Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Catholic parish in Winnetka, Illinois, is named for three virgins martyred in second century Rome during the reign of Hadrian. The girls, ages twelve, ten and nine were boiled in tar and beheaded for their refusal to denounce Jesus.
My two sisters and I attended Saints Faith, Hope & Charity school in the late fifties at about the same ages as the boiled virgins. I entered the fifth grade after the school year started, having attended the Cathedral School in downtown Chicago for a few weeks while my parents finagled a new home in the northern suburbs. We’d just been run out of St. Louis for failure to pay our bills.
Outwardly I was accustomed to masking the shame and embarrassment of our alcoholic family life. I donned my most congenial personality for the girls at “Faith Hope”. I needn’t have. The girls greeted me like a new puppy. Everyone wanted to call me their friend and invite me to their homes after school. At Kathy White’s house, we all gathered in the basement and played very competitive dodgeball. But the girls themselves weren’t competitive. These girls all seemed like best friends.
The Faith Hope Dominican Sisters, were the kindest of any nuns I’d encountered at the ten or twelve Catholic schools I’d previously attended. Whenever one of the Faith Hope sisters discovered I’d forgotten my lunch, I was treated to a sandwich in the convent dining room. I overheard rumblings at home that the mother superior may have called my parents about the missing lunches but I never heard about it at school.
Faith Hope’s lively playground burst into jump rope, hopscotch, steal-the-bacon and ball games. In the winter girls and boys alike played king of the hill on huge snow piles.
One day on the playground, Helen Smith gathered some girls to sneak off to the church. She wanted to show us a secret booklet her older brother told her about. We edged into the vestibule as she reached up to a high shelf and pulled down, “Secrets of Marriage”. Helen read aloud descriptions of a man’s penis planting a seed into a woman’s vagina to form a baby.
“Ewww!” we screeched.
Some of us ran out, hid in the folds of a giant spruce and giggled ourselves into oblivion. Others stayed inside and learned more details.
Faith Hope’s pastor, Monsignor Thomas Burke, a charming powerhouse of a priest, didn’t evoke fear or condemnation like other priests I’d known. He connected. We weren’t related, but Monsignor Burke, who told me Regan means “queen” in Gaelic, joked that all the Burkes in the Midwest were cousins.
During my seventh grade year, our evicted family moved away. I felt like one of those martyred sisters from the first century, boiled in anger. I was certain I’d never find as happy a time as I’d had at Faith Hope.
A Faith Hope friend I hadn’t seen in sixty years sent me a note after she’d read my book, In That Number. It simply said, “You belonged to us.”
And the saints came marching in.