Sister Mercedes and the Temple of Doom

"A Terrified Future Catholic"

A terrified future Catholic.

I had a college professor who once said, “Catholicism gives you something infinitely complex to rebel against for the rest of your life.”

Being a rebellious Catholic I said to myself, “What the hell does he know?” Notice I didn’t say it out loud.

But as I look back at my 12 years (!) of Catholic school, I have to say he had a point. No one taught me true meaning of wretched, bilious hate better than the nuns.

In the 1970s, there were two reasons to become a nun: morbid fear of sex and lesbianism. I mean, if you didn’t get laid during the summer of ’69 what chance did you really have thereafter? I suppose there were some authentic Brides of Christ, but in 12 years I never met one. Certainly not my principal Sister Mercedes. That was her name, I swear. She hated me.

A little background. I wasn’t a troublemaker. Quite the contrary, I was boringly, stultifyingly good–good grades, never caused trouble, barely spoke, actually. My younger brother, however, was an absolute hellion in grey uniform pants and a maroon sweater. A classmate of his was running full out to line up after recess and my brother casually stuck out his foot and tripped her. Sister Jeanne saw this and responded as any reasonable adult in a position of authority would–she beat the hell out of him. A closed-fist, old school, Mass in Latin massacre.
Amen, Hallelujah!

My mother’s cousin had lost a promising high school basketball career because a nun had broken a yardstick whacking his calf, and he was asked what he had done to provoke the poor woman. But the 70s were a more civilized, groovy decade. Nothing was bad enough to warrant such an attack on a mere child (even though the poor girl had gone sprawling headlong on the concrete parking lot that served as our playspace, and by all reports my brother laughed his ass off when she did). My father was not going to cowtow to the Catholic hierarchy, especially post Vatican II. He went to Sister Mercedes and demanded that Sister Jeanne apologize to my brother, which she did, tearfully, in front of my brother’s class. Sister Mercedes, like John Gotti or Tony Soprano, never forgot that humiliation and dishonor. She needed a scapegoat, or in more appropriate religious doctrine, a sacrificial lamb.

Enter a fat, sensitive, 7th grader with pants a slightly lighter shade of grey than everyone else (we had to find them in the husky section, often in corduroy). And enter The Hobbit.

I loved The Hobbit. I was one of those nerdy kids who actually enjoyed reading on his own. The Hobbit had it all–dragons, dwarves, elves, short creatures with hairy feet, a magic ring, no mystical, psuedo-Christian ax to grind (I’m talking to you, Prince of Narnia). The fat kid with the ripped pant-crotch was entranced.

Christmas break ended and we were scheduled to take our Hobbit test. I was actually looking forward to it. The tests were passed out, along with our scan tron answer sheets (an amazing invention that insured that teachers didn’t have to waste their time on anything as menial as grading–unless you counted the time spent hand-feeding the little buggers into the machine). No sooner had I raised my #2 pencil than all the tests were immediately re-collected and we were asked to take out a piece of looseleaf numbered 1-10. We were then given ten short answer questions roughly along the lines of, “What was Bilbo’s second counsin’s dog’s name and on what page did he appear in the standard Penguin edition?”

Two of my classmates, apparently, had stolen the answer key out of the teacher’s cabinet and distributed it to every kid in the class except me. Such was my anonymity among my peers. One of the pilferers came from a family of 19 children who had such a squeaky reputation that nuns and priests would frequently genuflect and cross themselves in the presence of their mother. She barely noticed, busy as she was trying to avoid tripping over her uterus.

But I digress. The fuzz had caught on. The nuns had played the old switcheroo game with our tests and waiting in the hallway to extract information from the defendants was Sister Mercedes. She was ruthless. Within minutes she had the kid from the big family awash in tears of guilt and announced to the class that because of his larceny none of us would be having recess for a month…unless we had passed the 10 question sham test (nobody did–I was closest with 6 correct).

While we were sitting inside during recess, relegated to whispered conversations, an idea occured to me that I should have dismissed immediately and without any further internal discussion. The idea was “this is unfair”. I know, right! Stupid, naïve fatty.

