by Sandra (Crawford) Martin – Loretto Academy boarder 1941-1946
Seventy years ago my mother delivered my sister and me to Loretto Academy along with three other cousins. We were going to boarding school because of the war and there was no one to stay with us while our mothers worked. It was 1941 and I was three years old. When I first saw the nun in her habit, I recall screaming as I was handed over to Sister Rose. That night, she tucked me in at the bottom of her bed. I slept there until I became accustomed to my new surroundings— until I felt comfortable sleeping in my own little bed in the dormitory. That became my home during the school year until I left Loretto to start the third grade at Morehead Grade School on Arizona Street.
I soon learned that those ladies in stiff, black hooded, starched white covers that allowed only an oval opening framing their faces, were my friends, my mentors, in spite of their formidable appearance reaching up at least ten-feet! They were there to teach me, train me, as well as educate me. They taught us proper etiquette: placement of silverware, plates, glasses, and how to put cloth napkins in rings. We learned to keep our elbows off the table, our hands in our lap, not to touch our food until a sister was seated at the head of our table. We were taught how to make a bed with “hospital corners.” I make my bed today the same way. Yes, we were being taught to be proper young ladies.
We all wore navy-blue pinafores, white blouses and socks and black shoes. Each morning, we lined up so the nuns could braid our hair, then each girl dressed in a private cubicle. I learned how to be modest with a capital M. Most days as I vaguely recall, I would be awakened and asked if I would like to attend mass. If I wanted to, the first thing I would do is run over to a stack of black or white lace head covers and search for the one with the fewest holes. There was a good deal of competition for the nicest cover. As a non-Catholic, I do not recall a single instance being pressed to become one.
The dorm life brought many challenges. Illness was rampant—chicken pox, measles, you name it, we got it. I remember the days of head lice and some purple stuff Sister Rose put on our hair to get rid of it. Remember, this was during the war and frugality was certainly the word of the day at the academy. One day as I was walking outside I noticed a large store room with the nuns working away so I peered in to see what they were doing. They had saved tin foil and a huge ball of it was in the store room. They explained that they were going to give it to Ft. Bliss to use as ammunition in the war. Imagine that.
The May Day celebration was one of my favorite occasions. I recall the older girls dancing around the Maypole and later, when we went inside the church, a few of us scattered sweet peas out of a basket. I love the smell of sweet peas to this day!
Sometimes, the nuns would slip a coin or two in pancakes that were set before us on the long table, and if I was lucky, I’d find a coin, a coin of my very own. I kept them in a tiny wooden matchbox in my private cubicle. Sister Rose and Sister Terese would take some of us to town on a Saturday. It was so exciting to go to town! So, I’d take my matchbox with me and carefully look at everything that I might purchase in the store. Kress’s was a store across the street from the alligator park in downtown El Paso. I remember Sister Rose asking me to hurry along. It was so hard to decide what treasure to buy!
My days at Loretto were not all gaiety and frivolity, as I was often punished for this misdeed or that: punishment set down for throwing food on the floor; food like liver and onions or fish that I could smell even before entering the cafeteria; odors that shake me to this day. After watching the sun go down, sitting at the table with a nun coaxing me to finish eating, I learned something. See, you were expected to eat everything on your plate! I was a picky eater and would toss the unwanted food under the table and learned not to throw it under my chair, but carefully aim it one direction or the other. This went on for some time until I got caught. First time I heard the word “campused.” No home visit for the weekend!
Then there was the day that I shinnied up a steam pipe to the top of a radiator in the cafeteria. The ceilings must have been higher than twelve-feet. I was spied by the janitor who tattled to the nuns. They ordered me to come down that very second! But I was afraid, fearful that I might fall, but more frightened of what was in store for me at the bottom of that steam pipe. When the nuns were convinced that I would not come down from my perch, the janitor retrieved me with his tall ladder. Imagine, campused this four-year-old—again!
I will forever be grateful for the many great kindnesses the nuns sent my way. They would be proud to know that I am still in possession of the countless lessons I learned under their care.