St. Joseph’s School occupied the corner of Brock and Napier for 65 years, closing in 2015.

The unique landscape of my youth fading fast

By  Lubomyr Luciuk, Guest Columnist
  • March 27, 2018

Passers-by hardly give it a glance. A Kingston place key to my past is about to vanish, forever.

After I heard St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic School was being sold to the city for redevelopment I avoided the corners of Brock and Napier Streets, not wanting to witness how the school where I began student life was being erased. Finally, however, I had to take a last look.

Too late. It was gone.

The school was built in 1950. I arrived a few years later. The only recollection I have of that first day is of mother guiding me along Brock Street, the path I would take five days a week from Grades 1 through 6. Only occasionally did I detour to where Mack and MacDonnell Streets cross, to buy penny candies at a corner store. Such sweets have become as much a thing of the past as the corner stores and friendly neighbourhoods I used to roam.

Those grade-school years shaped the man I became. Scholars dispute whether St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, ever said: “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” But whoever said it was on to something. 

In kindergarten, and then at St. Joseph’s, I was the little boy with an odd name, the target of what folks today would call “bullying.” I remember feeling shamed, rejected and disliked. So I learned another truth the Good Book teaches us  —  it is better to give than to receive. I have been doing pretty much that ever since.

I couldn’t compete on the sports fields. I was always the last one picked by any team at recess, probably hobbled by a mild form of dyslexia, then undiagnosed. So out-witting brawn by deploying brain became my modus operandi. Being a class clown also helped attract friends even if that put me on a collision course with the nuns at St. Joseph’s. While they believed I had promise, as my parents were told at parent-teacher interviews, they didn’t tolerate tricksters.

Discipline at St. Joseph’s wasn’t necessarily physical. Being cast out of class was usually sufficient to thwart the rambunctious. But when one’s antics became too much even for a “bride of Christ” (which was how the good sisters described themselves, to my continuing wonderment) corporal punishment followed. 

The ritual went like this. First the offender was sent to the cloakroom. Then the teacher would remove the strap from a desk drawer. The class would fall silent. They would hear but not see what came next —  the swish of the strap, the impact of thick leather on palm, the crying. There were no tough guys when you got the strap. 

Sometimes I ran into trouble even when I wasn’t looking for it — I recall being called out by a nun because I was blessing myself “backwards,” or so she divined. Actually, I was praying as taught by my parents. Called to school, mother was obliged to testify before a kind of impromptu Inquisition of nuns and a priest about how Ukrainian Catholics make the sign of the cross from right to left unlike Roman Catholics who do so from left to right. Thereafter I was “permitted” to pray as my ancestors had. I still do.

As I stared at the ruins of my elementary school I also remembered a Friday in November 1963 when the nuns hurriedly sent us home. They told us President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. I didn’t understand the word’s full meaning but sensed something was very wrong. I walked home to Nelson Street where mother was watching Walter Cronkite on our black-and-white TV. She was crying. I think he was too. 

Ever since I have associated the shock, horror and enervating sadness of that unforgettable day with what it must have been like to witness the Crucifixion. The Catholicism imprinted in me at St. Joseph’s has endured, as I am reminded of most tellingly on Good Friday.

Admittedly, my last day at St. Joseph’s was happier. Emboldened by puppy love, even if discombobulated by the news that Ellen A. was going to a different school for Grade 7, I dared kiss her on the cheek. Many times since I have driven by and smiled at the memory of that stolen kiss on the school’s front stairs. Can’t do that anymore.

I accept the city will change. St. Joseph’s didn’t attract enough students and so was closed. What’s more worrisome are similar disappearances taking place almost everywhere I look in Kingston, particularly downtown and along the waterfront. Why, I wonder, is profit-driven development trumping preservation of this historic city’s remarkable architectural heritage and natural vistas? 

Now I pray that everything that once made Kingston unique, the special place I have always happily called home, is not entombed. For there are some things, I know, that cannot be resurrected.

(Luciuk teaches political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada.)