I tested my idea with my fellow classmates and found 100% agreement. Enboldened, I timidly ventured that someone should bring the fact to someone’s attention. This time I was soundly congratulated, not only for my otherworldly perceptive abilities, but also for possessing the courage…nay, the hubris…to attempt such discussion with so formidable an antagonist as Sister Mercedes.

Excuse me, what?

I had been volunteered by popular demand. In short work I had become their voice, their hope, their backbone, their unwitting fool. I sucked in my substantial stomach and asked my teacher if I could speak to Sister Mercedes. The dear woman tried to talk me out of it, but I was singleminded in my determination to slit my own wrists. I marched into the school office, waited courteously behind a woman who was signing her kid out sick while my heart pounded in my chest, and found myself face to face with destiny. In between my stammer and spittle I think I managed to squeak out that I thought group punishment was unfair. I’m sure I meant to back up my argument with like injustices throughout history (WWI pogroms, Native American reservations, letting peers pick sides during flag football), but I’m sure I didn’t get that far.

Sister Mercedes’ eyes narrowed and, I think, turned red. She cocked her habit at a jaunty angle to her white hair. “And what makes YOU so special, Mr. Petti, that you think you deserve to go outside and play when all your friends stay inside!” No, no, no…there were others…I’m their champion…I’m their hero!…they practically nominated me Pope just now in that classroom! How dare you try to sully so pure a comradeship as I have with my fellow classmates. I was practically carried to this office on the wings of companionship and civic pride! So, steeled in the adoration of my fellow man, I replied, approximately…


I never spoke so eloquently.

“Get back to your classroom immediately. I’ll be down in a minute.” Unluckily for me, she didn’t break an ankle on the way up the stairs. As soon as she entered the room, she demanded that I stand up.

“Mr. Petti thinks that HIS punishment is unfair. He thinks that HE should be allowed to go out and play while all the rest of you stay here in your classroom. Do any of YOU feel the same way?”

(Cue crickets.)

“I thought so. Do you know what that makes you, Mr. Petti? A parasite. Do you know what that means?”

“A person who’s taken a vow of charity, yet now lives quite comfortably on the money squeezed out of her lower-middle-class congregation when the plate is passed every Sunday?”

Is what I should have said. “No” was my actual reply.

“You should look it up, Mr. Petti. It perfectly describes you.”

And here I am years later on disability. I guess she had me nailed.

But I learned some important lessons, character building lessons that followed me throughout my life. Lessons like, might is right, power is meant to be exploited, and “fairness” “is” “a” “relative” “concept”. And most importantly, if you plan on taking a stand on moral grounds, don’t look over your shoulder. You’re better off not knowing how few folks are back there.

    • Joel Flowers
    • January 19th, 2011

    This should be required reading for Catholics and Protestants alike. It now seems likely that my Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher was correct when she told me that all Catholics are going to hell.

    • In a handbasket, Joel. At least we’ll be able say “hi” to Ms. Judgmental Baptist Sunday School teacher.

    • Karen Mills
    • January 19th, 2011

    Brian – you are not, nor have you ever been, a parasite. Go ahead – look it up – I am correct.
    As for the rest – very amusing! Looking forward to reading more!

    • Thank you, Karen. I’d like to think I’m in the slug family at least .

    • Joe Petti
    • February 3rd, 2011

    How dare you blast the Catholic sisterhood! I can’t tell you how much I learned from those wonderful nuns! Sister Mercedes and I were on a first name basis. In fact, I think I once put my feet up on her desk, cracked open a beer and together, we made fun of all you quiet, shy and well-behaved bastards. She called you a parasite because I TOLD her to! I said to her…”Who does this Petti kid think he is???” And we both burst out in uncontrollable laughter.

  1. You don’t have to cop to stuff you didn’t do on my account–I blamed you for everything already.

    Was Sister Mercedes’ first name Agnus? She seemed like an Agnus.

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