Showing posts with label Michigan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michigan. Show all posts

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Saint Joseph Roman Catholic Mission: The Little White Clapboard Church in Whittaker, Michigan

When I can’t sleep, I pour myself a cup of milk and power up my computer and head for the Internet. I never know what direction I will go, but sometimes I get lucky and find something serendipitous. Well, to me, at least. Such was what happened the other night.

When I was a little boy our family went to Sunday service at St. Joseph Mission church in Whittaker, Michigan. We moved away in 1963 when I was 13 and the little, white, clapboard church was abandoned shortly thereafter, when the congregation decided to build a bigger, brick church with room to grow.

I drove by the old church a couple of times over the years, but when I went by a few years ago, nothing was left except the sidewalk and the foundation. I thought that age or fire had consumed the church and felt a sense of loss for a simpler time. I remember being an altar boy for a wedding. I remember a priest angrily chastising the altar boys for not knowing what the Pater Noster was. We knew the words in Latin, but had not put two and two together and realized that it was The Lord’s Prayer. I remember the little choir jammed in the tiny choir loft, and Marian Manners playing the organ and singing the lead. I remember the statues draped in purple and the Tabernacle empty on Passion Sunday. I remember the bishop coming for my confirmation and my dread that I wouldn’t know the answer to his questions about my faith, even though the answers had been drilled in my head.

Dad would drive the family to church on Sunday in one of his snazzy Desotos. I especially liked the 1959 coffee and cream version with huge fins.  We would listen to country gospel singing straight from the hollers of Kentucky on the way to church, and on the way back we would tune in The Polka Hour broadcasting from WFDF in Flint, Michigan. When my dad was on call at work and couldn’t make it to church, we went with my elderly neighbors  in their old lumbering Oldsmobile sedan that they drove to church, rain or shine, snow or sleet, every Sunday. There was many a Sunday when my mother had to stay home with the babies, but I made it to church in that roomy, rumbling Olds.

Field of Dreams Wedding Chapel in Milan was originally St. Joseph
Mission Church in Whittaker, Michigan. It was moved in 2007.
The loss of that simple white church bothered me for some reason and the other night I searched for information about the church. What I found brought me tears and joy. The little, white, clapboard church had indeed, faced obliteration by fire—as a training exercise for the fire department. The property had been sold and a housing development planned for the property. In the nick of time, someone had the idea to move the church elsewhere and rehabilitate it as a country wedding chapel. Built in the 1920s the old, clapboard building has new life as “The Field of Dreams Wedding Chapel”. I even located another website for the company, db.creations that restored the stained-glass windows. Many of the windows had been damaged in the moved, but the center panels which had been painted all survived intact.

Another website led me to an archive of newspaper articles collected by the Ann Arbor Public Library, where I found one that detailed the move of the church to its new home: 
Old News - St. Joseph's Catholic Church In Augusta Twp Waiting For The Train To Pass While Moving To Milan, May 2007. The journey was tedious and they had to cross a set of railroad tracks. The move was taking so long that they actually had to back the trailer up because of an oncoming train!

Moving the St. Joseph Mission Catholic Church in Whittaker, Michigan

One of these days, I might just make a trip back to that chapel, and spend a few minutes reflecting on a life well-spent, but regardless, I will sleep well, knowing that the little white church is still serving a spiritual purpose in the life of others.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Happy Easter from my Family to Yours!

Pysanky, Pisanki, Polish Easter Eggs, Ukrainian Easter Eggs
These are my latest additions to my Pysanky (Easter Egg) collection. These are all in the Ukrainian style.

On Good Friday, when I was young, we went to church from 12 to 3. I remember the lamentation, Stabat Mater, being sung in Latin. Here is one particularly beautiful and simple version for those who remember this beautiful song:

 Link to Stabat Mater
Image of Christ on the Cross used with permission from the Morgue file.

Wesolego Alleluja!, Happy Easter in Polish
Happy Easter in Polish.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Christmas on Florida Street and other Stories: Our Interview with NPR StoryCorp

Florida Street in Detroit, Michigan. The neighborhood was almost exclusively Polish in the 1950s.

