Inspiration

School’s Out

Another Catholic grade school closes, but this time it was mine

I moved away from the San Fernando Valley in 1987 and rarely went back, but learning my Catholic elementary school is closing at the end of this school term makes me want to rush over there and save it.

St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School is one of several parochial schools located along the Sherman Way corridor in the San Fernando Valley. This stretch of Los Angeles is nestled amongst the most diverse working class neighborhoods within a 7.5-square mile area. If Sherman Way is the main artery to access Reseda, then St. Catherine’s is the heart.

Long before COVID-19, St. Catherine of Siena elementary struggled financially with low enrollment and rising operating costs. When I attended there from 1975 to 1980, a small congregation of Sisters lived in the convent and served as administrators and teachers. My mother enrolled my sisters and I as a result of mandatory busing in the Los Angeles Unified School District. At that time, the class sizes swelled to 40 or more and waiting lists were common. In fact, the year I started at St. Catherine’s, my mother had to volunteer (read: voluntold) as school chairman to guarantee a seat for me.

Confirmation in 8th grade

In the next two months, the desks at St. Catherine’s will empty forever. Students will be invited to attend other parochial schools nearby. The heart and soul of this K-8 sanctuary will move on. In June, St. Catherine’s will shutter for good, one of six Catholic elementary schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese to cease operations due to the economic stressors exacerbated by the pandemic.

It’s tough to keep a Catholic school fiscally healthy in today’s educational climate. Rising tuition costs, a variety of charter schools to choose from and then COVID-19 have decimated once thriving Catholic school communities. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the current school year has yielded the largest enrollment decline in 50 years with 110,000 students not returning to parochial classes. As children across the country were sent home to quarantine in 2020, more than 200 Catholic schools closed or consolidated at the end of the 2019-20 term, NCEA reported.

Growing up in Reseda, I would frequent Sherman Way and the many neighborhood haunts that were part of my youth in the 70s and early 80s. If I had babysitting cash, I would spend my entire earnings at Licorice Pizza buying 45 records only to torture my poor mother at home by playing them over and over again. (At age 79, she still knows all the lyrics to Cars by Gary Numan). Entertainment would consist of evening skating sessions at Sherman Square Roller Rink or smuggling candy inside the Reseda Theatre during discount matinees. As the punk scene grew, I was often dancing right outside the mosh pit during concerts at the Reseda Country Club. Tickets were affordable back then and parking was free.

Those childhood landmarks are long gone, but St. Catherine of Siena school was always there. It was an anchor on Sherman Way with the traditional blacktop playground and sparse equipment, but it was the center of hard won dodgeball games, First Friday Masses and fierce Steal the Bacon tournaments on rainy days. We didn’t have sports fields or grass, but we had a library, shade from the Southern California sun and organized sports in volleyball and softball for the girls. Driving along Sherman Way, passersby will quickly notice the iconic mosaic of Saint Catherine of Siena Church. Tucked behind the grandeur of the church’s facade are two driveway corridors that lead you to the modest mid-century brick buildings that served children in the Valley for almost 70 years.

It’s too late to rescue St. Catherine of Siena school, but I can honor my memories. Once a tomboy with feathered hair, completely shellacked with Aqua Net, I fell in love with writing in seventh grade at St. Catherine’s. With my oversized bubblegum pink comb and Bonne Bell Kissing Potion stationed in my pocket, I was the stereotypical Valley Girl with a plaid Catholic school skirt.

A page from my autograph book in 7th grade

Good bye St. Catherine’s and thank you. I learned so much in your classrooms and more so on the playground. Times were different and I wasn’t allowed to play basketball as the Sisters thought it wasn’t ladylike, but God was always there and instilled in me a deep commitment to helping others. The academic rigor, traditions and Catholic community formed the storyboard for what I wanted education to look like for my own four children. This June, my youngest child will graduate from high school. Yes, St. Catherine’s, we did it!

Inspiration

The Timeline of Twins

A tale of a new mom, a selfless grandmother and her reluctant Christian husband

My husband answered the house phone. It was mid-day on November 19, 1996. He kept saying “oh no, oh my God” and then the ultimate sinker, “let me hand over the phone to Colleen.” The caller was my father. That morning, my mother sustained a stroke while shopping at a nearby mall. She was searching for a track suit for her mother-in-law (my grandmother) before she slumped in the store’s chair. A fast-thinking retail manager called mall security and one of the employees knew CPR. That skill was the reason my mother was now an ICU patient at the regional hospital close to a major university. She was on life support. The doctors encouraged the family to get there as quickly as possible.

I had just seen my vibrant, beautiful mother less than a month ago. She was my caregiver after I delivered my first newborns – boy/girl twins. The pair had come one month early, but were healthy and quite a handful for a new parent. My mom dug right in – got me and my babies on a schedule, walked our family dog, shopped for daily necessities and accompanied our little tribe to the first pediatrician appointment. I remember watching her drive away that windy October afternoon. I know she was exhausted after helping me and my husband for two weeks, but her love and support was immeasurable. I sobbed as my father’s Ford Ranchero blurred into the horizon.

