My Father And The Nuns

Harry Canavan Harvey retirement paper USAFIn the summer of 1963, while our family was living in Mt. Kisco, NY, my father, Harry Canavan Harvey, retired from the USAF. His last assignment was at Manhattan College, where he was Professor Of Aeronautical Science. While stationed near NYC, he earned a Master’s Degree at Columbia Teachers College with a teaching certification, as well as extensive post-Master’s Degree work in Geography, also at Columbia.

But he had no job. It was a tense time in our household with heavy-duty arguments between my parents being the norm.

One Sunday that summer, right before the start of school, my father went to 6:00 AM Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Mt. Kisco.  This was his Sunday morning schedule.  Mass, followed by a round of golf at the Mt. Kisco Country Club.  My mother would then drop me off at church for the 9:00 AM, I’d go to Sunday School and be picked up before the start of the 10:30 AM Mass.Mt. Kisco Country Club golf course


So on this particular Sunday, literally the Sunday before the start of the 1963-1964 school year, I was the lone attendee from my family.  At the end of the sermon, the Monsignor made an unprecedented announcement.

Something catastrophic happened to the nun who was the 6th grade teacher at the parochial school at St. francis of assisi churchThe Monsignor asked for the parishioners help in finding a teacher who could start the following week.  On the way out of church, as the Monsignor was at the door shaking hands with the parishioners, I told him that my father would take the job. He smiled and told me to ask my father to please call him.

Which I promptly forgot about.

That night at dinner, my parents had a huge fight that ended with them yelling that everything would be all right if my father could get a job. I should mention here that we were very fortunate and money was not the huge issue, but at 46 years old, my father wanted to work and he needed to work to maintain the lifestyle that my family had.

When they stopped arguing long enough to take a breath, I said “Oh I got you a job, Dad.”  Coming out of my 11 year old mouth, it was rather a startling proclamation.  I told him about the announcement made at church and my conversation with the Monsignor.  My parents looked at me as if I had grown a tail, but my father jumped up to call the Monsignor and then rushed out of the house to go to the rectory.

For the first time in the history of this school, a lay teacher was hired.  And moreover, a man. My father, Colonel Harry C. Harvey, was the new 6th grade teacher at St. Francis of Assisi.

And so began his relationship with the nuns of the Sisters of Charity.Saint_Elizabeth_Ann_Seton_(1774_-_1821)

The order was established by Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. During  my childhood and adolescence, the nuns still dressed in the design of the habits that had originally been worn by the Sisters of Charity in the early 1800s.


The first deal that he cut was with the 8th grade teacher.  He told her that he didn’t feel qualified to teach the period for religious studies, so he asked her to teach the 6th grade religion course and he’d teach the 8th grade social studies class. That was fine with her.

And then, at Christmas time, my family was invited to tea at the convent.  I was flabbergasted.  My friends and I thought the nuns were pretty terrifying, and it never occurred to me that they were individuals with individual likes and dislikes.  But my father was prepared with thoughtful presents for each nun.

When the first present was opened, my eyes must have bugged out.  One of the sisters, who was about 800 years old, had confided in my father that the only thing she missed due to wearing a habit when she entered the religious order at a young age, was the opportunity to wear a red taffeta petticoat.  And out of her Christmas box she lifted a red taffeta petticoat. red taffeta petticoatShe had tears in her eyes and then hurried into her room to put it on under her habit. She came out and lifted her habit an inch or so to show us the petticoat that would never be worn again.  I think.

Then, the next nun opened her gift, and was ecstatic to see a bottle of whiskey. She raced that bottle into her room before the Monsignor came by for his cup of tea.  Some gifts were books, candy, soaps and other things that were out of their price range. And they all got a small gift of money.

While being completely shocked, what I was most impressed with was the thought that my parents had spent with each gift, and the thrill and gratitude for that thoughtfulness expressed by these Sisters of Charity. And their excitement that they could use these gifts and the money received to buy presents for family members and for some of the children of the parish who wouldn’t be receiving many presents that Christmas.

That was the relationship that my father had with the nuns.

About Barb Knowles

The things that are important to me are family, friends, teaching, writing, languages and using my sense of humor to navigate this crazy world. Please join me on this blogging adventure...
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38 Responses to My Father And The Nuns

  1. Garfield Hug says:

    Wow!! You as an 11 year old landed your dad a job!! Good on you!! Your dad must have been happy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tj6james6 says:

    Out of the mouths of babes, eh? 😉
    He must have been thrilled to just have a job after working all of his adult life in some capacity and then not working. I’m sure you’re quick thinking saved your parents a lot of heated words for that school year.
    Good for you.
    The gift giving is absolutely priceless though :D. I’m glad you all had the chance for such a unique experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. George says:

    Great story, Barb. Having gone the Catholic school route and been an altar boy I understand what it meant to have a male lay teacher. It was close to h heard of.
    We forget that nuns and priests are just human. When I was an altar boy I served many masses in the convent early in the morning. You see and hear them in very different ways than you do in a classroom. Cool story..:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      My father had a flirtatious manner. I remember him saying mildly joking comments and the nuns twittering. A very different world today. Plus, the Sisters of Charity were educators. I don’t think they missed much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I want that red taffeta petticoat! What a great gift for you to realize that everyone is human.


