Up Front and Personal

Two Years of Teaching At St. Joseph’s Hall

by Maria F. Mastromarino 

Reading The Tablet’s article featuring tributes to religious sisters triggered a fond memory for me. While I was reading the part dedicated to the Sisters of Charity and the work they did among the poor, under the direction of Mother Seton, I noticed the article mentioned one of the places they had in Brooklyn, St. Joseph’s Hall. 

At the tender age of 18 I taught at that school. Wow, that brought me back. It was over 50 years ago, and I could see it like I was standing there. Meanwhile, I’m the same person who cannot remember why I just walked into this room. Amazing! 

The children, then it was all girls, were either taken from their homes or placed there by families who could not care for them. I don’t remember how many there were at the time. I have always had a hard time with numbers, but the place was full of children, from toddlers to girls about 12-13. 

I was going to St. John’s University in Brooklyn, at night pursuing my teaching degree, and a priest I knew had recommended me for this teaching job. I went to the interview very nervous. I believe my mother drove me. The home was located in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Willoughby Avenue off Lewis Avenue. 

The large, forbidding building was surrounded with bars, which just added to my sense of “What am I doing here?” I met the principal, Sister Theresa Carmel, a very direct, no-nonsense woman. I don’t think she was impressed with me, all of 101 pounds with no experience. We talked for a while, and she explained the workings of St. Joseph’s to me and asked what I had done. 

To my credit, I had organized a child care program at our church, St. Thomas Aquinas on Fourth Avenue, so little ones could be involved while parents went to Mass. We read to them and played with them. I also staffed it and made sure it ran every week. I loved children and expressed that to Sister Theresa. I guess that might have won her over, because I got the job. 

St. Joseph’s Hall, Sister explained, housed all girls at that time, 1967. They lived in groups each having a name consistent with a saint or a guardian angel. They had one of the sisters as their mother/guardian. They had clean clothes, their own bed, toys, books, and of course plenty to eat. 

We had a tiny school. Sister Theresa was the principal and second grade teacher. Miss Peralta, a dear sweet lady, taught first grade. Sister Alma, who used a wheelchair and was so spiritual she seemed otherworldly, taught my class religion. I guess they had my number even then. I was to teach third and fourth grade. The class only had nine girls in total. 

How do I reach these children? I knew how to teach but this was so different, so hard. I wanted to take one or two of them home with me. What did they want? They wanted to go home, that was all they talked about. They were very easily distracted. It was very hard to keep them on topic. Who could blame them? Their whole life was upside down. I found the job challenging to say the least. Did they care about math or spelling? I kept trying to come up with different ways to make the subjects fun, interesting, and engaging. 

One day I was invited to a meeting where one of my students was being considered to be allowed to visit home. Present at the meeting was the sister who was the director of the home, a psychiatrist, social worker, the group mother (the sister who cared for the child), and me. Everyone put in their opinions and findings. The beginning told of how they found this child, how she was brought to St. Joseph’s. The family home had no dishes, no silverware. The family ate out of a common pot with their hands. The sanitary conditions were nonexistent. It went on. I sat there like I was at a horror movie, but this was real life. All she talked about in class was returning home — to that! 

The psychiatrist explained that no matter how bad their home life was — and this one was bad — it belonged to them and they wanted it. Family ties are strong, and it takes a lot to sever them. I certainly learned a lot that day and the days that followed. 

One of the highlights of the year, and there were many, like a hug here and there, was around Christmastime. I believe it was the Emerald Society that donated funds so that the girls could go shopping for a Christmas outfit. Each girl was given $25 — a lot in 1967 — to buy a Christmas dress and socks and whatever else to go with it. I had five girls to take to A&S on Fulton Street to shop. They were thrilled! Most had never even been in a department store. The “magic stairs” (escalators), thrilled them, so many dresses in one place excited them. I never saw A&S as just a store again after that day. 

I went to St. Joseph’s Hall to teach, but instead, I learned from the dedicated Sisters of Charity to just give, no matter the circumstances. I learned from my fellow teachers that making a lot of money is not important, but reaching one little mind is. I learned from my students that family is a very strong tie. 

I’ll never forget my two years at St. Joseph’s Hall. I will always hold them close in my heart and hope those little girls are happy and blessed. 

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