by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 6/2003 and the Boston City paper in 2006
It’s Friday afternoon, the last day of my vacation, and I’m feeling nostalgic. I don’t know why, but I can’t get my mind away from my old stomping grounds in Dorchester. My old neighborhood has been on my mind so much that it’s practically a compulsion that I take the only sunny day in recent memory, point the car north on route 95 and head back here I grew up, trusty digital camera at my side.
Uphams Corner has changed dramatically since I left here in 1989 – in truth, we left because it had changed so dramatically. After the break in, the guy chasing me with a bat, the various purse snatches and car radio thefts, my family felt sufficiently scared that we left for safer pastures.
So why am I so eager to have another look around? I honestly don’t know. I have the strangest feeling driving past the stores on Hancock Street – they are all familiar in shape – I know them – yet
don’t know them at all. Many of the facades now have a decidedly Spanish flair – and more than one person on the corner looks like trouble. But as I drive into Uphams Corner, I decide to park the car and take a walk. As I learned to do when I lived here, I stride purposefully, like I belong here.
But I don’t belong anymore. It’s not a racial thing – there are white people, black people, Latino people – it’s that the entire place has changed. Everything I knew is gone. Liggets Drug. Diskay and Kresgees department stores. The Uphams Corner market. the Newsstand. Barker & Collier Stationary. Brigham’s. Big Daddy Pizza. They are all gone.
The buildings they occupied are all still there, but every place here I have a memory is now something different. The Pierce building is still there, the huge clock on the Dorchester Savings
bank is still there. Nana got her mortgage there in 1941. These days it’s a Citizens bank.
I see the Old North Burial Ground Historic site now has an iron fence rather than the old stone walls. I remember climbing on top of that wall in October 1979 as I and thousands of others clamored for a view of Pope John Paul II as he whooshed through on his motorcade. What a thrill that was!
The Strand Theater looks the same – and the Strand Pharmacy sign — which I watched them install from my fifth grade school window across the street – looks new. Catalonis bar – where you could get a pizza for $4.50 (including tip) is still there, but they haven’t made pizza in years. Those pizzas were so good – I remember walking with my sister Theresa, the aroma of the cheese and tomato tempting us as we brought this delicious treat home. The Canton House Chinese food place – where my sister patronized so often
that they knew what she wanted to order as soon as they heard the voice on the phone – still there.
I drive up to Sawyer Avenue, where I lived 14 years, and it looks pretty good. It looks like there’s been a real effort to improve many of the houses. My old house on Rowell Street looks nicer than ever. Other houses look run down.
Hancock Street – right near where I grew up – looks dangerous and run down to me. I feel like I don’t belong. I feel like a time-traveler.
I look over at Saint Kevin’s Church. Mom and Dad were married there, and Theresa and I both attended eight years of school and made our sacraments and attended weekly mass there.
I’d heard that once Father Kierce, our pastor of 40 years, retired, the church was “decommissioned” and turned into a day care center or something. The Church is part of Holy Family Parish now, and the stained glass windows have all been replaced.
I notice that the statue of the Lord is still missing His right hand. The grounds look well kept. I haven’t attended mass at Saint Kevin’s since March 1992, when I started going to Saint Mary’s here in Foxboro. On a whim, I walk over to the church doors. They look exactly as I remember
them, and I think back with a smile of the countless 5:00 Sunday masses, Mom talking with Aunt Simone, getting teased by my cousin Margo, collecting and bringing up the gifts… This was home for so many years. I walk over to the doors and on a whim tug at them — and they open.
Didn’t expect that.
Inside, I see that the statue of Saint Kevin has been moved from the foyer – I look at the church and I see that it is indeed converted to a kindergarten – but then I look further on and I gasp as I see a ghost – the altar of my church is intact!
Oh, my God. My church. Saint Kevin Church.
It’s still here.
