Mom Versus The Church

An unjustifiable act of violence by an overzealous educator sets the scene for an encounter that serves as a reminder to never mess with Momma Bear…

by: Mary Ann McGuigan

Years before it became clear to even the most delusional Catholics that the gentlemen raising the sacramental communion host for the congregants’ adoration had a fondness for reaching into their sons’ pants, my mother took what priests had to say as less than gospel. Outwardly, she was respectful — this was 1956 after all and she’d been raised to revere clergy me and women — but unlike her sisters, who placed priests and nuns in a class even Bing Crosby couldn’t reach, she suspected some might harbor in their heart of hearts an unseemly appetite for dictating the terms of mercy.

Her hunch was confirmed when Father Walsh — whose brogue Mom suspected was acquired only after rigorous viewings of Going My Way — advised her to put her life at risk rather than face excommunication. She’d discovered she was pregnant less than two months after delivering her sixth child. The doctor recommended she abort the pregnancy. She sought solace and understanding from the only source she’d been raised to believe it might come — a priest. She received no comfort from the priest at all. Even when she appealed to him on behalf of her children and the danger of their being left in the care of her husband, a man determined to outdrink his ancestors, she was met with a sympathetic pat on her shoulder and a firm refusal, as if this young man, then a newly minted gatekeeper from the Order of Saint Benedict with no wife, no children, and no need to trouble himself over the price of bread, had any clue what was at stake here.

So when Sister Mary Cornelius bashed my brother Danny’s head against the blackboard at school, Mom decided she had some wrongs to make right. I’ll never know for certain what took place at the school the next day, but according to my brother Sean — who seems to have been spared at least one Irish trait in his DNA (the need to embellish) — Mom was waiting for Sister Mary Cornelius at her classroom door as the school day began.

Danny had come home from school the day before tremendously upset with a bruise on his forehead. He was crying. I had never seen Danny shed tears before, not even when Dad would bloody him up from time to time. My guess is Mom hadn’t seen any tears from him since he stopped teething, so it got her attention.

It turned out some wiseasses in his sixth-grade class were making fun of his stuttering, an impediment everyone in the family had been conditioned to studiously ignore. Sister Cornelius did nothing to stop them. Apparently, it got pretty bad, because Danny finally stood up from his desk, prepared to rearrange a few of Dennis Callahan’s teeth. But Sister Cornelius came to Callahan’s rescue. In what had become one of her most effective disciplinary gestures, the good sister took my brother by the back of the neck and slammed his face against the chalk of the day’s homework assignment. Lesson learned, or so she presumed.

Danny didn’t say much upon his return home, except to confirm the events Sean described. With that, Mom got quiet, a bad sign. Danny figured at first that he was in trouble, especially since she told him the next morning that she was taking him to school. She wanted a word with Sister Cornelius. It turned out to be several words, some of which may have required an act of contrition afterwards. She waited with Danny by the classroom door and with the class nearly full, she straightened her five-foot frame and explained to Sister Cornelius — whom the kids secretly called Amy for her Amazonian stature — that if she ever laid a hand on her son again or allowed him to be mocked by other students, she’d show her what it felt like to taste the chalk on the blackboard.

Of course, Sister Cornelius, unaccustomed to being questioned, never mind threatened, went on a tear about lack of respect and the sins of the parents visited on their children. Mom’s language got even uglier after that, but the entire fiasco finally ended when Sister Mary Frances, the principal, strode down the hall in her soundless orthopedics to restore calm.

Mom claimed later that the principal assured her nothing like that would happen to Danny again, but I guess she didn’t have much faith in holy promises anymore, because that was the end of the Church’s influence on our moral fiber. By September she had transferred all five of us from St. Thomas Aquinas School — a four-story fortress on Daly Avenue, just a rock’s throw from the elegant Cross Bronx Expressway —and into public school.

I doubt that the move diminished our chances of eternal salvation.


Mary Ann McGuigan’s creative nonfiction appears in Brevity (forthcoming), X-R-A-Y, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. You can find her fiction in a variety of journals, including The Sun, Massachusetts Review, and North American Review. Her collection PIECES includes fiction named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. THAT VERY PLACE, her new story collection, reaches bookstores in 2025. The Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library rank Mary Ann’s young-adult novels as best books for teens. WHERE YOU BELONG was a finalist for the National Book Award. She loves visitors:
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