In January, 2017, my husband, John Rush and I recorded my stories of growing up in a Polish American family near Detroit, Michigan during the 1950s and 1960s. We were recorded by folks from StoryCorps at the StoryCorps van, which was visiting Fort Myers.
Click on the StoryCorps van above to access my stories of growing up in Detroit.

Many of the stories that were recorded have companion pieces in the written stories that appear on this blog. I thought it would be a nice idea for folks and family to be able to hear the stories in my own voice. Please feel free to send us comments.

John, me, and my sister, Barbara at a surprise Shrimp Dinner at her house in Michigan.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Trick or Treating on the farm in Michigan (and a recipe for a Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Cake!)

A boy very proud of his clown costume
in the backyard of Babcia's house
on Florida Street in Detroit.
Trick or Treating on the farm in Michigan on October 31 can be dicey. The weather might be cool and comfortable or there may be rain, and even snow flurries! Carrying my pillowcase in full costume on my bike was tortuous but the rewards were worth the effort. A couple of Baby Ruths, a few Butterfingers and a Clark Bar or two, and I was in seventh heaven. Chuckles Fruit Slices were good as a change-of-pace, especially the cherry flavor. Chunky chocolate squares with Brazil nuts, cashews, and raisins were my absolute favorite, but not often found in a Halloween treat bag. Cookies, apples, and popcorn balls were a major disappointment.

Halloween started at school where we dressed as saints. St. Aloysius was my go to saint, because he was usually pictured in a simple priestly outfit—I used a brown blanket and an old lacy tablecloth. I do remember marching around the block at school in my priestly attire, but I don’t remember getting treats.

A couple of years we went trick or treating with my cousins who lived in town. On one of those jaunts I might have worn my clown costume. It is the only costume I remember wearing, and it is the only costume to survive in my childhood pictures. I loved that costume even if the mask smelled of glue and was really itchy!

I still enjoy Halloween and watching the little kids faces as they come up the driveway. There is a mixture of fear and delight with the little ones. I even enjoy tossing a candy to their big brother and sister who have the unenviable job of taking their siblings out for the night. For a couple of hours, I will relive a small piece of my own childhood and remember the excitement of dumping out a sack full of delectable treats on the kitchen table and having first chance to snare a couple of favorites for my own personal stash.

I served a variation of the following dessert at Second Sunday Brunch in September, 2016. This version is a perfect dessert when you are having folks over for dinner. It is easy and quick to prepare and it looks fantastic. The Duncan Hines Decadent Triple Chocolate cake mix is a new one for me, but it is really good with ribbons of fudge chocolate running through it. 

The easiest decadent cake you can make!
Nutella should also be in this picture!
Decadent Chocolate Fudge Cake with Whipped Cream and Fresh Strawberries

1 package Duncan Hines Decadent Triple Chocolate Cake Mix
3 large eggs
1 cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup of Nutella
1 cup (half pint) heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
3 cups fresh strawberries, rinsed, hulled and sliced
1/4 cup sugar


Bake cake mix as directed in one 9-inch pan. Cool to room temperature.

Spread Nutella on top of cake.

Whip cream with confectioner’s sugar. Spread whipped cream on top of Nutella.

Sprinkle sliced strawberries with sugar about 15 minutes before serving. Drain strawberries of excess juice and spread on top of whipped cream.

Note: You can easily change up this recipe by using fresh mixed berries (blackberries, raspberries and blueberries) in place of the strawberries.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Easter 2016

Polish and Ukrainian Easter Eggs (Pysanki) on my Easter Table.
I enjoy displaying my pysanky (Easter Eggs), some Polish, most Ukrainian, a couple new this year. In my early 20's I bought the dyes, the beeswax, and the stylus, and created several eggs of my own. Some were in the traditional style, but I also branched out and did some modern designs as well. The process was very tedious, painstaking, and time-consuming. Sadly, I lost my entire collection in one of my moves overseas. I could never create them again today; my hands are not still enough to make the tiny straight lines and my eyes would never be strong enough to keep everything straight. Today, I simply enjoy collectingpysanky and add a few to my collection every year. Every area in the Slavic world has their own style of eggs, I wish I could find samples of all of them.

Home-made shrink-wrapped pysanky on my Easter table.

