THE ROOF OF HEAVEN
I was sitting with Jim Coniglione in his office in Locust Valley a few weeks ago. We were shooting the breeze, ruminating on contemporary issues of varying import, when Jim came out with a rather startling invitation: “Hey, the pastor at St. Patrick’s wants me to clean up the pigeon shit in the bell tower. Want to check it out with me?”
The question wasn’t entirely out of left field. Jim operates Scoopy-Doo, a pet waste removal service (or as Jim more succinctly frames it, “I pick up dog shit.” ) He is often approached by folks with momentous fecal challenges. He’s cleaned up after geese, pigs, donkeys, horses, and the occasional alpaca. And yes, pigeons, many times.
But this, among scooping opportunities, was unique: the bell tower at St. Patrick’s Church - that iconic brick spire towering over the city of Glen Cove from its perch on the hill at Pearsall Street, with the dragon gargoyles and the clock hands that never moved. The belfry hadn’t been cleaned, Father Gabriel said, in at least thirty years. Maybe never. There were generations of church history up there, reduced and distilled into stratified layers of white and green guano. Of course I wanted to check it out.
And for a personal reason. I grew up a member of St. Patrick’s parish, and served there as an altar boy. My parents were married in that church, as was my brother, my cousins, lots of my friends. Many’s the time I stood outside the front entrance, waiting for the bride and groom to make their grand descent down the stone staircase, and looked up idly at the pigeons in the tower as they peeked down at us through the curlicued clock lattice, judging how to best land a fresh dropping on the shoulder of some unwitting bridesmaid.
But more than that – oh, much more - I attended St. Patrick’s School right next door for eight years. Eight years of nuns, and lay teachers with the souls of nuns; of rulers, blackboards, “SPS” monogrammed ties and blazers, regimented mass visits to the bathroom (or more properly, the lavatory), clapped erasers, May crownings, and a legacy of parochial instruction, religious and otherwise, accomplished by dint of rote, memorization, and terror. I had endured eight harrowing years at St. Pat’s. I was a survivor.
That, more than anything else, made me want to go up into that ominous tower. Driving with my brothers to school each morning, it would loom before us, stark and forbidding, a promise of the daily misery to come, and over the years it had become a symbol of hard times and liberation, struggle and triumph, grief and glory. To stand in that belfry now and look down with benign contempt at the school below would represent for me a moment of transcendence, a purging of demons, and, to use a term that didn’t even exist in my childhood, ultimate closure.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, of course - neither Devil’s Island nor Disneyland. But I can tell you this much, there were no inspirational, heartwarming movie nuns at St. Patrick’s: no Ingrid Bergmans, no Rosalind Russells, no perky tomboys climbing trees or riding motorcycles through the cloister, no future saints picking up guitars and singing “Dominique” as the bluebirds circled round their heads.
Anyone who hasn’t gone to Catholic school is likely to entertain a misapprehension of the experience. Outsiders might picture it as a brutal totalitarian system, run by zealots and maladjusted thugs, who use psychological manipulation and outright cruelty to force their helpless charges into a mindless acceptance of authority. Others may have had their gentler impressions shaped by Hollywood: the school in this incarnation a welcoming place, where the nuns are kindly and compassionate, singing cheery songs and playing baseball at recess, and where the wise, jovial priests dispense avuncular advice as they pat you on the head and nowhere else.
We had instead Sister Carolus, Sister Cyrina, Sister Adrian, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Leon, Sister Rosemary; all middle-aged, short-tempered, crabby brides of Christ. Some of them were dedicated martinets; others were just bored and clearly resentful of the roles that the church patriarchy had assigned them by virtue of their lesser sex. As a consequence, none of them lit up the room when they walked into it; and while all were big fans of The Sound of Music and its positive, noble depiction of nunnery life, there wasn’t a one in the bunch whom you wouldn’t imagine kicking the Von Trapps to the curb and stopping up her ears with her fingers while the Nazis opened fire.
In place of a kindly Mother Abbess chirping “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, we had Sister Gerarda, the burly humorless principal, who swaggered down the halls like a longshoreman and had a crucifix and a Board-of-Education paddle hanging over her desk. When you got sent down to her office for disrupting the class, you could fairly expect it wouldn’t be for a spot of tea and a cozy heart-to-heart.
