in what was then known as the Children’s Home, an orphanage on the banks of the Mississippi. Originally, they had no vehicle of their own to get to and from the school, so they had to be driven. Sister Kenneth approached the local parish priest asking for a car. Both she and the priest made an appointment to see the St. Cloud bishop about the possibility of getting a vehicle. That bishop succinctly told them that “no women (nuns) working in his diocese would be driving a car.”
End of story? Hardly. Sister Kenneth put the pedal down and within a year, the gals in habits had their own beige-colored station wagon which pulled up to our school promptly each morning.
*Sister Kenneth also told me that she was not only to become the principal of the school, but initially she was the one and only first-grade teacher in the fall of 1952 whose case-load happened to be over 80 students in one room. “To tell you the truth, to this day, I wonder how we did it or how much education went on during those early days,” Sister Kenneth said. Half-way through that first school year, Sister Kenneth put out the call for help to the mother-house in Little Falls, and she got another gal to join her. But, even at that, 40 in a class, by today’s standards would be double what is the recommended class size.
*Eventually, the parish built the nuns their own living quarters just across the street from the school. And asked about the pay for these dedicated educators, Sister Kenneth said each nun was paid $35 per month, with that money being sent directly to the mother-house in Little Falls. Okay, public school teachers back then were making salaries around $3,000 per year and had to find their own housing, unlike the good sisters, but $35 per month was without a doubt the bargain of bargains for half the grade schools in St. Cloud.
*As for the credentials of these young women teachers: many of the gals teaching at Holy Spirit were fresh out of a two year college where they were working their way toward being nuns. Many were in their early 20s and without education degrees when taking positions at Holy Spirit, so they worked during the summer to earn their teaching diplomas.
*As for the rumors about the nuns hitting students with their rosary beads or, in the case of the Franciscans, the knotted chord they wore around their waist: in the eight years I attended my elementary school, I never, ever witnessed a nun using that sort of punishment on a student. In fact, this is what I experienced day after day from my teachers: for their $35 a month, they were saddled with a class load of 40 to 45 students, teaching all subjects, with no specialists as happens so many times these days in public schools. The nuns wore wool habits with head-pieces covering their head and neck with no air-conditioning, and they were allowed breaks just twice a day for 15-minute recesses and a 40-minute lunch period. During one year, there were so many students, that a class went to school from 7 a.m. until noon and another set of 40 attended school from 12:30 until 4 p.m. (and the nuns taught both sets of children for that extended school day). How about that for dedication? There were no teacher unions for our Franciscans to ensure humane working conditions!
*p.s. On the day I met my old grade school teacher, she had just finished taking her drivers test at age 90, which she passed with flying colors. I guess the old bishop of St. Cloud is rolling over in his grave thinking his gals were driving vehicles.
Bob Statz is a Messenger staff writer.