Preparing "pysanky" Easter eggs.
I've also discovered a neat trick for simulating pysanky on my Easter table. You can buy psyanky "sleeves" wrap them over hard-boiled eggs, dip in boiling water for about 5 seconds and you have instant pysanky! You can't save them, but they sure do look pretty on an Easter table.

I bought my package of sleeves online from the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck, Michigan. Here is the link:

When we visited my grandmother in Detroit for Easter in the 1950s and 60s, we would always have cake after our traditional Polish breakfast of Easter soup. There would always be Polish poppy seed coffee cake, sometimes a cake made by my Aunt Hattie in the shape of a lamb and covered in coconut, or, my favorite, a cake from Sander's Bakery in Detroit. It would be a yellow cake with "buttercream" icing garnished with finely crushed hazelnuts. The icing was very light and smooth. A "nest" of green-colored coconut with a couple of chocolate malted milk Easter eggs would complete the cake.

Sander's No Butter, No Cream "Buttercream" Easter Cake!
My mother saved a recipe for the icing she found on the "Bob Allison's Ask Your Neighbor" radio program which still, after 50 years, is on the air in the Detroit area. Click here to go to their website. What's interesting about the recipe for the buttercream icing is that it does not contain any butter or cream! I've tweaked the recipe for the cake by adding orange zest and flavoring, and sometimes I substitute toasted sliced almonds in place of the hazelnuts, but the icing itself is always the same recipe.

Sander’s Easter Cake with Buttercream Icing

1 package Duncan Hines butter yellow cake mix

2 teaspoons grated orange rind

1/2 teaspoon orange flavoring

2 cups hazelnuts

Toast hazelnuts and remove skins. Chop finely in a food processor.

Bake cake as directed on the package adding the grated orange peel and flavoring to the batter before beating.

When cool, frost with Sander’s Buttercream Icing.

Gently pat hazelnuts on the side of the cake.

If desired, decorate with a “nest” of coconut dyed green and candy Easter eggs or jelly beans.

Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Sander’s Buttercream Icing

1 stick margarine

1/2 cup Crisco shortening

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup milk, lukewarm

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cream together the margarine and Crisco shortening. Add sugar, and then gradually add milk.

Beat on medium high speed for at least 15 minutes. For about the first 14 minutes the mixture will be very watery until suddenly the icing will congeal. Continue beating for a few minutes or until the icing is smooth.

Chill the icing for about an hour before icing the cake.

Note: If you can't find hazelnuts, sliced toasted almonds may be substituted instead.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Driving Down Memory Lane: The Polish National Alliance (PNA) Hall - Sumpter, Michigan

PNA Hall, Sumpter, Michigan, Belleville, Polish, Polish weddings
Polish National Alliance Hall in Sumpter, Michigan.
I had planned to just drive by. However, something made me pull over and stop for a few minutes. I just stopped, and stared, and thought. It might have been the sad and forlorn appearance that made me pull over, or perhaps it was just my memories. What once had been lively and active was now in decay. It reminded me of the people in the nursing homes we checked out the year before, when we knew my mother and father would not be coming back to their home. The sagging face, the vacant look, abandoned and waiting for the ultimate end. I drove off; memories of what used to be flying through my head. The Polish National Alliance (P.N.A.) Hall, former home of Lodge 2984, of Sumpter, Michigan had been abandoned, the members who had built it with their hands and their pride, most gone as well.

The meetings of P.N.A. Lodge 2984 were held on Sunday, once a month. My father would drive in his beautiful Desoto’s and later in his Buicks. My grandmother, Anna Blandowski, would sit in the front seat, and I would sit in the back. My grandfather never went and my mother was too busy taking care of babies. Grandmother or “Busia”, as we called her in Polish, always dressed in her Sunday best. She would open her pocketbook and take out a small envelope. Carefully opening the envelope, she would shake out a few pieces of “Sen-Sen”, a spicy, strange-tasting breath mint that made your mouth burn. I have heard that you can still find Sen-Sen, but I have not seen it since my childhood. When I entered the hall, I could smell stale cigarettes, old beer, and cleaning solution. It sounds like a terrible combination, but to me it was always slightly exotic. It was as if something I could know nothing about had taken place there.

