OFF THE BENCH: Goodbye, Sister Chips

As a product of St. Mark's, St. Matthew's, and, finally, St. Gregory's grammar schools, I regret the necessary and inevitable consolidation of our once thriving parochial school system.

I remember with affection and respect the good nuns who dedicated their lives to teaching. Sure, there were occasional excesses; corporal punishment was a regular part of controlling classes of 50 or more rambunctious boys, and sometimes fear was used to maintain discipline.

Those nuns were tough. They had to be. Otherwise they never could have controlled classes more than twice the size of those in the public school system. Unlike some of my contemporaries, I acknowledge and appreciate their zeal and dedication while understanding their lapses.

They did right by me and many others. Their critics are often those who blame their parents and others for their inability to cope with problems they encounter. Negativity and blame are now so much a part of our culture. It is more comfortable to export responsibility than accept it.

School uniforms marked parochial school kids as a little bit different. More than other kids, they had something in common. It marked them as Catholics at a time when most were proud to bear the title. Recent events have dimmed that luster and adherents have slipped away, no longer confident their faith was well-placed.

Church resources, human and financial, have shrunk dramatically. The schools are a luxury it can no longer afford, which leaves those parents who still cling to the importance of the message in a quandary. Knowing the importance of Christian values, particularly in a society where they are so often ignored and even despised, where do they turn?

Sure the kids are supposed to learn those values at home, but do they? Even where the parents do their best, it is comforting knowing they are being reinforced in school. The church is being downsized at a time when more than ever faith is being challenged by secular humanism and its accompanying moral relativism.

It is fair to acknowledge the church has brought some of this upon itself. It failed to address serious internal problems and has not been willing to adapt to social changes that would not conflict with truths fundamental to the depository of faith. What has been traditional is not necessarily essential.

Unfortunately, a seriously weakened church with very limited vocations and fewer practicing members is being forced to reduce its most important teaching role. Those of us who were shaped by our Catholic education are getting older. We know what we learned was important and regret that our grandchildren may not have the same opportunity.

We know the public school system may have the equivalent, or even stronger academics, but it is unable to include that in a value-based curriculum. There is no choice but to adapt to the new reality. Some schools will be consolidated and a few will struggle to continue operating without archdiocesan financial support.

The lean years of the present and indefinite future have replaced the fat years of my youth and many decades before. By today's standards, many view the teaching nuns as having wasted their lives and sacrificed themselves for a dubious cause.

My thanks to the many dedicated nuns (now replaced by dedicated laymen and laywomen) who in years past gave of themselves to teach Dorchester boys and girls right from wrong as well as the basic school curriculum.

If their lives were "wasted" in the service of God and their young charges, what of the successful (and presumably fulfilled) seekers of wealth, fame and power? What is the greater good? You be the judge.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.