  5. Almost Iowa says:

    My relationship with nuns was a bit darker. Since I was always up to something and always into something, I got into trouble a lot and on more than one occasion was on the business end of a yardstick.

    Once when I complained about how mean the nuns were, my wife asked, “How many kids were in your class (meaning classroom)”

    “56,” I said. (It was the baby boom after all)

    “Mull that over for a bit,” she said.


    Sometimes it takes decades to catch on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      I don’t know how these kids could have considered my 6’2″ Colonel father a push-over, but they tried. The first day of school a boy wanted to go to the bathroom. Dad said okay. As the kid was getting up another and then another boy raised their hand and then some girls joined in. Dad said “Do you all want to go?” Amid cheers he lined them up and they all went. When they got back to class he said each student was allowed to go to the bathroom twice a year (not including recess and lunch, I assume). He said unfortunately, you all used up your first chance. So choose the second wisely. They were in shock. Total classroom dictatorship ruled.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This is an amazing story. At 11-years-old, you were able to find employment for your father and help out your family. That is truly admirable. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bea dM says:

    Great story, says a lot about your parents’ thoughtfulness. My own relationship with nuns wasn’t that great (Jesuit nuns) – and eventually led me to seek other spiritual shores. But I do remember a few who were special people, including a very perceptive and intellectual Irish Mother Superior and a jolly Italian head-of-the-kitchen 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Giving the perfect gift requires listening and remembering. Sounds like your dad is very thoughtful.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. That had to have been one of the most important moments in your dad’s life. In you and your family’s life as well. It’s wonderful that you played an important part in making the experience one worth remembering.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ann Coleman says:

    What a beautiful story! It gives an insight to your father, and the nuns, that you probably weren’t able to appreciate at the time, but what a gift that you remembered it all, so that now you can see it more clearly. And I think this is the first time I have heard of an eleven year old finding her father a job!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Thank you! Don’t get me wrong, we lived very well in a nice suburb, belonged to a country club etc. And Catholic schools didn’t pay well at the time (and probably don’t pay as well as public schools now, either). But my father was young, had years to go and two more kids to put through college. Our next meal wasn’t hanging in the balance. But my being at the right place at the right time lead to a opportunity for him that I’m sure, as you say, looking back at it now, provided a completely different perspective on our nuns and the working of a Catholic school. And helped tide him over as he looked for a job that he really wanted as a high school history and geography teacher.
      My response to you is becoming like a separate blog post, ha. But another thing that I was too young to even process, was that as a Colonel in the Air Force, he was used to making significant decisions and commanding a large number of people. It must have almost been like a Twilight Zone experience for him.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jeanette Smith Brownfield says:

    That year with Colonel Harvey was wonderful. Our 6th grade class had quite a few challenging kids and your father got us into shape! My friend Jeanne and I always got in trouble for talking, your Dad would make us stay after school. As soon as the busses left, he’d say , “ok, you can go now.” We were shocked he’d let us go so easily but after that we would always made sure we had some extra money with us because when he kept us after school, we could walk home past the Goody Shop and get ice cream. We just told our parents we had missed the bus. He told us we had to address him as “Sir” and he made sure we said, “Yes Sir! He was very kind but firm, but his sense of humor would come through if one of us did something and he just didn’t know what to do, and he’d give us a big smile or he looked down, towering over us and we would obey. He had a great relationship with all the nuns and the Principal, Sister Leonora, would always come in at least twice a day to give him a smoke break. To a 6th grade girl he was so very tall and handsome and he was the very first lay male teacher. I would see him over the years in Church and he would say he always keeps up with his girls! I was heartbroken when he didn’t return the next year. He made us feel so special!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barb Knowles says:

      Thank you so much for reading this, for commenting, and for loving my father. We were never, ever, ever allowed to call him anything but Dad or “sir.” Ever. He became a history teacher at Westlake High School the next year and then Assistant Principal. One of my colleagues at the high school where I teach became a teacher because of him. It sounds like he had a real positive effect. Thanks so much for commenting!


  12. Barb Knowles says:

    The Goody Shop was one of the highlights of my life.


  13. It deserves the recognition. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

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