After the meetings, there was usually a luncheon. It was hard to stay focused on the meeting when you could smell the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Maybe that was the plan. No one could focus on the meeting when they anticipated the good things to come. When the meeting was adjourned, everyone retired to the dining room. Songs were sung first: The Polish National Anthem, which roughly translates to “Poland still exists while we still live” and “The Highlander’s Farewell,” a song that brought tears to many eyes as it asked the highlander why he is leaving the mountains—the answer, for bread. And it also reminds the highlander to return, and many in the room know they shall never return.

Anna Blandowski had been the Secretary of the Lodge for a very long time, re-elected year after year, probably because of her ability to write in Polish with perfect penmanship and perfect recall. No one ever challenged her minutes of the previous meeting when they were read, except for a point of clarification. On the way home after one meeting I was troubled by something she had said in the reading of the minutes. The Polish words sounded like “Davem nosek” and I thought it meant that someone had punched someone in the nose. “Pan Wisniewski davem nosek!” “Pan Ziemba davem nosek!” “Pan Zaleski davem nosek!” What a free-for-all it must have been. And where had I been when it all took place? I did not remember a fight. I asked my father whether there had been a battle at the previous meeting and told him I had heard “Davem nosek” over and over again. He laughed and sputtered until I thought he would let loose of the steering wheel. “Davem nosek” meant “Second the motion!”

It is not to say that the meetings were all sweetness and light. There is an old Polish saying that if you get two Poles together you will get three opinions. Plenty of opinions were addressed at those meetings. The Polish National Alliance was both a fraternal organization and an insurance company. I do not recall the origins of the national organization, but I do have the information filed away somewhere. I wrote a historical and sociological study of the Polish people in the Detroit area during my senior year at college. However, that is another story.

Lodge 2984 served as a meeting place for local Polish people, most of them being farmers from the surrounding towns and villages, because they had no place else to go. Because of their language and cultural differences, they were not accepted by any other organization. In its heyday during the 1950’s the hall was expanded and refurbished—first a hall for dancing and bingo games was added, then a dining room and a state-of-the-art kitchen. It was always a busy place. The PNA members would run a bingo on Tuesday nights, later, the Polish Legion of American Veterans would host a bingo on Thursday night, and the Saturdays were booked for wedding parties.

I attended many a wedding at that hall. What joyous events! Those were the days when children were welcomed at weddings. Now it costs too much. Such a loss as children need to experience both weddings and funerals—it would give them a better perspective about life.

Adam and Lillian Janowski
Married, July 10, 1949
Both deceased, 1999
I reveled in the different orchestras that played—usually sitting in awe not far away. If I was not watching them, I was watching my parents. When my parents danced, it was as if I was watching two entirely different people. They were no longer my parents, but lovely strangers.

They were more beautiful than any dancers on the Lawrence Welk Show. When my parents waltzed they did not just dance, they glided, and when they did the polka, others stopped to watch. They were magic floating on the dance floor. Oh, the songs, The Julida Polka, The Blue Skirt Waltz, The Helena Polka, and Matka Waltz. “Mother, oh my dear mother, why are you crying so…You, who sang to me…You, who taught me…Now I am leaving you…Mother, please don’t cry at my wedding…I will always remember you.”
Muguet was my mother's favorite perfume--the scent of Lilies of the Valley.
(Photo courtesy
My mother told us shortly before her stroke, that the week before Dad had heard The Anniversary Waltz on the radio and took her in his arms and danced with her, even though he was deeply affected by Alzheimer’s disease at the time. And so they waltzed. One last time.

I am on the I-94 expressway. I do not recall driving through Belleville. I do not know how I got on the expressway. I was speeding along on my way back to my brother’s house. I needed to concentrate on the traffic, but memories get in my way.

The Blazak’s sweet corn. Oh, how tender and sweet! If it was a good year and the weather was right, you could count on the Blazak sweet corn at the annual Lodge picnic in August. Of course, they had hot dogs or hamburgers, but I only remember that sweet corn. An old horse trough was loaded with ice and soft drinks in glass bottles—root beer, grape soda, orange soda, ice cold and delicious. It would hurt your hand if you had to reach through the ice to the bottom for a favorite soda, but it was worth it. There were games for the kids. A sand pile seeded with coins and prizes. One year there was a carnival with a merry-go-round. It was so much fun. So many people were there. People you never saw at Lodge meetings on Sunday.