I had a couple of lay teachers in my tour of duty at St. Patrick’s, but they made little impression. It was the nuns who personified the spirit of the place, and none were more memorable than my fourth-grade teacher, Sister Francis Jerome, who, among her other virtues, was a narcoleptic hunchback. She would drift off to sleep at her desk around 9:30 a.m., and wake up maybe an hour later, at which point she would berate us for wasting the whole morning: “Lazy – you’re all lazy and worthless!” As for her posture – well, her back wasn’t so much hunched as her head was shoved down between her shoulders, but either way, it was easy to picture her swinging on the bells of the tower, yelling “Sanctuary!”
And the resemblance to Charles Laughton didn’t end there. She had a thick fleshy underlip and heavy jowls: put a British naval captain’s bicorn on her head, and she would be a dead ringer for Captain Bligh.
Sister Francis Jerome was no nastier than the other nuns, but her physical aspect, a reverse Dorian Gray-like outer assumption of the twisted soul within, made her seem an especially vivid example of the stunted sadistic nun of popular lore. On the other hand, I knew nothing of her private thoughts or her personal life; she may have been a sophisticated, wine-sipping raconteur back at the convent. She may have even stood as straight as an oak. It was the school that weighed her, and so many of her colleagues, down.
And believe me, I appreciate the plight of those poor women. While their male counterparts were hogging the spotlight at Mass, handing out awards at CYO dinners, playing golf with politicians, and chowing down at pancake breakfasts, the nuns were stuck in dank gloomy classrooms, wrangling herds of bratty kids, day after day after day. Some of these women were bright, intellectual, artistic, significant, with much to offer. Didn’t matter. They were in thrall to the church, and they had to follow their orders. Thoroughly miserable, they were simply paying their misery forward to us, the only outlets available to their suppressed rage. I get that, and I sympathize - now.
But at the time, I hated them.
Except for Sister Judith Marie, my sixth-grade teacher. She was young and liberal (by 1967 standards), and surprisingly attractive. She did fun stuff with us, like bringing in a TV to watch the World Series (Red Sox vs Cardinals) and teaching us modern songs like “Born Free” and “The Lonely Goatherd.” She wasn’t strict or unreasonable, and even her classroom was unusually bright and airy. I probably had a crush on her, like the rest of the boys and half of the girls. Why couldn’t they all be like Sister Judith Marie?
Yet she was the only nun I saw actually beat a student.
Corporal punishment in Catholic school wasn’t as prevalent back then as the stories would have it. Yes, all the nuns were expert at smacking you on the back of the head, or cracking your hands with a pointer. And if you were having a hard time at the blackboard, they might slam your face into it so that you could get a closer look at the problem. But any real serious discipline happened behind closed doors, and was usually meted out by the principal. She had first dibs.
Sister Judith Marie kept a metal ruler on her desk, but she never threatened anyone with it. Every now and then she would whack it on the desktop to get our attention, then slap it in her palm, as if to say, “Oh, I’ll use it; I’ll use it.” But she’d do it with a smile, and I don’t think anyone took her seriously.
There was one kid, Joseph McGrady (not his real name, but close enough), who was kind of a wise-ass. He wasn’t really a tough kid like the Deasys - he didn’t bully anybody or start fights - but he was fresh and insolent, and just smart enough to get under Sister Judith Marie’s skin. Yet just dumb enough not to know when to stop. He was always pushing her to the edge. waiting to see if she’d blow.
And finally one day she did. He tossed out some snotty remark, and she came charging down the aisle at him. “You think you’re funny, McGrady? You think you’re funny?” She grabbed him by the arm, pulled him in front of the class, and started whacking him with the metal ruler. It was a fearsome weapon in practice, wide and heavy, and in no way comical; as it landed on his ass you could see his entire body flinch and crumple. Evidently Sister Judith Marie had been anticipating this showdown, and already discussed the possibility with McGrady’s mother, because she taunted him after an especially vicious stroke, “And this is with your mother’s permission!” Gee, thanks, Mom.
