August 4, 2006

Reconnecting with the past: 600 people to attend St. Rita, St. Bridget schools’ reunion

By John Shaughnessy

Lora Vann knows about the bonds that lead people on journeys to reconnect with their past.

The Indianapolis woman recalls the road trip she once made with friends to thank a person who made an amazing difference in their lives.

Leaving Indianapolis, they drove southeast toward Oldenburg, talking and laughing about the childhood experiences that bonded them as African-Americans who attended St. Bridget and St. Rita Catholic schools in Indianapolis.

When they reached their destination during that 1960s trip, they surrounded the person they had come to see, a woman who could no longer see them because she was nearly blind.

After they thanked Franciscan Sister Thomas Aquinas McCabe for being a great teacher during their childhood years, the sister leaned forward, saying she wanted to confide something to them.

“I’ll tell you something I couldn’t tell you before,” Sister Thomas Aquinas said. “You were good girls and good students.”

The young women already knew. Even if she felt she could never say it in words when they were children—for fear of having it go to their heads—the sister always made them feel that way.

“I loved the way the nuns taught us,” Vann, a retired teacher now, recalled recently. “There was no distinction. You were a child, a child of God. It was a beautiful experience that was formed student to student, student to teacher.”

That experience will lead nearly 600 people from across the country to make their own road trips—to come to Indianapolis on Aug. 11-13 for the first reunion of former students who attended St. Rita and St. Bridget schools.

The reunion invitation noted, “As an alum of St. Bridget and/or St Rita Catholic School, you had an educational experience unique to few African-Americans in Indianapolis. It obviously was a life-changing event which impacted your life, long after you left the safe confines of each school.”

“It’s a tribute to Catholic education,” said Vann, a co-chairperson of the reunion. “We have established contact with the nuns and priests who are still living who taught us. There were the Providence nuns, the Franciscan nuns and the Daughters of Charity. We were very well educated. Among our graduates, we have a psychiatrist, a diplomat, doctors, attorneys, priests, nurses, veterinarians and engineers.”

They have their memories, too. As the reunion confirmation letters have arrived at Vann’s house from Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas and many other states, they often include memories of school days at St. Bridget and St. Rita.

Memories about the late Father Bernard Strange, the longtime pastor of St. Rita Parish, including how he handed out the report cards at school, which made everyone strive even more to get good grades.

Memories about a certain sister at St. Bridget’s who had a reputation as a tough disciplinarian, including the legendary tale of how her detention for one student involved not just staying after school, but staying overnight at school.

Memories like the one from Sister Demetria Smith, a mission educator for the archdiocese and a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa.

“It was during my fifth- and sixth- grades at St. Bridget that my call to serve in Africa came very quietly,” she wrote, recalling how she opened a geography book and saw an African child standing in front of a hut. “They [the sisters] gave us a good foundation which, along with the upbringing of our dear priests, has helped me to face the world squarely and with determination to keep on keeping on because, above all, they taught me of our great and loving God.”

The reunion will begin on Aug. 11 with a tour of the city and a mixer. It will continue on Aug. 12 with a golf outing, a picnic and a dinner dance. The reunion will end on Aug. 13 with a 10 a.m. Mass at St. Rita Church, followed by brunch.

Rita Owens Curry can’t wait.

Now 68, Curry looks back on her life during which she reared her eight children as a single mother, and how she helped numerous other children through her work in early childhood education. Her inspiration came from the Sisters of Providence who taught her at St. Bridget’s.

“One of the things that really stuck out in my mind is that they drilled us to do the right thing,” said, Curry, who is also a co-chairperson of the reunion. “And we learned. We truly learned. They taught us how to live day to day, with an emphasis on being kind to people and treating people the way you wanted to be treated.”

Curry paused and added, “I’m just so anxious to see everybody.”

(For information about the reunion, contact Lora Vann at 317-926-1314.) †


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