May 10, 2021

I never dreamed I’d live in so many places. Part 1

By John Guy LaPlante

Part 1.

This piece of mine has become far more detailed and lengthy than I planned. So for your pleasure and ease, and to give me an important breather, it will be posted in two parts, perhaps even three.

A few days ago I wrote a piece about how many places in the United States and other countries that I have traveled to by Greyhound Bus and other big bus and coach companies.

I had penciled out a list of places where I have lived.

You will admit it is a logical start.

So now I begin:

I was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On the second floor of a three-tenement house at 18 Coyle Avenue.

Yes, that’s where I took my first breaths and where I lived till the age of 10.

Then my Pa and Ma sent me off to a boarding school for boys in Sharon, Massachusetts. It was called Sacred Heart Academy. About a 40-minute drive from where we lived.

Off to Boarding School!

I was very homesick. When Pa and Ma came to visit me on the first Sunday afternoon after my first week there, I cried and cried and cried. Pa looked at me very sternly.

And he said to me in French, “Jean-Guy, if you do not stop crying right now, we will not come to see you next Sunday!!”

You bet I managed to stop right then and there.

Ma kissed me on both cheeks and hugged me.

Well, bit by bit I got used to it. But I never understood why I could not live at home like other kids and go to our parish school like other kids.

At the Academy our teachers were all Catholic “Brothers.” Really good teachers.

They had taken lifetime vows. They taught all the subjects and were responsible for everything that we did 24 hours a day.

One of my favorite moments came in English class every Friday morning when we had a spelling bee. I was pretty good and loved it.

There was just one priest there. He was an old, old man, retired.

I’ll tell you more about him in a minute.

All us boys slept in a big dormitory. At 9:30 p.m. it was lights out.

At 7:00 a.m. sharp a Brother would come in and ring, ring, ring a big handbell.

We’d rub our eyes and slick back our hair and dress for another new day.

And slowly get out of bed to started.

Now about that old priest. He was a nice old priest. He would be waiting for us in Chapel. Chapel was number one for us seven days a week.

He would celebrate Mass for us and give us Holy Communion and tell us to be good boys and study and work hard.

That was his only task until late in the day. He’d disappear until then.

Right after Chapel we did 30 minutes of studying in Study Hall. The room was well named.

We each had our own little desk and chair there. We had been assigned lessons and we got to it.

Then breakfast in the dining room. We were six to the table and we remained the same six week after week.

We all ate the very same thing and it would remain the same Monday through Saturday. Oatmeal, a toast or two with butter and jelly, and a cup of tea with milk. I liked the food. We all did.

Same thing at dinner and supper.

On Sundays we’d get an extra treat at breakfast. Maybe a banana. Maybe a frosted donut.

Dinner and supper were also extra good. More variety, as I remember it.

We had classes Monday through Friday. Three classes until dinner time. Then three classes after dinner. That ended our school day.

Then fun time — two hours of recreation and sports outside in good weather. If not so good, fun and games in our big Recreation Room.

A brother would clap his hands and we would form a long double line there.

One day a different Brother would come in with a crate of apples, walk between us from the start of the line to the end of the line, and let each of us take one apple. Just one.

The next day he would come in with a big pan of homemade donuts and let us take one donut. Just one.

That we’d go back to our desks in Study Hall for 40 minutes more to begin our homework.

Then suppertime.

The Brother Director would preside. At the end of supper he would stand, get our attention, and tell student Robert, or students Richard and Roy to go to his office door in the Recreation Room, face the wall, and wait for him.

Oh! Oh! We all knew that was bad news. They had done something bad and now they would have to be punished.

We now had one hour of free time. Outside if the sun had not set yet or the weather was okay. In the Recreation Room otherwise.

We could all see the guilty boy or boys facing the wall and waiting for the Brother Director.

Ten minutes before our free time was up, he would arrive, unlock his office door, go inside and ask one of the boys to go in with him. Then close the door.

We all knew what was going to happen next.

He would sternly lecture the boy, take a big leather strap off its hook on the wall, tell the boy to open his right hand, give him a big whack on the hand. It hurt bad.

If the offense had been extra bad, one whack on each hand. The boy would leave the office crying.

The next boy would be called in. Same scenario.

I do not think a punished boy had to be punished again.

We all knew what had taken place. Just the shame of it was punishment enough.

It never happened to me. It never happened to most boys.

Finally one hour of study time back in Study Hall. Then off to bed

In Study Hall on Friday evenings, that gentle old priest took over. He taught us “catechism” and told us about Adam and Eve, and also Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

He would tell us about sin, and that there were minor sins and very serious sins.

Then he would take us to Chapel. And he’d officiate at weekly Confession.

We stood in line, one by one entering the confessional box, and confess our sins, and then he would ask us to promise not to do those sins again.

