EDITORIAL: Catholic education, a painful memory

In light of the residential schools in the news currently, it is with sad memories that I recall methods of discipline used in the Catholic schools I attended as a young boy.

Holy Angels was an elementary Catholic school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Sault Ste. Marie, ON. I attended grades 1 – 8 there and was abused. St. Mary’s College was the Catholic secondary school for boys run by the Basilians. Both schools had clerical staff who were abusive and harmed the children they taught.

In Gr. 1 of Holy Angels, the nun who taught the class would strike students with a yardstick, hitting them on the bare arms, on the knuckles and on the top of their heads. She also did this with a chalkboard brush cascading chalk dust over the head of the victim. But the worst mistreatment was making “misbehaving” students kneel on a yardstick for extending periods of time, a very painful experience. Occasionally, the misbehavor would be led into the adjoining cloakroom where she would administer corporals punishment, strapping the student’s open palm with a lenghty, leather strap. If the student flinched or pulled back their hand, more lashes would be given. Examples of what was consider misbehaviour was talking to another student while the teacher taught, whispering in line when lining up fo recess, failing to correctly repeat dance moves as taught in the dance class or talking to your dance partner in dance class where no talking was allowed. Students were 6 years old.

The principal of the school, Sr. Margaret, seemed to be a strong administrator but her idea of administration was to strap students who were sent to the office from class or students who were late for the start of school each day. The number of straps given were never specifically pre-determined but seemed to be determined by Sr. Margaret fatigue level for the day. Students were young boys ranging in age from 15 to 18.

High school was another experience altogether. One principal, notorious for physically abusing the students, taught math. Fr. Brown was a very strict disciplinarian who if you failed to satisfy his class behaviour, class response requirements would punish students by stiking them physically with a yardstick, often hitting them on the head, arms and shoulders numerous times.

Fr. Brown eventually became the principal of the school and corporal punishement discipline became the order of the day. His worst disciplinary process was to patrol the hallways carrying the metal shaft of a golf club. Thank goodness the clubhead was removed. He used this shaft to strike students he caught in the hallway while classes were in session. He even went into the washroom to look for ‘miscreants.’ He thought nothing of hitting a student on the legs and the shoulders with the golf club shaft, though thankfully he did not hit anyone in the head.

These were real teachers, administrators and clerics responsible for taking care of children. The examples are being recounted because these are example of how non-Indigenous students could be treated. I cannot imagine how students were mistreated in residential schools but given my experience in the above schools, I do not want to imagine it.

Today these teachers would be facing criminal charges while in those days, the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of treatment of students was viewed as acceptable, and some parents endorsed the disciplinary methods of the era, likely based on the philosophy, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”


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