Soon McGrady was screaming with each blow, twisting helplessly, his face splotched and wet with tears; but Sister Judith Marie kept on, her arm swinging up and down with the relentless beat of an automaton. Everyone in the room began to sense that the righteous administering of deserved punishment had gotten way out of control. There was no purpose to this now: she was beating him because she was beating him.
Then she stopped, suddenly, not out of weariness, but rather as if a heavenly voice had just whispered in her ear, “what the hell are you doing?” She shot an angry look at the rest of us: “All right, everybody get outside, now!” We scrambled out of our desks and fled. Nobody wanted to cross Sister Judith Marie now.
We milled around in the parking lot, wondering what was going on in the room. Was she continuing the beating in private, upping it to new levels of savagery, or was she comforting McGrady and making him promise to keep this little incident a secret? When we were called back to the classroom, Sister Judith Marie and McGrady stood together by her desk. His shirttails were pulled out, his hair askew, and his face was still flushed and sweaty; he looked like someone who had just made it through a death march.
She looked stern but slightly worried: “It’s all over, and we won’t talk about this again.” And she issued a very clear directive: “None of you are to speak a word of this outside this classroom!” This didn’t play as a threat; she was telling us that she could get into trouble for this, and we would all suffer the consequences, because they might replace her with some ugly old bat from the retirement convent who wouldn’t give a damn about “The Lonely Goatherd”. So we all kept quiet.
Sister Judith Marie left the nunhood the next year, and to our surprise she married soon after. Perhaps her fury at McGrady was just an upswelling of the gnawing frustration that comes with uncommitted celibacy. A few months later she stopped by the school, a happily-married woman; her habit was gone, she was wearing very hip sunglasses, and her hair was a bright sunny yellow. I never would have guessed - a nun with blonde hair.
As I entered seventh grade, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Deliverance was a mere two years away. But first I had to navigate past the Scylla and Charybdis of Sister Rosarita and Sister Angelica.
Sister Angelica, the eighth-grade teacher, was a legend, the prototypical mean old bitch of St. Patrick’s, the last and thorniest hurdle you had to clear to gain your freedom. She was short and had a squished-up pugnacious face, a cross between the older Jimmy Cagney and Popeye, although perhaps her true doppelganger was that middle munchkin from the Lollipop Guild. She relied on archaic phrases to demean us, and pronounced words like “creature” and “nature” with a curious “y” in the middle: “You bold creat-yure!” she would bleat. “Woe to you, bright-light! I pity your head!” She never laughed, she never smiled, she never displayed an ounce of warmth. She was basically a caricature, but a dangerous caricature, a plague of pettiness to be suffered.
Sister Rosarita, seventh-grade, was more of an unknown quantity: mercurial and unbalanced, you never knew where you stood with her. She was in her late thirties, I would guess, and she had thick glasses which made her look cross-eyed, so you couldn’t tell if she was looking at you or someone over your shoulder. “What are the Eight Beatitudes?” she’d ask, and you’d swear she was staring at the portrait of Pope Paul XI behind you. “Me?” “Yes, you, Stroppel!” she’d snap back. “You think I’m talking to the wall?” She had a penchant for sneering sarcasm that you didn’t dare reciprocate, or for sure she would clock you.
Sister Rosarita was progressive in her way, teaching us about the terrible cost of the Vietnam War, taking us to the “Harlem on my Mind” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, making us memorize the words to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now”. She also made sure we understood the facts of life, even if by linking them to religious doctrine: I recall how she explained the Feast of the Circumcision (which has since been repurposed into the Feast of the Holy Family) by drawing a penis on the blackboard – I tried to block out the fact this was putatively Jesus’ penis - and illustrating how the outer skin was cut and then peeled back; her art skills were not impressive, but we got the picture.
She also gave us vivid descriptions of the Crucifixion, as graphic in their way as anything in Joyce: “They pressed the crown of thorns down on His head, until the thorns poked right through His eyelids, and the blood welled up in His eye sockets....The nails were pounded into His wrists, not His palms, so as to keep the weight of His body from ripping through the bones...When He was thirsty, a soldier put a sponge on a stick up to His mouth, but it was soaked in vinegar and it seeped into His dry cracked lips...”
