In 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.
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.The 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.
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. She 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.