Whatever else might be said when the Great Scorer comes to write against my name, let the record show that despite my other failings in this life, I once saved a soul from damnation! I ransomed a pagan baby. How many among you can make that boast?
In order to have been engaged in such holy work one needs to have been a sprout in a Roman Catholic convent school about a half-century ago. My formative years with the holy nuns coincided with the golden era of Catholic schooling, the 1950s and early ‘60s, before the Vatican introduced Lite Catholicism. The convent school of my childhood stressed the 4Rs — reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and the right hook. Our lessons were taught not to the tune of a hickory stick, as the song goes, but with a long wooden pointer or a belt.
My early education was a cross between a World Wrestling Federation-sanctioned event and the quiz show “Jeopardy.” My parents were good people. They simply did not know any better. We had a kinder and gentler view of the world in those days. Everybody else is going to hell. Understand?
The scene of this merriment was a French-Canadian convent of Ursuline nuns in central Maine staffed by recruits from La Belle Province, our nearby neighbor. French, or something resembling French, was widely spoken. Prayer was the specialty of the house. We did a vast amount of praying. We did a vast amount of kneeling, too.
The nuns were a hearty group, strapping farm girls from Lac des Loups and Trois-Rivieres. Convent life beat getting married at 17, having 11 children and working like a mule until you dropped dead. It beat a 12-hour shift in a wool mill, too. And you got three squares a day. In the age before feminism, young women who were physically strong naturally gravitated toward the convent, as piano moving, forestry and the longshoremen’s hall were then closed to them. Some of them were the salt of the earth and some of them were sociopaths. That’s life.
Discipline was not an issue at my school. One old nun, even half-blind and deaf, could control 100 truants like a border collie herding sheep. The fourth-grade teacher was said to have a punch like Willie Pep, for those of you familiar with the pugilistic arts. The nuns operated with complete impunity. Personal injury law had not yet reached central Maine.
We were tutored in a brand of Roman Catholicism that had changed little from the time of Tomas de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition. The nuns functioned as if Charles Darwin, Newton and Galileo had never lived. They filled our heads with such voodoo as to leave us scientifically illiterate. We believed in miracles and exorcism and all sorts of wild stuff. Watson and Crick were sorting out DNA then, but you wouldn’t have known it to see our curriculum. And, as it was the time of Joe McCarthy, a fine Catholic, we got a nice dose of anti-communism, too. Everything was taught from a religious perspective. Christopher Columbus wasn’t a despot whose voyages led to the extermination of the native peoples of this hemisphere but a man on a mission from God. You get the idea?
That’s how I got my pagan baby. Before people worried about saving Darfur, the Roman Catholic Church did a lively trade in saving souls or, what they called at my convent, “ransoming pagan babies.” For the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with these ancient customs, the rule of thumb was that anyone who was not baptized was going to hell. Or more precisely, limbo, in the case of infants, a kind of spiritual rest area.
Vast numbers of little souls needed saving, and Africa was of special interest to us. Prayer was good, but money was better. We saved to save them. Each week we contributed nickels and dimes for the ransom of a pagan baby. To give you some idea of inflation, a pagan baby could be ransomed for a fiver in those days. Imagine that! You can’t even get a small lo mein for that today. But you could save an immortal soul in those days for that price.
I ransomed a number of pagan babies but I only have the paperwork on one foundling whom I named Robert, after my father, the source of the nickels and dimes that I donated every week. I got a nice letter from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which handled the pagan baby franchise, along with a souvenir that had been blessed, a holy medal.
I also received a beautiful certificate testifying to my holy efforts and guaranteeing that Pagan Robert would soon be received in Holy Baptism. The card showed two small children, a boy and a girl, both white, placing a small gold cross about the neck of a pagan baby (the baby on my card was Asian, not African, but, hey, we welcomed all comers). Included was a note from Pope Pius XII, congratulating me on my efforts. It was a form letter, alas. But that did not bother me for I was only a child and I believed amazing things in those days.