Sr. Nativa, CSJ was my 2nd Grade Teacher Rev. Jim Ryan
In 1955 Sr. Nativa was the only African-American Sister in the Congregation of St. Joseph (CSJ), Rocky River, Ohio. My family moved on January 1, 1955 into St. Ignatius of Antioch Parish, Cleveland where Sr. Nativa taught. There were two reasons why we moved. The first was so my Mother could be closer to her family on the West Side. My six brothers and one sister were products of a mixed marriage. My Mother was West Side Irish and my Father was East Side Irish – close but not quite equivalent to the difference between being either from the Republic or from the North – another story. The second reason we moved was because our family of 2 parents and 7 sons had, for some time, outgrown the downstairs of the duplex in which we lived on E. 94th St. Upstairs lived Nana, our paternal grandmother and Uncle Bill, my Father’s bachelor brother.
These two very legitimate reasons did not keep Sr. Adrian, St. Ignatius Principal, from asking my parents, when they registered us in school for that second semester, if they were moving from east to west to get away from the blacks who had begun to buy homes in East Side white neighborhoods. She said if that was their purpose in moving then she had to inform them that their son in the 2nd Grade, that’s me, would have Sr. Nativa for his teacher.
We were soon to discover the force that was Msgr. Albert J. Murphy, Pastor of St. Ignatius Parish. He anchored the near west side of the Cleveland Diocese leading a congregation in those post-war years of over 5,000 families. Back in those golden years of the church militant when Catholics procreated with near abandon and all those WWII veterans got good paying union jobs in the steel mills and the auto plants Msgr. Murphy ruled in his West Side patch.
When he got upset at the Catholic Youth Organization’s football league he took the Parish out of the league and set up an entire league of 8-10 teams within the parish. When he wanted to make it more convenient for his parishioners to get to church on Sunday he rented a fleet of buses from the Cleveland Transit System. Then he sent them on scheduled routes through the neighborhoods of the Parish to pick up people and drop them off at church in time for Mass. He had a lot of pews to fill with both the upstairs and downstairs churches having a total of 10 Masses on Sunday morning.
So, when the Sisters of St. Joseph were looking to assign their only black Sister, instead of going to an East Side Parish where there were at least some black students in the Catholic schools, Msgr. Murphy said he wanted Sr. Nativa to teach in his West Side parish school whose population was 100% white. Msgr. Murphy, this force to reckon with, was a Pastor who could see ahead to the times that were to come.
That is how Sr. Nativa and I wound up in 2nd Grade together at St. Ignatius School in January, 1955. I have to say I didn’t want to be there. At our former school, St. Thomas Aquinas on the East Side, I was a celebrity of sorts, at least that’s how I remember it.
Let me introduce you to Sr. Mary Thomas, also a CSJ, who was my 2nd Grade Teacher from September to December, 1954. I was one of her favorites, proven by the fact that in the Nativity Pageant for the 2nd Grade that Christmas she picked me to be St. Joseph. You must appreciate the context here. For a Sister of St. Joseph picking who will play the part of Joseph in the Nativity Pageant was, back then, a big deal. And Sr. Mary Thomas picked me. Such a selection meant, in the piety of those days, that I was on the holy and glittering path of great things to come. Being St. Joseph was just the first step to a blessed and meaningful life. Or so I thought.
Somewhere, I’m sure, the photograph still exists of me costumed in a hand-me-down flannel bathrobe trying to keep glued to my face the roll of cotton that served as St. Joseph’s beard sitting across from 2nd Grade Virgin Mary, Mother of the baby doll that we are both looking at – eyes adoring the Christ Child, as Sr. Mary Thomas directed us to. I mean, wherever one goes from there one will always be the boy who was St. Joseph in a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Then my world came crashing down, going from being the big shot to being the new kid. There I was in a new school with Sr. Nativa whose black face and hands encased in her religious habit was not my usual view of what a Sister of St. Joseph looked like. Those first few months I cried a lot. Remember those sheets of paper – gray in color with wide spaces between the lines – that were used in 2nd Grade for practicing printing our letters and words? Well, I brought home plenty of those papers tear-stained as evidence of how much I missed Sr. Mary Thomas and our old school.
Sr. Nativa knew my story (those CSJs always had a close network) and could see my distress. Even now I remember her coming to my desk, leaning down and putting her hands warmly on my shoulders. I only remember her encouragement and kindness. Soon the tears gave way to being happy as one of her students. Later in life I had a very short one semester career as a 2nd Grade Teacher. What got me through daily facing 43 children in a classroom built for 25 was the warmth, acceptance, encouragement and joy that Sr. Nativa showed me in that classroom 20 years earlier.
Another photo I know is out there somewhere is of my First Communion. As most of us know, back in the day 2nd Grade was important as the year of First Holy Communlon – the celebration of receiving communion for the first time by all us little 7-8 yr. olds. The picture is of Sr. Nativa, in her Sister of St. Joseph religious habit (google it), and me in my white suit – the pants of which wound up with a very large grass stain by the end of the day.
One last thing. Here’s how Sr. Nativa won over my Mom – herself a force to be reckoned with. Did I say I grew up in an Irish home? Well, it turns out that Sr. Nativa’s family was a band of entertainers themselves, being very active in Cleveland’s African-American church and music scene. She grew up with singing a wide variety of songs, some of which she learned from the Irish community. She would lead our 2nd Grade contingent in song complete with gestures and expression. She taught us “Molly Malone.” (If you want to hear it sung with just the right haunting effect go to YouTube and select Sinead O’Connor’s version.) The day I came home and sang “Molly Malone’ for my Mom, complete with “Alive, alive oh; alive, alive oh. Singing Cockles and Mussels, Alive, alive oh” with the gestures of hand to mouth just as Molly Malone did when “she wheeled her wheelbarrow through the streets broad and narrow” just as Sr. Nativa taught me – that’s when Mom knew I would be OK.
Thank you, Sr. Nativa, CSJ
Sister Nativa was so wonderful! She understood my situation and welcomed me with open arms in the 2nd grade. It was a huge change from the first grade experience and totally unexpected. I was so relieved. It restored my trust and faith in mankind. Thank you Sister Nativa.
Jim, great story as usual! I could identify with some of your experience and the “power” of certain people in the church of the time.
My father wanted to send my brother to University of Wisconsin after attending a Catholic high school in a nearby town. The pastor got wind of his intentions and came to visit Dad in our home. For some reason I was there and heard everything!
Monsignor Schmidt, our pastor, told my Dad he had to send my brother (his only son) to a Catholic College because my Dad could afford to. If he did not, he would be excommunicated! I was in 8th grade at the time and did not understand the meaning of this until I got older. My Dad died 15 minutes before my brother graduated from a Benedictine monastery in Atchison, Kansas where my brother eventually ended up because after 2 years at Marquette he became a monk in Colorado. My poor Dad, I believe, had to struggle with church power until the day he died! He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps as a physician and I think he felt duped by God and the church!
Interesting. I only realized Sister was black when I held her hand playing “Sally in the Water” during outside recess.
In answer to your first question—I am good! Thanks for asking.