There’s something to be said of the tear-jerking, stomach-twisting fear that I imagine can come only from Catholic guilt.
As a Southern, Protestant second grader, I had arrived at my Catholic school in the wrong uniform.
It was All-Saint’s Day, and the assignment was to come in costume.
Blinded with tears, I entered the innermost-sanctum of the school: the office of Sister Susan Armbruster, principal.
My concept of fire and brimstone was a bit vague, but I was pretty sure forgetfulness was a sin that provoked the wrath of God. And I had forgotten my costume.
Somehow, laughter was the only thing I heard through my fog of snot and tears.
Sister Susan draped a tablecloth around me, safety-pinned it, and declared me Saint Elizabeth.
She spun me around like Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
Susan Armbruster lost both her brother and her sister when she was in the eighth grade, in two separate tragedies she still doesn’t like to talk about.
She didn’t have her own fairy godmother, but the Catholic church in her Florida hometown stepped in and provided casseroles, love and a support system. They also provided a whole new group of sisters and brothers, provided that she was willing to travel.
“As I grew up, I knew I wanted to be involved in the Church and in service in some way,” she said. “But to enter a convent you had to go North, so that’s what I did. I went, sight-unseen.”
Her high school boyfriend was skeptical, but she found she fit in well with the sisters at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Syracuse, New York.
He waited a year for her to change her mind, but you can’t play God.
“He obviously was not happy when I told him I was committed to this for life. Thank God I only had to break it to him over the phone!” Armbruster said, laughing.
When she was 21, her mission took her back over the Mason-Dixon line to North Carolina to teach elementary school students.
“In the North, every couple of blocks you’d have a Catholic school, so it was a whole new world down here,” Armbruster said. “The South was mission territory.”
In 1979, her first mission to the South took her to a small, integrated school in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where only six out of the 32 students in her class were Catholic.
It was an experience that, years later, must have prepared her for teaching me and my brother.
Recently, over a few beers, my father let me in on a terrible bit of humor.
“So listen, here’s what I said, I said, ‘Sister! I just want to thank you for allowing our children into your school,” he paused, giving the punchline some drama. “‘You know, us being Jewish and all!’”
He erupted into laughter, as he always does after finishing a story, while my mother gave him a withering stare.
Though my family was not Catholic, we were also not Jewish.
Which raises the ever-popular question: “So… why were you even at a Catholic school?”
The best answer I’ve been able to get out of my parents is that they’d been told too many horror stories about the public schools in our area. Catholic school, to them, offered the promise of an environment where kids were kept in line, actually learned crucial skills like cursive handwriting and the proper way to wear plaid, and didn’t do drugs while they were still in their single-digit years.
Unbeknownst to my mother, brother and I, Armbruster went years before understanding that my father’s story was indeed a “joke.”
The mistake went uncorrected until, years later, Armbruster asked my confused mother if we celebrated Christmas.
“It didn’t matter what your religion was, it mattered what your relationship was with God,” Armbruster said earlier this year, as we met over coffee in my hometown. “As much as we wanted to provide a Catholic education – and we didn’t water it down – our philosophy was to help people become closer to God however we could.”
This is what Armbruster did with her students in Rocky Mount, teaching and laughing in equal parts.
“I had two incredible years teaching first graders – throwing my veil over the trees to play kickball, laughing and struggling to understand the kids’ Southern accents. That’s where I fell in love with the South.”
But loving the South, as it turned out, proved to be a complicated thing.
Those two years of teaching ended when a Ku Klux Klan march convinced Armbruster to leave the school.
The psyche of the South is complicated, formed from the collective habits of many minds.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I realized racial integration was still being processed by many in my hometown in eastern North Carolina.
As I grew up in the halls of St. Paul’s Catholic School, race was never an organizational structure. Boys were separated from girls in two straight, parallel lines, and the outside world was separated into believers and non-believers, standing in my mind in the same two straight, parallel lines. Values centered on community service, punctuality and unquestioned submission to authority. It was also extremely important not to wear ankle socks on a knee-socks day, and to never descend to the harlotry of wearing makeup.
Still, never in any of the daily dogma did race ever occur to me, and I realize now that this was possible only because the sisters at the school made it so.
I came to realize how valuable Armbruster’s view of racial reconciliation was, and why I hadn’t known racism until I left the refuge of her school.
Her mission was not only about evangelization, but about integration.
“We were ahead of the sisters in the North. We just had direct exposure to a lot more – we were right in the middle of a big cultural change.”
In 1991, after leaving Rocky Mount and teaching for five years in Goldsboro, N.C., Armbruster received a call from the bishop.
“It wasn’t what I had planned, but at that time, you didn’t say no!” Armbruster said.
