Ah, the many joys of Halloween 'sainthood' in 1956

Jacques Kelly

October 31, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Most of the theology I've ever paid much attention to came from the lessons of a nun who had all the answers.

From the minute I entered Sister Mary Agnes Kavanaugh's first-grade classroom, this diminutive woman flashed her smile and began demonstrating her instructive, but controlling ways.

She accomplished more with massive doses of sweetness than any schoolmarm did with a ruler or sharp tongue.

Though a cloistered nun, whose life was governed (loosely) by the vows of the Order of the Visitation, Sister Mary Agnes was well versed in the nasty and heathen ways of Baltimore.

The pagan practices accompanying Halloween stood high on her list of what was wrong with 1956 Baltimore.

She was not edified by Halloween costumes, or parades along Baltimore Street or Eastern, and Pennsylvania avenues.

She also preached against the various nights associated with Oct. 31 -- moving night (when porch furniture and garbage cans took unauthorized trips) soap night (when car and home windows got scribbled with Ivory) and doorbell night (when householders' domestic peace was shattered by pins stuck in doorbells). These pranks she associated with "Drapes," the local term for a greasy hood.

Sister gave lessons in how not to be a Drape. After her discourse, we were afraid to walk in our own living rooms.

She explained that Oct. 31 is the day before the eve of the Christian feast of All Saints. Anyone who has died and gone to their heavenly reward qualifies as a saint. Halloween, she lectured, is literally "all hallow even," or the night before the day of the holy persons, the hallowed.

Now Sister was of Irish descent and had a virulent reverence for the sacred dead. She taught of her family's custom -- I believe from East Baltimore -- that on Oct. 31 night the souls of the long-dead family members actually make a trip back from the Elysian Fields.

We were left to wonder why they would want to return to the shores of the Patapsco River.

In the meantime, we of the first- grade class of the Baltimore Academy of the Visitation would dress up as famous saints for the day -- her choice of holy person. She looked at me and said "St. Francis of Assisi."

I can recall going home and sheepishly informing my mother of this command performance for sainthood. My mother was not pleased about this command performance. Her fifth child was due shortly. She had enough on her mind without coming up with a 13th-century Italian friar's costume.

My Great-Aunt Cora O'Hare overheard the discussion and suggested she could work something up on her sewing machine. Numerous pinnings and fittings, I emerged in a gathered brown robe, with a monk's cowl (the headpiece) and a rope belt. I even wore sandals. Cora also improvised a small stuffed bird that she sewed on my shoulder. St. Francis, of course, is always depicted with his animals.

The school bus arrived on Oct. 31. It was filled with other monks, virgins, apostles, seraphim, martyrs, abbesses and bishops. I hated my costume. It looked like a brown bathrobe. Sister Mary Agnes thought otherwise. She was in her glory. I think my shoulder bird lasted until the 10:15 recess.

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