And the annual PNA Lodge Christmas party. That was a scene of utter chaos. Every member who had children or grandchildren was there. Hundreds, it seemed. The Lodge passed out an envelope with three crisp dollar bills in it to each child. There was a cutout in the envelope so you could see the face of George Washington. You came to the front, Frank Wisniewski, the Lodge treasurer, checked you off the list, and you picked up your envelope and a stocking of candy from Santa.

My grandmother retired as secretary of the Lodge in the early 1960’s. There was a move to run the meetings in both Polish and English. My grandmother, knowing she could not keep the minutes in English, retired gracefully. Others did not retire with such grace.

The PNA Lodge experienced a renaissance of sorts in the early 1970’s. This was the time of multiculturalism. America was no longer a “melting pot,” but a “stew pot.” Your heritage should be valued. New members took leadership roles, the old were retired whether they liked it or not. The meetings and the minutes were no longer read or written in Polish—even as a course in the Polish language was sponsored at the local high school.

Scholarships were awarded to students of Polish descent. I received one. Years later, I returned the money to the Lodge, when I was working in Saudi Arabia and flush with oil cash. I dedicated my donation in honor of my grandmother, Anna Blandowski. I probably was the only one to do so.

My grandmother began to fade. My father no longer went to Lodge meetings. I guess that happened in many families. Multiculturalism and its renaissance of pride in one’s ethnic heritage passed. The need for the Lodge and its sense of community was gone. Bingo was passé. Big weddings were no longer booked for Saturday night. Fewer people bought insurance. The PNA Lodge 2984 cobbled along for awhile until the members could no longer support the hall. The hall was lost, given to the town of Sumpter. Now it sits awaiting the wrecking ball. There will be no parties when it is gone. No one will dance the Anniversary Waltz one last time.

I finally arrive at my brother’s house. It is still and quiet. My brother and his family are gone for the day. I am alone with my memories. I am supposed to go to my sister’s house for dinner. I will be moody and distant. She will wonder why.

When I first started writing my stories, I called my sister because she had not let me know what she thought of them. She asked me, “Were you drinking?” I angrily denied it, but she was more right than wrong. Wine makes you remember, and it makes you forget. Memories are chasing themselves inside my brain and I have to let them out. I once read a line from the novel Hotel New Hampshire by Tom Wolfe about men who turn forty and learn to close softly the doors through which they will not be coming back through. I add my corollary:

Men at fifty
Hear the doors slam shut
As they pass through.

Note: Since writing the essay below in 1990, the PNA Hall, after sitting vacant for awhile has been reborn. It is still serving as a meeting hall, and a social venue for weddings, anniversaries and public and private parties. Click here for more PNA Hall history and information.

When I found the link to the Matka (Mother) Waltz, I also found at the same site a link to one of the most beautiful versions of Serdeczna Matko (Beloved Mother) sung in Polish with both Polish and English lyrics. This song evokes so many memories as it was so often in Polish churches, especially at funerals, as I was growing up.


Polish Wedding Menu

Cucumber Salad with Sour Cream (Mizeria) or a Tossed Salad with Hard Boiled Egg Dressed with Sour Cream

Stuffed Cabbages (Golabki)

City Chicken

Smoked Sausage (Kielbasa)

Hunter’s Sauerkraut Stew (Bigos) or a Simpler Kapusta with Mushrooms and Onions

Polish Meat Balls with Gravy

Mashed Potatoes

Poppy Seed Coffee Cake (Strucla z Makiem)

Polish Wedding Strawberry Cream Pie

Angel Wings (Chrusciki)

Wedding Cake


Adam's Stuffed Cabbages (Gołąbki) or Stuffed Green Peppers 
Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are often served at special occasions. They go by the name Golabki, or in Polish, Gołąbki (It sounds a little like Go-wum-key).

2 pounds ground beef
1 cup rice, cooked as directed the day before (about 3 cups cooked rice)
2 eggs
2 medium onions, chopped fine
6 tablespoons butter divided
1 medium cabbage or 6 large green peppers, cut in half-lengthwise
2 teaspoons Montreal Steak Seasoning (or other garlic seasoning salt)
1 and 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cans Campbells Cream of Tomato Soup
2 cans petite diced tomatoes
1/2 cup milk


Remove core from whole of cabbage with sharp knife. Scald the cabbage in boiling, salted water. 