And he’d give us a “penance.” Usually to recite one or two or three “Holy Rosaries” on our individual rosary beads, depending on how grievous our sins had been.

But as we stood in line to go in and confess, I really couldn’t think of any sins. I hadn’t stolen an extra apple or donut before we started Study Hall, and I couldn’t think of any big lies that I had said. Or anything else really naughty.

That ended Weekly Confession.

Then to bed. Lights out at 9:30 p.m. No problem at all in getting a good night’s sleep.

In our dormitory we each had a child’s single bed with sheets and blankets and pillow. With a small chest of drawers next to it. For a change or two of clothing, our jammies, toothbrush and toothpaste and comb and so on.

Every Friday evening before bedtime, we stood in line for showers.There were four shower stalls side by side.

One Brother directed the operation — we each got six minutes under the shower and out!

My first time I was so nervous I barely showered. Just got my head wet. Wanted to be sure I did not run into 7 or 8 minutes. I did not want to be scolded. We each had a trunk in the trunk room. We kept our fresh clean clothes there.

On Sunday afternoon when Pa and Ma showed up for an hour or so, she would spend 20 minutes arranging my fresh clothes nice and neat in my trunk for the week.

The Brothers got to notice that. When Pa and Ma arrived, one Brother would always come forward and give them a report about what a good boy I was and how well I was doing.

Very soon I got to notice that some of my schoolmates did not get to see their parents as often as I did. I felt bad for them.

Anyhow, their parents would pay extra to have the Brothers arrange to have the laundry taken care of.

One thing Pa and Ma liked about Sacred Heart Academy was that all the kids were French kids. We learned to read, spell, and write in English and also in French.

All the Brothers were of French descent.

The program there started in the 5th grade and that’s why I was sent there at that time.

I was there for the 5th, the 6th, the 7th, and the 8th grades, when I graduated at age 14. The top kid in my class, as Pa and Ma loved to tell everybody.

What they never seemed to mention was that there were only 22 of us in that 8th grade.

Oh, during those four years I came home in June for 12 weeks of normal family life.

By then I had two little sisters at home. Lucky girls. They were never sent to a Catholic Academy the way I was. There were such academies for girls.

Anyway, I couldn’t wait to come home for the summer and I hated to think of September and going back to the Brothers.

But every July, Pa and Ma would send me back to the Brothers for summer camp. I loved that.

The Academy was within walking distance of a beautiful lake. Every afternoon a Brother would take us there and let us splash around. One Brother taught me how to swim.

And there were woods nearby. We could go in there and play Hide and Seek.

And we could play horseshoes on a kids’ court.

Oh, one Christmas I got a two-wheel bike.

For my final two years at the Academy, the Brothers, with Pa’s gentle insistence, let me keep my bike there. I could ride it on the Academy grounds but never, never off the grounds. There were about a dozen of us there who had bikes.

As I said, I started at the Academy in the 5th grade. There was no first, second, third, or fourth-year instruction at the Academy.

For those years, I went to school at our church’s grammar school.

Our Lady of Consolation was our parish church. That’s where I was baptized as a baby.

It was created to serve French-speaking people like Pa and Ma. All the people were like Pa and Ma.

The pastor and his two assistant priests were French- speaking people like Pa and Ma.

And I went to school at Our Lady of Consolation Parish School.

It was operated by nuns and I liked the nuns. All parish children went to school there until they graduated at the end of the eighth grade. People thought highly of the school and the nuns.

My sisters Lucie and Louise went to school there for 8 years and did very well.

I thought they were so fortunate. You know, to be able to live at home and to have friends at the Parish School and be able to maintain them in some cases for many, many years.

After Sacred Heart Academy, I never got to see any of my Academy friends again.

It’s always been a mystery of sorts why I was sent to the Academy.

Certainly the Parish School cost far, far less than the Academy.

I think one reason is that because I was the first born, I was “spoiled” and that had to be taken care of.

The Brothers’ Academy had a fine reputation. I would be “unspoiled” there.

By then, my father had become a businessman. He had started a little store selling floor covering and carpets and window shades and such.

Then a much bigger store, right on Main Street, on two floors with three clerks to assist him, selling everything you needed in your tenement or house, from stove and ice box to kitchen and dining room and bedroom and parlor furniture and all the incidentals.

He drove a very nice car, a Buick, bought brand-new, mind you.

Now and then I have thought of Our Lady of Consolation and why it was called that.

I think I have the simple answer. I believe that many immigrants at times needed a spoonful of consolation. A heaping spoonful.

As I look back on all that, I really appreciate the emphasis they put on my learning both English and French.

It’s because of that that today I can still speak, read, and write French. Yes, I truly can. And I thank them for that.

