Stratford Convent

I loved the smell of coffee. To my seven-year-old nose it smelled rich and exotic. I’d come to recognize that when the scent of coffee was in the air, it meant that Mom and Daddy were in the kitchen having breakfast, or that company was visiting. Tasting it was out of the question, though, so I never tried. Mom said coffee was for grownups and, “Besides, it’s bitter and you wouldn’t like it.”

Daddy had milked our herd of cows before I’d even slid out of bed that morning, so he needed a good breakfast. Why he drank bitter coffee with it, I just wasn’t sure. There had to be something wonderful about it other than its great smell.

After having his breakfast, Daddy backed the family car out of the garage and patiently waited for us children to get in so he could drive us to school. I was in first grade that spring.

Our school and church were together in one big brick building. Next to it, looking for all the world like a very large farmhouse, was a three-story convent where the sisters who taught us lived.

That morning during first recess, one of the school sisters asked me to take a message to the housekeeper sister in the convent. With shaking knees, I crossed the playground and approached the convent’s front door. My timid knock was almost instantly answered. The room I stepped into looked like an ordinary kitchen. It smelled of baking bread and coffee. The sisters who were working in the kitchen enthusiastically asked about my family.

The familiar smells reminded me that although this was a house where nuns lived, it was a home, just like my own. Feeling bashful, I answered their questions the best I could.

When I began third grade two years later, I discovered that the old convent had been moved half a block down the street. A great hole was where the building had once stood. Our teacher, Sister Florence informed the class that a new convent was being built on that spot.

Our classroom windows faced the building site. Starting from the first day of school, Sister Florence fought a losing battle with students looking out the windows to see what the workmen were doing. Trucks came and went. Machines started up and shut down. Our concentration drifted away from school work.  The pencil sharpener by the window was in high usage. That year each student went through twice as many pencils as usual.

As winter approached, the exterior work on the convent and the music room above the breezeway between the two buildings was completed. Sister Florence occasionally reported on the interior work being done on the convent chapel. Although we could no longer see what the workmen were doing, we continued to be distracted by their comings and goings.

One day near the end of November, the sky turned gray and began to spit snowflakes down on our blacktop playground. During recess my classmates and I huddled around the cafeteria’s air vent to excitedly discuss the possibility of a much-anticipated big snow. The warm air smelled of hot lunch being cooked, and my belly rumbled hungrily.

Just as recess ended, a big machine with an arm that reached high into the sky pulled up alongside the new convent. In the classroom there was chaos. Sister Florence called for order, announcing, “The machine you see in front of the new convent is called a crane. It will be used to mount the cement cross on the front of the convent.”

Sister’s next words shocked everyone. She instructed, “Everyone…go stand at the window and watch the cross being erected. You will remember this for the rest of your life.”

For three months Sister had worked hard to stop us from standing at the window gawking when we should have been doing school work. It seemed odd to hear her suddenly tell us to go watch. Shyly, I found a place among my classmates for the spectacle.

I stood at the classroom window that day, watching the snow slowly drifting down on the workmen. My classmates and I saw how carefully they guided the crane as it slowly lifted the large cement cross to the top of the building, where they secured it into place. Sister Florence was right. It was an unforgettable day.





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