Remove a few leaves at a time as they wilt. Cool before using. Chop remaining cabbage.

Sauté onions in butter until transparent. Set aside 1/3 of the onions.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.


Combine ground beef, eggs, rice, 2/3rds of the onions, 2 teaspoons Montreal Steak seasoning, 1 teaspoon thyme and additional salt and pepper to taste. Spread each leaf with about 1/3 cup of filling.

Fold opposite sides, starting with one of the open ends.  Set aside. Continue until filling is used up.


Combine tomato soup and petite diced tomatoes. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon thyme.

Note: If using green peppers, scald until wilted in boiling salted water. This takes out any bitterness and makes the peppers more tender. Allow peppers to cool.

Sauté remaining cabbage with onion until cabbage is wilted. Spoon cabbage and onions into bottom of baking dish or Dutch oven. Place staffed cabbages or stuffed peppers on top. Spoon about half the sauce over top and bake for 1 hour covered. Remove top and bake for additional 1/2 hour.

Add milk to remaining sauce. Heat and serve on the side with mashed potatoes. 

Suggestion: Add about 2 tablespoons minced dill and 2 tablespoons minced chives to mashed potatoes.

Stuffed Cabbages, Polish cooking, Polish recipes
Stuffed cabbages almost ready for the oven.


Adam’s Polish Wedding Strawberry Cream Pie
I remember having a strawberry cream pie topped with strawberry glaze at many Polish weddings when I was growing up.
1 can strawberry pie filling
1 package frozen strawberries, thawed and drained
1 package vanilla pudding mix, preferably the cooked kind
1 frozen pie crust
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon confectionary sugar

Bake pie crust as directed for one crust pie. Allow to cool.

Cook vanilla pudding mix, add to pie crust. Chill until set.

Combine strawberries with strawberry pie filling. Spoon over  pie.

Whip cream with confectionary sugar.

Cover pie. Chill at least one hour.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Immaculate Conception Catholic Elementary School in Milan, Michigan

My mother had a stroke on July 2nd, 1999, the day of her 50th wedding anniversary. She died six weeks later, on August 15th, a Holy Day in the Catholic Church, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven. We Catholics are a superstitious lot. Were these signs? Was God trying to tell us something? I, long ago, gave up on God. I did not believe. However, maybe, just maybe, I should not put this in print.

As I was putting my stories together, my brother sent me an E-mail. He had been talking with our Aunt Sophie, my mother’s sister, while she was in the hospital. This was a year after my mother had passed away. She was talking to my brother about our mother. How our mother had been the only one in the family to graduate from high school. How she went to work at Ford Motor Company as an executive secretary. How she had given money from her paycheck to support the family. How she had used what was leftover to buy a carpet for the living room in the family home. They had never had a carpet in the house before. It was a sign of status to have a carpet. She said my mother was driven. Maybe that is why she drove her children—to be, to have, something better than what had come before. So was it my mother’s plan for us to do better than what she had done or was it God’s, or was it just the natural progression of one generation to the next? Maybe I should keep my options open.

All except one of my mother’s children have Bachelor degrees. The one who does not should, as she was the smartest. Some of us have Master’s degrees. We are successful beyond the wildest dreams of our mother. One is retired at forty—a millionaire. The others are very comfortable. All this is as a preamble to my story of the Immaculate Conception.

To be able to the enter first grade at the Immaculate Conception School you had to be able to say your ABC’s from start to finish and be able to count to 25. My mother drilled me. We were at the priest’s home in Milan. I could not say my ABC’s—I sang them. My mother was mortified. I counted, on and on, beyond 25. He told me to stop. I was accepted.

The big kids told us that if we were bad we would have to go to the Principal’s Office, where they had a “spanking machine.” This was our introduction to first grade at Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Milan, Michigan. We could hear it. “Ker-thump! Ker-thump! Ker-thump!” Someone was being spanked at that very moment. It was not until we were much older that we learned that there was no spanking machine, only an old-fashioned mimeograph machine turning out daily lessons. We perpetuated the myth, however, to first graders who came after us.

