David O'Brien: For St. Joe community there is still history to be made

WORCESTER — St. Joe High is history. Its last school year is ending, students are rearranging plans for next year, alumni and friends are sharing memories, at once mourning St Joe's loss and celebrating its life well lived, as at a funeral.

St Joseph shaped a share of Pittsfield's history by helping a lot of mostly Catholic families make a little history of their own. A good historian once said that religious congregations and schools like St Joe, built from very limited material but rich human resources of immigrants and their offspring, arose from "folk memories brought to bear on new aspirations."

Pittsfield's Irish and French, German and Italian, Polish and Hispanic families wanted to preserve their faith and their heritage while realizing new aspirations for freedom, respect, and a full share of responsibility for the common life. Family and ethnic and religious memories are still here, and so are those perennial democratic aspirations. Now families will have to fulfill their dreams, and carry out their shared responsibilities for the life of Pittsfield and the world beyond, through renewed communities and with schools not Catholic but very much their own. History, personal and public, is still being made.

I arrived at St Joseph's elementary school in 1945 and graduated from the high school 11 years later. Many decades after that, at a parish meeting, I met a nice man who was a bit suspicious of college professors like me. But his face lit up when he learned that I was from Pittsfield, as he was.

Placing his now friendly arm on my shoulder he said with emphasis: "What we have to do, Dave, is get the country and the church back to where they were in the 1950s!" I smiled, sharing those memories and was tempted to the same aspiration. But, professor that I am, I responded, "Well, history happens. Let's see what we can do together."

Realistic dreamers

Later that night I tried to recall what our family forebears thought about on European docks, waiting for a ship, when they arrived in places like Pittsfield, when they saved nickels and dimes to build those parishes and schools. They probably did not aspire to return to beloved villages left behind. They probably did hope that just possibly (they were realistic dreamers — the parents of the '50s remembered the hard times of the '30s) their children and grandchildren could have education and jobs, win the respect of others, and be part of making America's remarkable history.

Many took great risks, married and had children, worked hard and pulled some of that off. A lot of poor families experienced the freedom that came with good jobs, yesterday's outsiders become today's insiders, people with no access to places where decisions got made gained enough power to help make those decisions, and, like it or not, share responsibility for what we all do with and for and sometimes to one another.

Now what? What, we friends of St Joe might ask, are our aspirations rooted in our shared memories? Is there still a future worth risks? Can we once again invite each other to make a little history? In these new circumstances, amid some sadness among closed churches and schools, what future might we build?

Its components are familiar enough: maybe some of the hopeful prosperity of 1950s Pittsfield as my friend and I remembered it, maybe a touch of the generous, caring but tough-minded spirit of service of the Sisters of St Joseph, still a bright light in our communities; maybe more and more of the openhearted and boundary breaking solidarity evident among so many young people at St Joe and almost everywhere. Most of all, a renewed commitment to the freedom, dignity and full participation in the common life that inspired St Joe's Sisters and lay teachers, and the families and faith communities that supported them.

Shared responsibility

The Sisters and communities that made St Joe wanted to help as best they could to liberate some of us from age-old injustices and fears. They made a little history and they surely hoped we would make a bit more.

In the 1950s, we in Pittsfield thought that history was on our American side. Now we are not so sure. The democratic truths we then thought were self-evident once again demand our commitment. The future, our future, is our shared responsibility.

History isn't over yet, and as our parents and teachers knew, history is at least in part ours to make.

David O'Brien is an emeritus professor at Holy Cross in Worcester, a summer resident of Richmond, and an occasional Eagle contributor.


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