She loved sports, and had a fondness for the boys in the class who were athletes. As I was not athletic in even the most generous application of the term, I assumed that she regarded me with indifference.
I was wrong about this: apparently she couldn’t stand me. One of my classmates remembered years later that Sister Rosarita was constantly harrassing me and treating me badly. “She really hated you.” Why, I don’t know. At the time I had no idea I was being singled out. She didn’t seem to be treating anyone else particularly well either.
But there was one classroom incident that sticks with me. Kathy Gavin, the smartest kid in the class, was doing a math problem at the blackboard, and I was watching her work it out. Suddenly Sister Rosarita yelled at me: “Stroppel, stop goofing off and do your own work!”
I was annoyed by the unfairness of the suggestion, because I wasn’t goofing off; I was learning though observation, as most writers do. On the other hand, I knew there was no value put on fairness at St. Patrick’s – they were right, you were wrong, end of appeal – so I just shrugged and picked up my pencil.
Well, something about my shrug, my attitude, the way I started scribbling in a desultory way – it really pissed Sister Rosarita off. She stopped everything and snarled at me angrily: “You know, Stroppel, I’m getting sick of that look of disgusted tolerance on your face!”
I was taken by surprise. Disgusted tolerance? Me? True, the phrase did sum up my sentiments pretty well, but I wasn’t aware that I was expressing it so openly. But the true revelation to me was that I was getting on her nerves - I was irritating her – without even trying! And what’s more, there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t hit me, and she couldn’t very well send me to the principal, just for being tolerant. As long as I kept quiet and did my work, I could be as disgusted with her as I wanted.
So the battle lines were drawn: I didn’t like her, she didn’t like me. And this war of mutual antipathy lasted until the spring, when suddenly one day she was gone. We were told that she’d had a nervous breakdown, and went somewhere to rest, and wouldn’t be coming back. Just like that, no more Sister Rosarita. No one knew what made her snap, but I liked to think that in my own tolerant way I’d contributed to her mental demise. A mean-spirited thought, I know, but at St. Patrick’s you took your victories where you could get them.
For all the negatives of the Catholic school system, I have to say that I had a truly unforgettable eight years at St. Patrick’s, and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything. Sure, it might have been easier coasting through public school (we assumed it was a coast, in that you didn’t have to wear a tie, you didn’t have to take religion, the teachers couldn’t hit you, and you didn’t have to give up recess for marching practice the entire month of May so that you would be a credit to your school in the Memorial Day Parade).
But there came a great sense of pride in graduating from St. Patrick’s. Just as Marines who survive Parris Island emerge with an awareness of their own exceptionalism, so we St. Pat’s graduates felt that we had achieved things and endured trials that the public school kids could never even guess at. We had been tempered in the great crucible of fear, and we were ready for anything the mere world could throw at us.
And Catholic school, it needs be said, was not the pure hell that some would contend. Sure, some kids were always in trouble, but that’s because they lived for trouble – that was their goal, their irrational response to an irrational situation. But if you kept your head down and did your work and made very little eye contact, you were okay.
Finally, I never laughed harder than I did at St. Patrick’s. Everything was funny there. The frightening yet absurd visage of the nuns in their habits, the solemn self-importance of the priests, the threat of punishment for the mildest transgressions – it created an atmosphere that begged for mockery and ridicule. You couldn’t laugh out loud, of course; all humor had to fly under the radar. You had to go to Catholic school to appreciate the real joy of subversion.
And because ritual and tradition informed every moment at St. Patrick’s, the smallest lapse in decorum became instantly hilarious. For instance, no one dared let out a loud fart in class – it was too rude and obvious, the nuns would come down on you like a ton of bricks. So all the kids would either hold tight or sneak one out. But every now and then, usually in a moment of exquisite silence, a sharp pop would erupt in our midst, and we all knew what it was.