After that phone call, I don’t know if it was shock, postpartum or the sheer urgency to say goodbye, but my husband and I scooped up the twins and crammed voluminous baby gear into our family van within minutes. We raced on the interstate for 90 miles to get to my mother. We were blessed with no Southern California traffic and hustled our way to the hospital wing where my mother lay among other suffering patients.

An ICU wing isn’t the best place to bring premature twins, but here I was. My husband and I took turns with our baby bundles. There wasn’t a Mother’s Room or other private area to breastfeed, so I would visit the larger stall in the restroom and alternate feeding my son and daughter. it was an otherworldly experience.

art blur candlelight candles

As visiting hours ended for the day, we learned that my mother sustained a cerebral vascular accident or CVA. There was a clot in her brain that bulged and was leaking. It was likely a congenital defect as she was thin and had never smoked. Her one vice was slathering too much mayonnaise on her favorite sandwich. If she regained consciousness, the neurosurgeon would decide if he could perform brain surgery. We were told to go home for the day. Keep a positive attitude. Encourage daily visitors to speak to my unconscious mother. And pray.

I remember going to my parents’ home that night. I placed my traveling babies in their layettes in the living room. They were sound asleep – that stillness that scares new moms. Are they still alive? I placed my hand on each of their cherubic bellies and could feel the rise and fall of their breath. My husband went to the store for more diapers and other supplies. I was alone in the house. I don’t think I had been solo in weeks. Instinctively, I went to my mother’s jewelry box and clasped her beloved wedding pearls. I placed them on my heart and walked from room to room. Everything in that house – the unmade bed from that morning, a picture frame, her stationery – reminded me of my mother. I was not ready for her to leave me. She was only 55-years-old.

Two weeks would go by. Each day was filled with a high if we heard a good sign followed by a devastating low when her condition made a U-turn. Our family couldn’t get off this roller coaster. My father, who is not Catholic, would insist that one of his four daughters go to the hospital chapel and pray during visiting hours. He felt that since he wasn’t religious, God wouldn’t listen to him. As the oldest daughter, I could see how each day was draining my father. He was so reliant on my mother. He didn’t even know where the linens were kept in the house. Cooking wasn’t even attempted. Takeout boxes were skyscraping above the kitchen trashcan. It was the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

baked box cheese close up
Just pretend there are 10 more boxes stacked here – like a House of Pizza Cards

My mom’s parish and younger sisters’ Catholic high school community was praying round-the-clock and delivering meals. Surprisingly, I started letting friends watch my newborn twins. My fatigue was so bad that I allowed a well-meaning friend buy a different brand of disposable diapers. My new mom mojo had disappeared. One ICU nurse told me in the hospital cafeteria, “You know, your mother is never going to recover. She’s never going to walk again.” That lack of empathy fueled me.

When I told my father the nurse’s glib statement, he announced, “I will carry your mom on my back for the rest of my life.” As the writer in the family, I always correlated that statement with Jesus carrying the cross.

My father’s unconditional love and promise that day demonstrated how he was willing to physically carry my mom – no matter what – just as long as she could live. As Jesus carried the cross and embraced His suffering for us, we as Catholics carry our own at times knowing the pain and endurance will lead us to peace and salvation. My father was willing to carry his cross. As a reluctant Christian, his faith was never strong than that day 22 years ago.

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My mom’s blood pressure was too risky to operate. She also sustained a heart attack during her struggles in the ICU. The beeping machinery was a constant reminder of the delicate nature of life. The right side of her body was paralyzed. She would kick her left leg up in the air. We joked that she was practicing her ballerina moves. She ripped the breathing tube out from her throat.

After that tightrope walk of two weeks, the neurosurgeon finally decided on a narrow window to operate on her bulging aneurysm. The surgery lasted all morning. We all knew the risks. My sisters and I worried that we may be losing two parents if my mom didn’t make it. They had been married 32 years already – raised four daughters in a one-bathroom house and according to my father, paid millions in Catholic school tuition.

This was a pivotal moment in my life. I had been that girl who would always do the right thing, or so I thought. The young woman who would work multiple jobs, dot every “i” and cross every “t.” Now I was a new mother who would say “yes” to everyone and everything when in reality I needed more “no’s” to help myself. I have made a conscious decision to always choose family first since my mom’s accident. The cliche of “life’s too short” is a very tangible thing to me.

My mom survived her brain surgery. Her recovery was long. The prayer vigils were powerful. Our family’s perseverance paid off. My mother now has a timeline to use while in conversation. It’s either “before or after” the aneurysm. When she tells newcomers about her ordeal, she always reminds herself how old her twin grandchildren are. That’s her baseline. She now has 10 grandchildren. My father may not be carrying her on his back, but he shadows her. He doesn’t want to lose her again. And neither do I.

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My twins just celebrated their 22nd birthday. My parents are still married although my dad still doesn’t know where the linens are but has taken up vacuuming recently.