I thought it was all gone – I thought the kindergarten had completely taken away the church – but it’s here. The altar, the crucifix, the tabernacle, the altar rail, the podium – the large letters saying, “I am the vine, you
are the branches / without me you can do nothing.” The pews with the “In memory of” plaques. The organ that Sister Virginia Mary always played at our masses.
It’s all still here.
And a single confessional, still with the green “FATHER KIERCE” name tag. Father Kierce – our pastor who worked over 40 years, pretty much single-handedly – to keep the church going – his dream continues. Such a good man – a fire and brimstone preacher, to be sure, but a good, holy man.
I was dismayed to learn he’s in a nursing home now – it’s hard to believe that this dynamic, active priest is no longer pastor here. I pray God blesses him with continued good health and rest.
I knelt by the altar and said a prayer, and added a prayer for all the people yet to worship here, happy that there would be people worshipping here in the future.
The woman who apparently tends the kindergarten approaches, and I tell her who I am and I ask about the school upstairs, which in the past was divided into eight classrooms, two for each grade one through four.
Is there still a school? Could I take a quick look?
“Go ahead,” she tells me. “I think Sister Paula is up there now.”
“Sister Paula Kelley?” I ask, incredulously.
Sister Paula was principle of the school when I arrived there thirty-two years ago. She put the fear of God in us. If you were sent to see Sister Paula you were in big trouble. Her lectures to students invariably featured her slamming a pointer down on the desk as she told us to shape up. She was always a formidable nun, and a dynamic presence in the school. In much the same way Father Kierce kept the church going, Sister Paula kept the school going. She stepped down as principal when I was in sixth grade to return to teaching in the school.
Sister Paula Kelley
Sister Paula? Still here?
So I walk upstairs, rang the bell, and answering is Sister Paula Kelley, who, except for just a little grayer hair, looks exactly as I remember her.
“Sister Paula, I’m Robert Gillis,” I begin.
“Hello!” She doesn’t even blink. “How is Theresa? How is your mother?”
How do teachers do that? I’ve seen her exactly twice since I graduated in 1979 — at Sister Leo Gertrude’s wake, and my own Dad’s wake. In an instant, she has remembered my family data. Incredible.
It’s funny – I’m 38 – decades past being a schoolboy here – and Sister Paula still intimidate me. I want to embrace her, tell her how happy I am to see her, how happy I am that she is principle again, how overjoyed I am that my old school is in such good hands, but I restrain myself – somehow hugging
sister Paula just doesn’t seem proper, even now.
I fill her in with what the family has been up to. She updates me on some of the nuns and teachers who have passed on, and tells about the school. Still eight classrooms, grades one to four in this building. Grades five through eight in the other building. The school is now wired for computers. The beautiful “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” murals needed to be painted over several years ago, but the Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood and other murals remain. The supply closet still has that “supply closet” smell I remember. Everything looks freshly painted.
“May I look around and take some pictures?” I ask.
“Go right ahead,” she tells me.
I begin to roam. The walls have all been freshly painted in pastels, but the classrooms haven’t changed. Oh, the windows have been replaced with more energy efficient models and the old-fashioned lights are long gone. There are a few computers in each room, and the large, old-fashioned TV’s are gone, but everything else is exactly the same.
The classrooms seem so small – do 30 kids and a teacher fit in such a small room? Indeed they do, with room to spare. I guess as we get older we tend to forget how little we once were.
“Love taught here” one sign reads. The A-B-C’s are displayed in a first grade room with all the typical school type sings and banners. The rooms have all been cleaned for summer break. I enter the room that was once designated ’1A’ and realize I’m standing in the very first classroom of my life – room 1A, where Sister Ann Cecelia taught me and thirty other kids with skill and love. Sister Ann truly had a beautiful spirit.
It’s funny, I suddenly remember those times – I remember those simple years before 5th grade when life seemed to turn so complicated – days of crayons, Phonics books, art class, “Readers,” school masses, SRA booklets, and the constant reassuring presence of those good nuns and teachers. It’s seems so long ago, and it is – I find that I don’t have specific memories
anymore – no fresh memories are triggered by my presence in the classroom -
but somehow I feel complete being here – I feel closure. I can’t explain it – it just feels right to be here.