Then you’d share a quick glance with your deskmate, and you’d both start laughing. Quietly - you couldn’t let the teacher see you. Your shoulders would shake violently as you summoned every effort to keep from making a noise. You’d pretend you were working, you’d hunch over your desk and hide behind the kid in front of you, while your sides would ache from the muscle strain of holding it in. Other kids would see you laughing, and they would start laughing. The whole back row of the class would be shaking with laughter, and the nuns wouldn’t have a clue.
Although in retrospect, I’m sure they did. They must have noticed all that shaking and snorting, they weren’t stupid. No, I like to think that they let it go - they just let us laugh - because they knew it was healthy and necessary. They knew deep down that we weren’t devout soldiers of Christ, we were just kids, and we had to let all that crazy energy out one way or the other. So they turned a blind eye and feigned ignorance, and thought, Oh, for God’s sake, just let them laugh.
I drove down Hendrick Avenue and stopped at the light, and looked across the street at the church on the hill. Forty years later, it looked exactly the same. The clock belfry was actually three-quarters of the way up the tower, not at the very top as I remembered it, but there were still those dragon gargoyles peering down from each corner. Why, I often wondered, were there dragons adorning a Roman Catholic church? What kind of odd symbology was that?
There were always things to puzzle over in the Catholic narrative. Why, if the church was so dedicated to the poor, was it so damned rich? How could Jesus be in Hell for three days if he died on Friday afternoon and rose again on Easter Sunday morning? How is it possible that, as the Baltimore Catechism claims, “God always was and always will be”? He had to start somewhere, right?
“No, He always was.”
“But there had to be a moment just before He was.”
“He always was, Stroppel! Don’t be a fresh-ite!”
Jim and I met at the top of the hill behind the church. On the right was the entrance to the school, which I had passed through every morning for eight years. The principal’s office was inside the door, on the left. You had to walk by it every morning. It was a great way to start the day.
We were greeted by Tony, the church custodian, a middle-aged man with a gruff Italian accent. “You gonna clean the tower?” asked Tony.
“I have to see it first,” said Jim. He introduced me as his assistant, and we all took surgical masks from the car. As Jim observed, there was no telling what kind of nasty stuff you might be inhaling up there.
We walked around to the front of the church. “So how do we get in?” Jim asked Tony. Meaning, where’s the secret side door that will take us up to the forbidden tower? I pictured a zig-zagging stone stairway, coated in dust and webs, with a rat or two scurrying off into the shadows, and perhaps even the rubbery O-shaped remnant of a disintegrated condom, commemorating a decades-old tryst between precocious eighth-graders during the intermission of the Mother’s Club revue “Hits and Misses”. Or perhaps there would be a metal spiral staircase like the one in The Haunting, or the rickety wooden staircase that led to the Spanish bell tower in Vertigo. Any one of these would have fulfilled my Gothic expectations.
But as we turned the corner of the building, Tony pointed wordlessly to the church entrance. Blocking that entrance was a metal electrician’s ladder, which stretched up over the door to the first roof; from there another ladder, wrought-iron and rusty, with pencil-thin rungs, was built directly into the masonry, and proceeded in a straight vertical up the outside wall to the open belfry, which was masked with what looked like chicken wire.
Jim and I stared at the treacherous jumble of ladders. We didn’t look at each other or say a word, but I caught a vibe coming from him that one might charitably translate as “WTF?” I was having the same reaction myself. This was no charming Vertigo staircase; this was more like the daunting sheer rock cliff in The Guns of Navarone. We were going up there?
Not just yet, as far as Jim was concerned. “Tony, what’s the story here? Father Gabriel said there were stairs.”
Tony pointed at the ladder. “Stairs.”
“ That’s not ‘stairs’”, said Jim. “That’s a ladder.” He walked up and down the church steps to demonstrate: “These are stairs!” Then he stared expectantly at Tony, as if he could produce a proper staircase at will, but Tony just shrugged. Sorry, cuz, this is it.
Jim sighed. “Okay...well...” He started up the first ladder. Tony took a step back, allowing me to follow Jim. After all, I was his assistant.
I wasn’t sure that I was going to follow Jim. The set-up looked about half-safe at best. I could picture myself falling off one of those ladders and breaking my hip and my back and everything in between, with very little effort. But there were two other custodians besides Tony watching, and there was nothing in their attitudes to suggest that I had the slightest excuse to back out. It’s just a ladder - come on!
