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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

gallagher fredThe year was 1942, 10 years before I was born, and just a couple of years after my family had moved to Gastonia. My grandfather, who by this time had eight grandchildren (with many more to follow), just kept on bothering his good friend, Father Alphonse Buss, the Benedictine monk from Belmont Abbey who was the pastor of St. Michael Church.

This time, the haranguing my grandfather was known for was about how important it was to establish a Catholic elementary school in Gastonia. He got other parishioners behind him and, lo and behold, St. Michael’s School opened in a cottage on Jackson Road with 22 pupils. My oldest brother was one of them and a few years later my next brother started there. A few years after that, the school, located now about a mile away in a beautiful new building on a street that would later be renamed St. Michael’s Lane, schooled the last three of my parents’ five boys, yours truly included.

Almost the entire Catholic population of Gastonia lived within a mile or two of that school, which was by now right beside the church. And from the very beginning the Sisters of Mercy came from their convent in nearby Belmont to teach us – Sisters Concilia, Celestine, Redempta, Scholastica, Ignatius and many others. I can still see the habits flying when one sister or another would join us in a kickball game. And when all the jokes about penguins or rulers over the knuckles become a stale cliché, I am inclined to meditate upon the fact that these women, these brides of Christ with a teaching charism, really did love us.

111017 st michaelsI went over to the school recently for its 75th anniversary reunion. I heard great stories and saw classmates I hadn’t seen in more than 50 years. I looked at the scrapbooked photographs and found old pictures of each of my brothers and a couple of me, too, my classmates and friends. I walked the halls and peeked into classrooms. I remembered Father Gregory Eichenlaub, beloved pastor of St. Michael’s Church from 1944 to 1973 and superintendent of the school. Any kid of my era who attended will remember Father actually coming into the classrooms to personally give out report cards. And every single time he wrote “OUGHT” on the blackboard, reminding us that we are not necessarily here on earth to do what we “want” to do but rather what we “ought” to do. Needless to say, for many of us that was always a daunting experience!

The memories were even sweeter standing inside the building, finding the fondness for another day and time in the recesses of my mind and the hidden places of my heart. When I was at St. Michael’s the Catholic population of North Carolina was less than one half of 1 percent. A one-time head of the Gaston Ministerial Association was said to have uttered during the Kennedy Presidential campaign that he would rather see a Communist in the White House than a Catholic.

Our school, the school for which my grandfather and his fellow parishioners lobbied so passionately, was a pioneer. African American kids were to become our classmates before the public schools were integrated. We became community in a way that reverberates with me still. The moral code was emblazoned. The family names still echo in time: Baugh, Cherry, Gardner (all cousins) there from the start as do so many others from over the years: Wofford, McDonnell, Eck, Jacobs, Colleta, Zamiello, Vlaservich, Galligan, Duff, Johnson, Nelli, Hoffman, Van Pelt, Walkowiak, Farris, Withers, Bergman, McDaid, Wilson. And so many more who lived their religion as a minority in a southern cotton mill town and who lived with the irony that our county was named for William Gaston, a North Carolina Supreme Court judge who fought diligently for racial and religious freedom… and who was a devout Catholic.

How better to top off the reunion than to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist I learned so much about in St. Michael’s School – the Person of Christ I learned so much about in St. Michael’s School. And how better to conclude the day than receiving a blessing, along with other alumnae, from Father Matthew Buettner, present-day pastor of the church, a man himself with a fervent appreciation of a Catholic education.

111017 st michaels 2It was a good day, a day to feel gratitude for all the priests and nuns and administrators and parents who made and continue to make St. Michaels’s a vibrant Catholic presence. It was a good day to remember basketball on the blacktop where a family center sits now; friendships born of a common culture and anchored in the faith of our parents; exposure to adults giving their lives to Christ; staring at a giant portrait of St. Michael himself and wondering of his courage and strength, not knowing how much I would call on it in years to come. It was a good day to remember prayers of the ages before the day’s endeavors, long since outlawed in the public schools; school Masses and serving on the altar, first with Latin responses, then, in English; absolute mischief in the schoolyard, the guilt that followed and the confession that followed that.

Yes, it was a good day to remember growing up under the patronage of heaven’s superhero and to say, “Thank you, St. Michael’s.”

Fred Gallagher is an author and editor-in-chief with Gastonia-based Good Will Publishers Inc.