Everything they needed to know, they learned from the nuns. Math, English, Latin, religion. Even P.E. was taught by a sister dressed in a floor-sweeping black habit.
Back in the 1950s, the nuns were the source of all knowledge at Marycliff High School – an all-girl Catholic school that educated thousands of Spokane students until 1979. The sisters not only taught the girls science, social studies and other subjects; they also showed them how to sew, how to pray, how to strive to remain pure in body, mind and spirit.
The nuns – many of whom belonged to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration – also gave them plenty of “nun-sense” in regards to dating and how to dress. Never wear black patent leather shoes, they warned. They shine and reflect up. They also told the girls that when going out with friends, always bring a small pillow – just in case they ended up in a crowded car and were forced to sit on a boy’s lap. And don’t ever think of just showing up at the prom, they’d remind the students each year. Dresses had to first be approved by Sister Mechtildis.
“We were pretty square,” recalled Mary Vhay, one of 108 students who graduated in 1958. “Since it was Marycliff, we didn’t have to worry about showing off for the boys. We were there to be educated so we studied hard. It was serious work, but we still had fun.”
This weekend, about 50 women from the Class of 1958 have gathered in Spokane to rekindle old friendships and reminisce about their days at Marycliff. While a few have stayed in touch over the last half century, their 50th reunion has given them the opportunity to come together as a class and to spend time with one of their few surviving teachers – Sister Antonia Stare, a 93-year-old Dominican nun who now lives less than a mile away from the old high school.
“All the girls just love her,” said Farol Ann Funk Stroyan, one of the reunion organizers. “She was at the center of it all.”
The students revered the nuns, she recalled, even if they did cause a little fear and anxiety. These sisters, after all, devoted their lives to Marycliff, to Catholic school education and the strict upbringing of thousands of girls.
Memories from those years at Marycliff continue to elicit jokes and laughter from the graduates of the class of 1958. Looking back at their high school years, many say they were young and perhaps a little naïve, but those times also were the “good ol’ days” – an era when the rules were a lot more clear-cut, when order and discipline reigned and when life for Catholic girls seemed a lot less complicated.
“We didn’t play rock-and-roll,” said Vhay, recalling their participation in choir and other musical groups.
“Oh, we did some pop,” interjected Denise Laos Templeton, a classmate and now a longtime educator in Cheney. “Don’t you remember? We played ‘Blue Moon.’ ”
As Vhay, Templeton and several other women prepared for their 50th reunion earlier this month, they pored through old black-and-white photographs, yellowed copies of the Marycliff News and other mementos from the years when they came of age.
Some of the photographs reveal fresh-faced girls in navy blue jumpers, saddle shoes and starched long-sleeve white blouses, often sitting at their desks, standing in a straight line or gathering at the school grotto near an alabaster statue of the Virgin Mary.
The girls in the pictures are now in their late 60s with grown children and grandchildren. Several have retired. Some are widowed after decades of marriage. Their life stories could fill volumes.
While some no longer belong to the church that dominated their childhood, many look back at their Catholic school education with a sense of gratitude for the nuns, as well as each other.
Located in the Cliff neighborhood of the lower South Hill, the elegant brick building with ivy-covered walls first opened as Marycliff High School in 1929. The first graduating class consisted of 46 women who received their diplomas in 1933.
Unlike the other all-girls Catholic school at the time, Holy Names Academy on the north side of town, tuition at Marycliff was subsidized by contributions from parishes throughout the Diocese of Spokane. As a result, Marycliff drew girls from all walks of life and from various parts of the city. Thousands of girls learned from the nuns and eventually from lay teachers until 1979, when Bishop Lawrence Welsh closed the school citing declining enrollment.
During their years at Marycliff, the women of the class of 1958 spent classroom time taking detailed notes and memorizing everything from history dates and geometric formulas to whole paragraphs straight out of the Baltimore Catechism.
Except for theology – which was taught by the Rev. Charles Skok, who served as Marycliff’s superior and spiritual director from 1957 to 1959 – classes were taught by the nuns. During that time, as many as 18 nuns served as Marycliff teachers, recalled the women from the class of 1958.
Sisters Geneva, Dorthea, Antoinette and all the others demanded obedience and discipline, recalled some of the women. On several occasions, the girls were required to participate in three-day silent retreats in which they were sent home for even just making a peep. They also had to be good students and follow strict rules when it came to dress and behavior.
“We had to be ladies at all times,” recalled Stroyan, a frequent recipient of “demerits.”
As a bubbly teen who enjoyed socializing with others, Stroyan often got in trouble for laughing too loud, chewing gum, sitting on a desk and other “unlady-like” behavior, she recalled. So like other girls who got punished by the nuns, Stroyan ended up scrubbing windows, wiping off desks and cleaning classrooms.
“They didn’t stand for much nonsense,” she recalled. “We had one nun that could make a room so quiet you could hear a pin drop. If you were talking, you’d be in trouble. The discipline was there – you had to do what you were told.”
Although the nuns were strict disciplinarians, they also enabled the girls to take charge and encouraged them to contribute to their community, said Sister Sharon Bongiorno, a member of the class of 1958 who later joined the Franciscan Sisters and became a teacher at Marycliff for eight years.
“We were so involved,” said Bongiorno, who currently serves as the parish visitation coordinator at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral. “If nothing else, it shaped us for leadership.”
It also prepared them for higher education, said Vhay, a Loon Lake, Wash., resident as well as a mother of three and grandmother to 14. By the time she attended the University of Portland to earn a teaching degree, classes at the university seemed a lot easier compared to their experience at Marycliff.
“The nuns were serious about education,” she said. “Everyone who went to Marycliff was so studious. We all worked hard at school.”
The experience also taught them ethics and the importance of hard work, honesty and responsibility, said Stroyan. “It implanted a value system that never goes away,” said the Spokane resident.
Since their 40th reunion in 1998, about a dozen of the women who live in the Spokane area have made a point to meet for lunch every three months. Whenever they come together as a group, the “girls,” as they often refer to each other, never cease to share fond memories of their alma mater.
“It’s always so much fun,” said Templeton. “It’s as if no time has elapsed at all.”