I waited until Jim reached the second ladder – maybe he would stop there and decide it wasn’t worth the candle. But no, after a pause to steel himself, he climbed on.
So I started up the first ladder myself, and as I got halfway up and felt my worn sneaker treads sliding unsteadily on the metal rungs and a slight breeze nudging me to one side, and as I looked out over the hill towards Glen Street below and saw the tiny cars moving past, with their tiny drivers happily oblivious to my fate, it occurred to me: this would really be the perfect way to die (perfect in that Greek-tragedy sort of way), tumbling from the tower of the church where I spent my childhood, perishing in a misguided attempt to exorcise the saintly devils of my youth. It was so fitting and classically apt that I had no doubt it was going to happen. I was going to die at St. Patrick’s.
I made it to the interim roof, carefully grabbing at the second ladder before stepping off the first. I stood on the slate roof, holding tight to the rusty handles of the wrought-iron ladder, and watched Jim standing at the top now, staring through the wire mesh at the belfry with the flashlight. “Holy shit,” he said thoughtfully.
Maybe he’d seen enough, so I waited; no point in heading up if he was heading down. Jim poked at the wire a moment. “How do I get in there?” he asked. “Just push all this wire out of the way?”
“Yeah,” said Tony, right behind me. He had followed me up the ladder and was waiting for me to continue. He gave me a look: what’s holding up the works? Are you going or what?
I looked at the vertical ladder above me, and I looked at the driveway below; I thought about my family, and about hospital rooms and cemetery plots, and I made a snap decision: screw this. “Go ahead,” I said with a big smile, waving Tony through.
Tony made no judgment on this. He didn’t care one way or the other. He climbed up on the roof and headed up the second ladder.
And I started back down, a treacherous maneuver in itself. Take your time – one step – two steps – no rush...
As my sneaker slipped on one rung, I tightened my grip on the ladder. I felt for a moment as if I were falling off, as if I were being pulled away. Was it the wind, that tiny breeze? Or was it the spirits of St. Patrick’s - the ghosts of Sisters Angelica, Rosarita, Francis Jerome, pulling at me, trying to yank me to the ground? “Bold creat-yure....!” “Disgusted tolerance...!” “Sanctuary!”
I recovered my bearings, and made it to the ground, and immediately congratulated myself on the smartest thing I ever did in my life. The church might get me one of these days, but not today.
Jim had disappeared by now, crawling through the hole in the wire. Tony hung on the top of the second ladder, pointing out various problem areas. A few minutes later they were both climbing down the ladder. Jim was shaking his head.
“There’s two inches of pigeon shit on the floor up there, and all over the walls, and there are some dead pigeons stuck on the ledges....It’s a friggin’ ecological disaster.”
“Can you do it this week?” asked Tony, who for all his stony gruffness had a surprisingly optimistic outlook on life.
Jim laughed explosively. “No way, cuz. My guys don’t do this kind of work. We’re Scoopy-Doo, we scoop things, off the ground. You’re gonna need specialists. Human flies or something.”
Jim went over to the rectory and gave the bad news directly to Father Gabriel. “Can’t do it, Father. It’s a health situation. You gotta be careful breathing all that fecal matter in. You could get toxoplasmosis.”
Father Gabriel nodded with muted alarm. “Toxoplasmosis...!”
(I asked Jim afterwards, “What is toxoplasmosis?”
“I don’t know,” he said, waving a hand indifferently. ‘But it can really fuck you up.”)
We went back to our cars, both feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied for different reasons. Jim tried to salvage the moment: “One of these days I gotta show you the Goosinator,” he said. “It’s a remote-control drone that flies over the golf course, scares the shit out of the geese.” He laughed. “Now that’s fun.”
I drove through the arch separating the church and the school and headed down the hill. So that was it. My dream of scaling the heights and touching the roof of heaven never came to fruition. Expecting a transcendent moment, I wound up instead holding onto a rusty ladder for dear life as a flock of ghostly nuns cackled in my ear.
You could always depend on St. Patrick’s for a good laugh.