Many Catholics tell horror stories of their experiences in Catholic School. I have only a few. Most of my stories are good ones. I have no regrets. I know now that it was a sacrifice for my parents to send me there, and I thank them.

We rode a battered, old, yellow school bus, held together by the proverbial “bailing twine.” The students who rode the bus were mainly from St. Joseph’s in Whittaker, Michigan, a “mission church” of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. We were the farm kids, who, if you were the first on the bus, often had to ride for more than an hour before arriving at school. It is the classic story of, “When I was a child…” that all children endure.

We went to Mass every morning. I was in first grade. After Mass, we marched in rows, by class, and by grade to the school. Someone in the first grade had peed on the floor of the church during mass. Sister grabbed my crotch. I yelped. It was not I. She grabbed several crotches before she found the culprit. I never told my mother about this. I do not think I have ever told anyone about this. The Sisters of St. Joseph were a no-nonsense bunch. They were a Polish order, from Ohio, I think. They wore black gowns with starched white collars, a veil with a square, white headpiece, a crucifix around their neck, and a rosary hanging from the rope that secured their waste, a black mantle flowing from their collar. They exuded something higher and more spiritual than we could never attain. Peeing in church was an unthinkable sin, but what does a first grader know about sin?

I learned a lot from the nuns. They told me the story about the boy who raised his hand to strike his mother, was struck dead, and almost could not be buried because his raised arm stuck out of the casket. We learned never to strike our mother or to ever say mean things against her, otherwise we would die and God would make our tongues turn black and everyone would know that we had said mean things about our mother. I learned about the man who poked holes in a communion wafer, which had turned into the body of Christ, and blood poured from the holes. I learned about the man who spit out the communion wafer, and how the priest had to pick it up and re-consecrate the ground where the host had been. I learned about the saints and the martyrs of the church, and how they had died violent and agonizing deaths in defense of the church. I learned about the missionaries, and how they had given their lives to bring natives to the Glory of God in the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church. I learned many things.

I made my first Holy Communion in second grade. We were given a scapular to wear, a picture of a saint with a shoelace-like tie that we wore around our necks. We were to always wear it as a symbol of our faith. We were told about the mysteries of the Catholic Church, how the bread and the wine would, during Mass, be turned into the body and blood of Jesus. We were told what to say at our first confession. We had to confess our sins before receiving the body and blood of Jesus. I could not say what I wanted to say. I did not believe that the bread and wine became Jesus. I went into my first confession a liar. It would haunt me for a long time.

God penalized me for my disbelief. The morning of my first Communion, I was covered with the sores of measles. I had a fever. My parents took me to church anyway. The Sister in charge said, do not worry, other children were also coming down with measles. I made my first, Holy Communion with the Catholic Church. My official Communion pictures were taken two weeks later when the measles scabs were gone. I have a sprig of Lilies of the Valley in my lapel, it was my mother’s flower—she even had a French perfume called "Mugee", that smelled of it. I looked like an angel. But, if they only knew! I was a disbeliever. It was all a lie. I would go to hell.

My parents always brought gifts to the nuns’ house, adjacent to the school at holidays. A fresh-cut tree at Christmas tree, maybe a box of chocolates. At Easter, it was a basket with farmer’s cheese made by my grandmother, with some sausage and ham. Tuition, itself, was not enough, to be successful at the Immaculate Conception. My mother knew how to grease the pole.

I do not know how I learned to read. It just happened. I started with Dick, and Jane, and their dog, Spot, and went from there. I loved the story of the boy with a thousand hats. I read the reader through and through. I have a newspaper clipping from when I was in third grade. Someone had donated a tape recorder to the school so that we could hear ourselves reading. It was the very latest in audio technology. A newspaper reporter came to take our picture and write an article for local newspaper. Only the very best readers would be in the picture!

The caption from the picture read: “Students at Immaculate Conception School at Milan use the tape recording machine for reading improvement purposes. A portion of Sister Mary Marceline’s pupils recording a reading lesson are...Adam Janowski, James Fleszar and Teena Groom, 3rd graders, and Geraldine Bies, 4th grader. The children are taught to read with expression, speak distinctly, not too fast and with adequate volume. The recording is played so that the children may hear their own voices and become aware of any speech defects…”

This was the caption from the picture. I still have it. My mother saved it. The recording of our reading would come back to haunt me a few years later. There was a student named Fred who was in the 4th grade and also made a recording. He said his name and what he was going to read. By the time he was in seventh grade, he could not read at all. When I heard that tape in seventh grade, it made me afraid.