She had been asked to become the principal of a school in my hometown of New Bern, N.C. The new school was a combination of St. Paul’s Elementary School and St. Joseph’s High School – which had been the first integrated high school in the state.
“We were just moving the two schools into the new building, and they’d only had old sisters, and here I was coming in in a leadership position,” Armbruster said. “Everyone I met would say ‘Well, you’re a little young, aren’t you?” And all I could say was, ‘Well, yes I am!’”
She was responsible for running the school and distributing God’s grace and punishment in appropriate doses – or so I assumed. First, though,, she had to unite the two schools.
“The black school downtown [St. Joseph’s] was getting pretty run down, and the area was getting dangerous,” Armbruster said. “They were thrilled to get to the new location, but we had to remember our history.
“I went door-to-door with our black community and asked them to come to the new school.”
But tuition at the new school wasn’t cheap. Armbruster got to work scrounging for scholarship money on behalf of the students who couldn’t afford to transfer.
“That was a lot of our mission: making an education available to anyone who wanted it, and then finding the money to make that happen.”
Most of what I remember from preschool until seventh grade (when I made a grand leap into the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll lifestyle of public school), are the endless fundraisers each class participated in. Armbruster was still trying to create more scholarships, keep the school afloat, and buy more holy statues of the Virgin Mary.
In my younger years, the fundraisers were easier. We made simple arts and crafts, and I was confident that my work would always receive praise. Later, problems arose, specifically over one project: a “free expression” quilt.
Free expression within those hallowed halls of the Catholic school was not a concept I had been taught, and I certainly hadn’t been led to push the rules to their limits. One eighth grader, though, had a bolder soul than I did.
Her “free expression” was not a Bible quote, as many were, but a song lyric. It was accompanied by a reproduction of the art from the band’s album art – a rock and roll album, blasphemous in the eyes of the Catholic church.
When I say bold as Hell, I mean that Satan was literally featured in the album art. Tiny, in the corner, but irrefutably there: with his red, spiky tail and little horns. He was perched behind a patch of mushrooms. In school, I wasn’t even allowed to watch Harry Potter — there was no way this rebel was going to get away with having magical shrooms in her art.
The possible repercussions scared the volunteers as much as the kids. Before word of this heresy could get to the higher-ups (it was ambiguous whether this meant the administration or God), a frantic mom made the snap decision to cover the offensive section in Sharpie.
The Satan-worshipper was saved from probable expulsion and possible exorcism, and the fundraiser went on. Armbruster was too busy to ever notice the faux pas.
But while I continued to build her up in my mind as a fearsome monarch, she was trying to build a community.
Armbruster had enough on her plate recruiting students, and recruiting new sisters proved equally difficult.
“The South was hard to sell to the sisters,” she said, “mostly because of the distance, and partly because of the culture shock.”
Armbruster remembered making “advertisements” for the area featuring promises of tanned skin and sunny riversides.
Her Syracuse sisters laughed, but they almost always declined.
“At times it was isolating because it was so different from the community in Syracuse that I had come from,” Armbruster said.
Luckily, Armbruster said church became a home yet again, as it had when she had lost her biological siblings.
“There was a real bond between all of the sisters in North Carolina, and they and the kids and parents at St. Paul’s became my home,” she said.
“It was a family. I could crash the classrooms and play music with the kids, take them to the courtyard to play with the bunnies, and do all sorts of fun things because we had that community.”
After 18 years as principal of St. Paul’s Education Center, eight of which she and I shared, Armbruster left her new home for her old.
“When I first went back North, I was leery,” she said. “I thought, ‘How am I going to fit back in?’ I hadn’t been there in years. But the sisters all welcomed me back. They just kept saying, ‘We’re so glad you’re home.’”
I was home from college on break for one more week before I would leave for a semester in Italy: Catholicism’s home base. As luck would have it, Armbruster was back in New Bern as well to visit with some old friends, and I had made it on to her list of visits.
She and I sat across from each other, reluctant to finish the last sips of our cold coffee and end the first conversation we’d had in years. In truth, it may have been the first real conversation we’d ever had. This wasn’t the same figure who had loomed so large in my childhood mind. This wasn’t whom I had loved and feared and projected all of my thoughts about God and religion on. This was a real person – a woman with dimension and emotions and drive. This was a woman who existed outside of all of the ways I had contextualized her in my mind, a woman who would make time for coffee with a student from many years past.
My former principal draped her arms around me in a hug, as she had done with a tablecloth years ago. After all of her traveling, she seemed to know how to make someone feel at home.
She was glad I had come back to New Bern, but as I said goodbye, she told me she was even more excited for me to leave home. It had always worked out for her.
“Say hello to the Pope for me!” she called out.
“He’s a good one,” she said. “Tell him to stay good.”