Flashback: Scenes from Old St. Mark’s

By Tom Mulvoy

The news last week that come June there will be no more schooling done at the 87-year-old building that sits on the grounds of the St. Mark’s Parish campus in Dorchester was hardly a surprise. Stories about the decline and disappearance of once-thriving urban parochial grammar schools have been part of the urban narrative for decades as successive generations of ever-more prospering Catholics have moved on to create new lives in suburban havens far from the bustle of city streets that once upon a time energized their forebears.

As one who has left St. Mark’s, the parish that schooled me through Grade Eight and that tended to my soul until I was 35, I read with an edge of sadness the news about the closing of the building I attended each school day with almost 1,000 other pupils in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

But it was a sadness attended by a sense of bittersweet reality – things change; that’s life – and by flashback moments, one after the other, of a time and place where the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur had all the answers and the ceaseless will to inculcate the virtues of Catholicism deep into their pupils’ psyches.

For many of the tens of thousands of boys and girls, a large percentage of them of Irish stock, who trod the ramps and aisles of St. Mark’s School from its opening in 1923 until the last nun closed her study plan many decades later, the lessons of diligence and discipline in their studies and in their religion that their teachers conveyed insistently in their classrooms took hold with a permanence that has had an impressive effect as more and more Catholics moved into positions of high responsibility in business and public life.

But one flashback stands out, not about something I witnessed but about something I read in a journal I was given to read when I was working on a book celebrating the 70th anniversary of the school in 1993. Back in the day, a nun in each convent was given the responsibility of compiling a diary of in-house happenings for the edification of the sisterly community. Here is how one nun told of the onset of the final illness of St. Mark’s first pastor, Rev. John Daly, who founded the parish and ran it for close to 40 years:

March 5, 1944 – “St. Joseph was waiting to take our pastor to Heaven. Today, a Sunday, around 9:30, Father Daly arrived at the convent to say Mass. He was sick, but no power could keep him from the Altar of God. The Holy Sacrifice proceeded reverently, but there were evident signs that his strength was ebbing. He was very close to the ‘Ite Missa est’ when he staggered. Sister rushed to him, caught him in her arms, and stretched him gently onto the predilla. Here, clothed in his vestments, he received the Last Rites of his Church. He remained unconscious for some time. However, after regaining consciousness, a bit of his old self was evident as he tried to chat and joke with the Sisters.

“Once he reached the rectory, he made an effort to appear fully restored, but a gradual weakness overcame him, and on Tuesday morning around 8 o’clock, his beautiful soul went to Heaven. …We have lost a kind pastor and friend, but gained an intercessor in Heaven.”

Such piety surely was the true measure of the dedicated women in black and white who gave their lives to their church and shared their minds with me and so many others in days now long gone by.