News Article

Catholic School Education Creates Lifelong Friendships

The Canton Repository
Time flies when you're having lunch.

In 1950, the graduating eighth grade class at St. Mary's Catholic School in Canton included 69 students. Through marriage and motherhood, social changes and aging, a contingent of classmates have maintained close friendships.

They are sharp and funny, proud of their Catholic faith and their ability to maintain ties that began when Pius XII was pope and Harry Truman was president.

"We just enjoy each other's company; I look forward to it," Mary Lou Dyer said.

For almost 50 years, and virtually every month, the group has met for brunch at Gregory's Family Restaurant. The meetings started after their 25th class anniversary in 1975.

They hold court in their own dining area, regulars for the smiling waitresses who are young enough to be their granddaughters.

"I like hearing the stories," one said.

Where it all began

The story begins at St. Mary's School at 1602 Market Ave. S. Most of the students were children from working-class families living in southeast and southwest Canton.

"We used to walk to school," Shirley Truax recalled. "It just grew into a group."

The Immaculate Heart of St. Mary Church and its school were founded in 1899. The school for grades 1 through 8 opened with 200 students. It closed in 1982. The church is still open as part of a shared parish. A charter school occupies the school building.

"It was nice to be able to walk to school," Janet Ross said.

There were no uniforms.

"There were 60 kids in one room with one teacher," Joann Labriola said.

The Sisters of St. Joseph were in charge of instruction until 1944. They were succeeded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Virginia Mikstay has vivid memories of one disciplinarian.

"She hit me in the back one time when I was standing at the board because I didn't know how to do a problem," she said.

There also were favorites.

Ann Cugini remembers "Sister Eileen," who had a beautiful singing voice.

"They were all nice," she said.

Then there was "Sister Monica," who died tragically young.

"They made us hot meals for 25 cents," said a smiling Carmella Jeffries, who grew up to become a teacher, retiring in 1990 after 40 years.

But Mikstay recalled one nun who threw blackboard erasers at the boys.

"She was big, like one of those German Fräuleins in the movies," she said.

Ross agrees.

"She looked like a wrestler," she said to laughter.

Traditional times

Theirs was an era when most mothers stayed home. Though some daughters followed suit, a few did not.

Mikstay was the private secretary to the Rev. Dave Lombardi, pastor of Trinity Gospel Temple for 49 years. She became an evangelical Christian in 1968, explaining, "I wasn't happy in the Catholic church, especially when they told me how many kids I needed to have."

"I went to college for two years," Joyce Schott said. "I wanted to be a librarian, but I got married instead in 1957."

Ross said she worked in the Timken family's private office for 15 years, and Labriola managed the St. Joseph's Credit Union for 15 years.

At school, Mass was a daily requirement as was Sunday attendance with one's family — without question.

A group of women including Mary Lou Dyer has maintained ties since graduating from the former St. Mary's School in 1950. They meet monthly at Gregory's Family Restaurant in Canton. They are shown here Sept. 20.
When asked if they could recall the priest serving St. Mary's when they were there, the classmates looked at one another and laughed.

"He was very strict," Labriola offered about the Rev. Thomas R. Heimann, who had been at the parish since its founding in 1900.

'They need to loosen the restriction and let priests marry'

Everyone agrees that Dyer is the funniest member of the group. Dyer recalled that the priest who performed her wedding was reluctant because her husband wasn't Catholic.

"He still isn't Catholic," she said. "He's a golfer."

Some of the women shared their thoughts on changes the church should consider to attract and keep parishioners.

"I really think they need to loosen the restriction and let priests marry," Ross said. "I also think the nuns are quite capable of being priests."

"Put women in there," Dyer said. "They'll get it done."

Catholic school values

The former classmates said they enjoyed their time at St. Mary School, so much so that they sent their own children to Catholic school.

"All six of my kids graduated from Catholic school," Labriola said.

Schott recalled that elementary education was free for parish families.

"They sold bricks for $5," she said.

Catholic high schools had tuition.

"It was $90 a year to go to Central Catholic," she said.

Shirley Truax, left, and Ann Cugini share good memories of St. Mary's School in Canton. They're part of a circle of classmates who have kept in contact by meeting once a month for nearly 50 years. Members of the group said they believe in the value of Catholic education.

"I loved it the whole time," Dyer said. "I'm a Catholic and I stayed Catholic. I'm proud to be a Catholic — and Italian. I have two granddaughters who go to St. Peter's. They love it. My brother Joe is 88 years old and he said he learned manners and how to behave because of St. Mary's."

Labriola agrees.

"There's more discipline in Catholic schools," she said.

A laughing Labriola added that she sometimes had to scrub the school steps with a brush as punishment.

"This is part of the reason we keep getting together," Ross said of the stories.

She was the only one in the group who married a "St. Mary's boy."

"I got hollered at because I was always running late, and I lived the closest to the school," Truax said laughing.

The circle has lost members, some to death; some have moved away.

"One of the first people, Beverly Fraley, moved to North Carolina and she used to drive up every month to have lunch with us," Ross said.

But despite their shrinking numbers, it's still strictly a ladies' club.

"Somebody once suggested I invite my husband. He didn't go to St. Mary's. I don't want him here," Dyer said, prompting laughter.

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