That emphasis continued all through my college years.

Unfortunately, Pa and Ma would be depressed to hear what has happened to my religious life.

They were very devout, Pa even more so than Ma. Which is unusual in itself, I think.

They would be very saddened to know that when I became a thinking adult and they had passed on, he a dozen years before she, that bit by bit I gave up my religious beliefs, eventually all of them.

I did wonder once or twice what enormous penance that old priest at the Academy would give me if I went and confessed THAT to him now.

But gosh, I’ve spent so much time on being sent off to the Academy that I’ll have to speed things up about the many places that became my home here and there over these many years.

Well, I’ll start telling you that right now.

From the Academy. I went directly to Assumption in Worcester, Massachusetts.

That was about an hour’s drive from Pawtucket.

I called it Assumption because it was really an eight-year program.

It all took place in a great big red-brick building on the very top of a big hill.

It was operated not by an order of religious “brothers” but by an order of priests who were all members of The Augustinians of the Assumption, founded and inspired by the life and thinking of the Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon founded the Assumptionists.

Most of them came from France to start the school and teach the sons of French Canadians in New England.

I say an eighth-year program because it consisted of a four-year prep school concluding with a diploma, and a four-year college program concluding with a bachelor’s degree.

I was very fortunate in going there and so were my parents. Because I won a competitive scholarship that paid 80 percent of all expenses for those eight years at Assumption. Room and board and the whole academic program.

This was all made possible by a Franco-American fraternal society called the Union St. John the Baptist.

It sold life insurance policies to its members. It had some 40,000 of them throughout New England. And with profits from that life insurance business, carried on Good Works. Yes, a most important one was the scholarships at Assumption plus a variety of other services for members.

Here’s how the scholarship program worked.

On a three-day weekend in June every year, the Society invited the sons of members to meet at Assumption and take a weekend competitive exam at Assumption.

The boys would be driven to Worcester by their parents. Others, if that wasn’t possible, would be driven there by volunteer members of the churches that their parents attended.

They would arrive on Thursday evening. Take exams on Friday morning on certain subjects. In other subjects on Friday afternoon. And still other subjects on Saturday morning. And after lunch some boys would begin returning home. The boys with the best scores would be given a scholarship. Different New England states would be allocated a different number of scholarships depending on how many members the Society had in those states.

Maine might have 2. New Hampshire 8. Vermont 7. Massachusetts 6. Connecticut 5. Rhode Island 1.

I don’t remember the exact numbers. I may be way off. But as you can see it was a very big and expensive deal for the Society.

Some 400 boys showed up the weekend competitive exam.

My family lived in Rhode Island. Pa drove me to Assumption for the exam.

I won the scholarship for Rhode Island. But another boy from Rhode Island that I did not know tied me.

What to do? The Society decided that that year they would award two scholarships. Problem solved.

I enjoyed Assumption from start to finish.

In the Prep School I made the National Honor Society. I was elected class vice president, I think it was. I graduated with honors.

See if you can find me in my 1944 Freshman class at Assumption.

My parents hoped and prayed that I would become a medical doctor.

In college I began taking the required programs to qualify for admission to a medical school.

But the college had a school newspaper. Only six pages. It came out once a semester. And I wrote for it. In fact, I became its editor.

I had happened upon a book about journalism and how honest journalism is important in a democracy.

One weekend when I went home to be with my parents, I told them that I was dropping out of the Pre-Med program and hoped to become a journalist.

They took it very, very badly. Pa pleaded with me to reconsider. Ma was very close to tears.

Honestly I believe that was the most offensive thing that I ever did to my father and mother.

Anyway, there was an oratorical contest to choose the student speaker for Commencement. And for the speaker at the Graduates’ Banquet always held on the eve of Commencement.

I graduated magna cum laude.

From the 1947 Senior yearbook at Assumption.

Anyway, two or three months earlier I had attended a junior year prom at a small college for women much like Assumption. It was called Annhurst College. It was an hour’s drive from Assumption.

My student buddy John had a girlfriend there, Jeannine. And she had a friend named Pauline.

I would be Pauline’s date.

Though I had never attended a dance in my life. So of course did not know how to dance.

Pauline knew very little about me. Only what Jeannine had told her.

Pauline was very pretty. She had a lively personality. I liked her.

And to her surprise and mine, she was elected Prom Queen.

Well, within three days I was madly in love with Pauline.

She attended my graduation at Assumption. She was so sweet and so beautiful. And Pa and Ma were greatly impressed by her. They also really liked her.

Guess what? Four years later we were married.

But that did not conclude my relationship with Assumption. Far from that, as you will see.

Or with the Franco-American Fraternal Society called the Union St. John the Baptist. As you will also see.

Be on the lookout for Part 2 – coming soon.

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