Today kicks off the first day of Catholic Schools Week 2012, (January 29-February 5).  The theme is: Catholic Schools – Faith. Academics. Service. In order to Catholic Schools Week, I thought I would write a post about my 12 years of Catholic education.

For grades one through eight I attended Duquesne Catholic School (no longer open).  This school was made up three different schools in three different buildings: Holy Name (grades 1-3), St. Joseph’s (grades 4-6), and Holy Trinity (grades 7 and 8).

Yearbook for Duquesne Catholic School 1976-1977; Owner: Lisa Alzo, for private use

After Junior High “graduation” I then attended Serra Catholic High School.

My father also attended Holy Trinity (he called it “Hunky Tech”–that was because it was the school of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne, now in West Mifflin, PA–which was identified as the “Slovak” church). My mother, however, was Greek Catholic, so when she was young she had to attend the Duquesne public schools. Dad did not have the chance to go to a Catholic High School and attended Duquesne High School. My aunt, Sr. M. Camilla Alzo, who belonged to the Blessed Sacrament of the Incarnate Word order, taught at the school for a few years even though her home convent was in Victoria, Texas. I shared her story in a previous post.

Holy Trinity School (a.k.a. "Hunky Tech"), Duquesne, PA, 1941. From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

Classroom of Sr. M. Camilla Alzo at Holy Trinity School, Duquesne, PA, 1941; From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

My parents did not want to send me to the public schools and felt strongly that I receive a Catholic education, and they made the sacrifices necessary to pay for me to have this opportunity. And so off I went to first grade at Holy Name (in 2005 the school was demolished). I was very sad when I saw pictures of this event (see below). I met my first best friend there in that school, and my first favorite teacher, Sister “K”. I always loved going to school at Holy Name.

Holy Name School, Photo courtesy of Jim Hartman, April 2005.

So, what did I learn from my 12 years in Catholic school? Actually, quite a lot. First and foremost I learned respect.  My parents taught me how to respect myself, and how to show respect for others–especially my elders–even in times when I might not agree with them. The nuns and teachers in school reinforced this lesson. On my first day of school, my mother told me, “You are to listen the nuns. Pretend they are me. If you misbehave, I WILL know about it, and they have my permission to punish you.  Then, you will be in trouble when you get home too.” I was SO afraid to disobey those nuns! The majority of my classmates were too from what I can recall. Sure, there were those who were a bit ornery or always seemed to be in trouble. People may frown upon this “fear factor” today, but one thing is for certain:  I  never remember having to worry that someone might bring a gun in and shoot everyone, or have a bomb, etc.

I also learned discipline and how to apply it both to my work, and my personal life. I believe my quality of education was much higher in the Catholic schools. Our classes were smaller and the teachers, for the most part, truly cared about their students, and even more than 30 years later, they will remember you. I found some of my old report cards–very interesting to read. I received one “bad” report–in 1977-78–in Math (this is not surprising because to this day “I don’t do Math!  My English grades were always better!).  The teacher wrote that I was “getting careless in my work…and not concentrating.”  Since a parent had to sign the report card and could make comments, my mother, who was not happy, did sign it but requested an interview with the teacher.  My mother wrote: “I will not tolerate this kind of work from Lisa.  What can I do to help her?  This is the first bad report since she has been in school.  I’m very disappointed in her and her Dad is too.”

Talk about tough love! You can bet that I did better after that report!  I did improve my grades for the next grading period. Mom was a stickler when it came to school.  Very strict. My Dad not so much; he cared, but he let my Mom handle it. It was not fun at the time, but I appreciate my mother pushing me to do my best. It has provided me with the strong work ethic I still have today.  I went on to be an honor student in high school, even winning three awards for being an “Outstanding Student” in Biology, English, and Psychology!  Out of the three, the Psychology award surprised me the most, but the priest who taught the subject said he gave the award solely on merit and that the papers I was writing for his course were college level papers and how my mother should send me to Harvard.  Of course, my mother, the ever frugal Slovak, asked “And, how do you suggest we pay for Harvard?”  He suggested scholarships, etc.  I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I did graduate Magna Cum Laude from West Virginia Wesleyan College where I went on to receive several senior awards, including the outstanding student in the English department. I furthered my education by earning a Masters in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.

This past November I was truly honored that one of my former Duquesne Catholic School teachers (Mrs. “Y”) attended MY lecture at the Pitt Slovak festival. We had been corresponding for a few years by e-mail after she spotted a couple of my books in the local bookstore. It was such a thrill to see her again and to have her tell me how proud she is of me for the work I am doing with genealogy/family history.  A few months ago, I received an e-mail from another teacher from my Duquesne Catholic days congratuling me on my work. I also keep in touch with several of my former high school teachers.

Of course, religious education was also a major part of the Catholic school experience. The nuns were always quizzing us on the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Apostle’s Creed,” the “Ten Commandments,” and how to correctly pray the rosary. I plan to write a future post about one of these nuns, so stay tuned.

By writing this post I am in no means saying that Catholic schools are perfect. Not all the teachers were caring or good at their jobs (about a year or so ago I read a story in the Pittsburgh papers about one of my former teachers who was arrested and in quite a bit of trouble). However, I do feel that my Catholic school education helped to shape the person I am today. For this I am grateful.

So, as Catholic Schools Week begins, I’d like to say a big “Thank You” to my parents for making the choice to provide me with a Catholic education, and also to all of those teachers who cared enough to make sure that I succeeded.