The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Napa Valley Register on June 3: “One hundred and eight years after it opened in Napa, teachers and staff at St. John the Baptist Catholic School gathered on Tuesday afternoon to say goodbye to their students for the last time.”
That sad news brings to mind memories of my eight years attending that grand old grammar school. My brother, Brooks, and my three sisters, Nancy, Mary, and Helen Wilson all went to St. John’s. The five of us were approximately a year apart in age. I was number two. For about three years, all five of us were enrolled there at the same time.
Twice a year, my mother would give each of us an envelope containing $3 to give to Sister Diane, the principal. That was our tuition. Today, one might have to mortgage the house to send five kids to a Catholic school.
I graduated in the class of 1947. There were only four teachers for all eight grades. They were Dominican nuns from San Rafael who wore the penguin-style habits. There were only four class rooms; first and second, third and fourth, fifth and sixth, seventh and eighth. Each of the four nuns taught two classes at once.
Sister Pius taught first and second grade. She was small in stature but wielded a wicked ruler. She was notorious for whacking the first- and second-graders on the knuckles and making them cry.
Every morning before entering the school, we were lined up in the school yard in the order of our class. We had to recite a prayer. Then, during the War (World War II) we would have to march into the building while singing “Remember Pearl Harbor as we march on to victory."
One year, when there was a national war bond drive, a soldier in a Jeep arrived. He would give a ride in the Jeep around the school yard to students who bought a war bond. The bonds sold for $18.75 and in just 10 years it would be worth a whopping $25. What a deal.
Yes, I did get my ride around the school yard in the Jeep. Incidentally, the school yard had a chain link fence around it. Because the discipline was so strict there, we often referred to our school as “SJPC.” That stood for St. John’s Prison Camp.
Right in the middle of the asphalt-paved school yard between the school and the church was a grave. It was the burial site of an earlier priest at St. John’s named Father Byrne. The site was enclosed by a low, rectangular chain-link fence about three feet high. Whenever a ball bounded over the fence into the plot it was rather eerie retrieving the ball because no one wanted to step on the grave. The late priest’s body has long since been re-interred elsewhere.
In those days before the women’s liberation movement, boys did all the traditional duties like traffic monitors at the intersection of Main and Napa Streets before and after school.
The most notable duty however no longer exists. It was serving as an Altar Boy. Today at least half of the altar servers are girls. In those days, we boys served Mass and had to learn all the responses in Latin.
Since Vatican II, the responses are in English (or native tongue) and all the parishioners recite the responses at Mass. I really enjoyed being an altar boy for two reasons. First, you occasionally got to serve a funeral Mass during a weekday, which meant you got out of class for a few hours. Second, was the annual Alter Boys’ picnic at Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma. There were plenty of hot dogs and soda and swimming and games.
I have nothing but praise for the wonderful Dominican nuns who dedicated their lives serving God by giving us the academic foundation we needed to become useful citizens and especially for teaching us the tenets of our faith.
One memory I will take to my grave is the graduation breakfast. The old wooden building that served as a church hall sat about where the current St. John the Baptist church resides now. That is where the breakfast was served. Father Ryan, our pastor, gave a very challenging talk that influenced me for the rest of my life. He said that statistics show that many of us will stray from our faith. But many others will continue to attend mass on a regular basis and will remaining faithful to the church for life. You must decide in which group you plan to be in.
That very day I chose the latter. I am very grateful for having attended St. John's.
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