Blessed Are The Beadmakers
It was 3:30 on a spring afternoon in 1964 when Sister Marie deposited three 11-year-old felons in the school gym and said she would be back in an hour.
Our infraction was neglecting to bring rosary beads for the prayer service held each morning in May to honor the Blessed Virgin. In doing so, we had disrespected the mother of God and disgraced our school, parents, teachers, classmates and Pope.
Sister had decided to punish us by keeping us after school to make our own rosary beads. Detention was bad enough since it meant a mile’s walk home alone, instead of with my neighborhood friends. And an inquisition from my mother. She was a public-school alumna who was often skeptical about the nun-related behavior we reported. (“All this for rosary beads? Come on, what did you really do?”)
Part two of our penance had us stumped. Even if we’d been packing arts-and-crafts supplies, who actually knew how to make rosaries? And were we really allowed to do that? The parish and a few approved stores sold them, but they were holy objects. Wasn’t it illegal or sacrilegious to produce your own?
“What do we make the beads with, Sister?” Paul voiced our thoughts as we looked around at the empty gym, which doubled as an auditorium.
“You figure it out,” Sister said. She turned on the heel of her sturdy black shoes, a movement that made her filmy robes whirl like a black tornado. Then she walked away.
Mentally I reviewed my rosary situation. I had received a set of small white beads for my First Communion, location unknown. More recently I had won a larger ebony rosary in a poetry contest. The last time I had seen that one, it was in my grandmother’s hands. We had gathered in my aunt and uncle’s yard after Sunday dinner to say the rosary, a series of nearly 60 prayers that meant we’d have little time to play at the park.
“God won’t mind if you and I count on our fingers,” Uncle Roy had whispered as we knelt. He was an attorney and very smart, but apparently he didn’t know everything about rosary protocol.
My co-defendants also came from large families and probably lived with lots of clutter and little privacy. Rosary beads, umbrellas, pens and the like were treated as public property in homes like ours. Try explaining that to a nun.
Paul and Kevin had been in my class since kindergarten and while I still disliked boys on general principle, they were okay. Like me, they were decent students and rarely got in trouble. They served on the altar each Sunday while I sang in the choir. But those weren’t mitigating factors if you came empty-handed to the Virgin Mary’s shrine. Apparently this offense would be on the books until Judgment Day.
Silently we telegraphed our bewilderment to each other. What was our next move?
One of the school’s cardinal rules was that we couldn’t trespass in unauthorized areas. But how else could we get string, wire or anything else to fashion into fifty-plus beads and a cross?
We agreed to split up and try all the doors: equipment room, janitor’s closet and several unmarked ones. Everything was locked up tight. In this five-year-old annex, locks held instead of rattling open if you persisted, as they might have in the antiquated main building.
Fifteen precious minutes had ticked away by the time we returned to the bleachers and decided to look behind the stage area’s velvet curtain. Even in the meager backstage light, we quickly found a box containing paperback hymn books. And, miracle of miracles, batches of them were wrapped in string!
Well-prepared Boy Scouts that they were, the guys had pocket knives and carefully cut three lengths of slender white string. After a brief debate, we inked the spots where the beads were meant to go.
Structured like a Y necklace, the rosary began with a cross and three beads leading to a circle with five groups of ten beads. Each represented a Hail Mary to be prayed. In between each “decade” of beads was a lone bead marking the Our Father prayer.
Seated around the box of hymnals, we chatted companionably about school, movies and the Yankees versus the Mets as we made the knots that would serve as prayer beads.
As our rosaries took shape, our pride increased and we admired each other’s handiwork. We decided to ask the pastor to bless them after Mass, since a rosary with a priest’s benediction was a more powerful instrument. While I braided bits of string into a large cross as a finishing touch, I realized this rosary might become my favorite.
Kevin’s watch indicated we were almost at zero hour, so we quickly double-checked our bead count and then headed out to the bleachers.
Minutes later, Sister Marie found us sitting quietly, holding our completed assignments. Without comment, she took each set of beads and led us to the exit.
Again Paul spoke for all of us. “Will we get them back, Sister?
“See me tomorrow,” she replied, opening the door to let us out.
We scattered in the playground after grumbling briefly about being parted from our new beads. But I felt an unwilling surge of respect for Sister Marie. She had devised a punishment to fit the crime and given us a new appreciation for the rosary.
That afternoon had changed how I felt about my teacher and my religion.
The following day’s events were to change those feelings yet again.
I was to remain a church member for eight more years. Gradually my suspicion that I didn’t belong there became a certainty that couldn’t be denied, muffled by prayer or blamed on the devil. But although my doubts had already begun to surface, I was still a committed Catholic when Sister mobilized us for the next day’s service.
After our class filed out of the school building and marched to Our Lady’s shrine, I stopped to ask Sister for the beads she had confiscated.
“Oh, those,” she said, her face impassive behind her wire-rimmed glasses. “I threw them away.”
During my short lifetime I had already seen minor atrocities perpetrated by nuns. I would later learn of horrific ones committed by the clergy of many religions. As abuse went, Sister Marie’s wasn’t even on the radar. But as much as I disliked her, my faith in her faith had been absolute. We had believed her every word about the sanctity of rosary beads. That’s why we had treasured our hand-crafted ones.
Had Sister really thrown them out? Had she lied to us and kept them? I’ll never know. But on the off-chance she was right about that Judgment Day ledger, I can still imagine how the entries for that incident might read.
Three students: Disrespected Blessed Mother. Failed to bring rosary beads to her shrine.
Their teacher: Had opportunity to strengthen faith of neglectful youngsters. Threw it away.