I guess for so long my memories of Saint Kevin have been only those last few years of feeling like an outsider, running from bullies and feeling lonely. Sister Catherine, my 8th grade teacher, was a shining light through all that, but even she couldn’t lift the burden I faced back then. I miss her – I only saw her a few times after graduation, but she was such a good
teacher, such a good person. She died a few years ago, and it was a loss for me – I adored her.
But standing here in my old classrooms, I’m remembering that there were good times at this school. Many of them. That recollection surprises me.
I feel so happy.
And it feels so right to know that hundreds of children are receiving good educations at my old school. And Sister Paula Kelley, still at the helm. God bless her.
I tour the other classrooms, pausing and taking pictures in rooms that were “mine” those many years ago. I thank Sister Paula for letting me tour, wish her well, and I head out.
I drive five blocks to Trull Street and Nana’s house – the neighborhood still looks and feels so unsafe to me. There are guys hanging on the corner that give me the creeps. But Nana’s house, ironically, looks better than it ever has, with new vinyl siding, windows, chimney, and landscaping. Nana would be stunned to see how good the place looks. The new owner has transformed it.
My old hometown is a paradox to me – I don’t feel safe walking in Nana’s neighborhood anymore, I don’t know anyone still living in Dorchester, and don’t even speak the language of most residents – but life is still going on there.
Returning to where you grew up can make you feel like the man in the Twilight Zone episode who learns his life is a TV show and the “stage” of his life – his home, his office – are all torn down when he’s done with them. I think many of us have that feeling about places we leave — the “sets” get torn down once we move on, once we finish the “play.” It’s funny – the saying goes that you can’t go home again – but the saying is misleading. “Home” isn’t just where you grew up. It’s an entire
universe, a snippet of time, composed of the people you knew, the friends, rivals, family, bullies, business owners, shop keeps, and even the time period that all came together to create that world you knew as “home.” It was all your “stage.”
You can’t go back in time to the home you knew, to the world you knew. People move away, people change, people die. Businesses change. Times change. We change. But you can return to the stage where “Home” was
played out. The players are different, the stage looks different, but so much is the same. Some parts of the stage have been renovated, some have fallen into disrepair. Some of the new players seem friendly, others look
scary. But it’s their time on the stage. It’s their time to make the stage their home.
Dorchester was where I grew up, and will always have a place in my heart. Nana’s house will always be “Nana’s house” no matter what it looks like or who owns it. Uphams Corner will always include a montage of memories of Christmas lights, food shopping, pizza at Big Daddy and running errands no
matter what businesses take other businesses place. Saint Kevin’s will always be “my” church. Catalonis will always be my favorite pizza. The area will always feel familiar. It will always be part of me.
Feeling very light and happy, I drive a few miles to Castle island in South Boston for some fried clams and a walk along the causeway, which becomes three walks around the entire island.
As the warm sun and surf welcome me back to another area I love, I couldn’t help but repeatedly review the pictures I’d just taken of Saint Kevin’s – and somehow in my heart, there is warmth, closure, and true happiness with the newfound knowledge that at Saint Kevin’s, children are still being taught, masses are still being held,
and new dreams are still being nurtured. I am overwhelmed and don’t understand why. I feel like I have done something I had to do – that I needed to make this visit and walk the classrooms and say a prayer at my old church. I needed to remember there were good times at Saint Kevin. I cannot explain it, but I have achieved a sort of closure, a felling of peace with Dorchester. Somewhere I didn’t know I was hurting has been healed.
My old school still stands and still teaches hundreds of students every year, with the perfect captain at its helm – Sister Paula. My church hasn’t been broken into pieces – it still stands and still serves its community. Dreams continue to be made at Nana’s house and in my old neighborhood.
The sun is warm. The pictures are wonderful. And I realize that something special has happened to me today, something I’ll cherish for a long time.
You can go home again – just not the way you might imagine.