Sister Mary Marceline was a very tough nun. She was not pretty and she had a beaked nose. One time she beat a student with the mantle of her gown. We were aghast. She said it was against her vows. We were dumbstruck. The student left for public school.

I hated wearing a tie to school. It made me gag. I had to tear it off during the long bus ride to Milan. Sometimes I did not bring it at all. That was when Sister Mary David took out the “shining rags.” Every Friday we had to go to the closet and get a rag that was used to polish the area around our desks. Our classroom had to be spotless before we left. Sister Mary David got the idea that if you did not wear your tie to class you had to spend the day with a shining rag around your neck. I did not care. It was better than a tie.

We drove Sister Mary David out of the classroom by the end of the first semester, but she had her final revenge on our final day before Christmas vacation. Paper airplanes were being sailed throughout the classroom. No one was listening. Sister Mary David had been in and out of the classroom all day. She had no control, whatsoever. We were in control of the classroom.

Then there was that final assignment, given to us on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. We were to write to our parents about how we had been so very bad in school and did not do our homework. She wrote it on the board. We had to copy it and put it in an envelope addressed by her to our parents. Then she wrote a special note for me on the board! “Adam is so very bad in school. He NEVER does his homework!” I had to write it, she signed it, and I was to take it to my mother and have her tell the Sister how this would be remedied. It was a long, miserable vacation for me, to give this to my mother; after all that she had done to keep me in Catholic School.

On the Monday after Christmas vacation, my mother rode the bus with me to school. The other students snickered. A mother had never ridden the bus to school with their child. I was utterly humiliated. We came to the classroom. Sister Mary Marceline was at the door. Sister Mary David would no longer be teaching this class. Sister Mary Marceline had been called in to restore order. “What about this letter?” my mother asked. Sister Marceline looked at me, I looked at her, and she said, “I had Adam in third grade and he was a wonderful student. I know he will not be any problem now.” My mother rode the bus back to the farm.

My mother looked up Sister Mary Marceline when I was in high school. She was teaching in Detroit. I do not know how or why she found her, except that I talked about her from time to time. Sister Mary Marceline was one tough nun, but, then again, I always said I admired strong women. We visited with her in the nun’s home. Sister Mary Marceline was pleased that I was doing so well.

I went to public school for sixth grade. There was no argument. My mother had won. She had called my father’s bluff. It was an adventure for me. I do not think I learned much. They were using the same Social Studies textbook I had had in fifth grade. The teacher, Mr. Sperling, told my mother what a wonderful influence I had on two troublesome students. I think they had more of an influence on me. Mr. Sperling, probably did not know all that much about me anyway as he had a series of student teachers from Eastern Michigan University. I think, seven at one time. I only remember the name of one, Mr. Podgorny, because his was an unusual name.

I returned to the Immaculate Conception for seventh grade. Public school had spoiled me. I was no longer a serious student. Give me a “B” and I was happy. Then I would start bothering the other students with my chatter. Sister Mary Eulalia was the Principal. She was also the teacher of the seventh and eighth grades. We were in one classroom, twenty students in each grade. Fred, the student I mentioned earlier was in the 8th grade. Somehow, he had forgotten how to read. Sister Eulalia talked to me. “I need someone to work with Fred,” she said. “He needs some serious help and I want you to do it, because I know you can be patient with him and work with him. You must go over these lists of words with him when you are finished with your work and try to get him to memorize the sentences. You are the only one I can trust to do this without making fun of him.” I worked with Fred, repeatedly. Words and sentences. It was so hard, but I never gave up. Then one day I heard a tape recording we made in third grade. Fred was in the fourth. He said his name, he said the title of what he was going to read, and then he read it. I know I looked at Sister Mary Eulalia and she looked at me, but no words were spoken.

I still recall that look to this very day—from me to her and back again. And I knew. I found out much later that Fred had been injured in a farm accident and his brain was damaged. He had forgotten how to read. Sister Eulalia had found that one student, who, satisfied with a “B,” would have the patience to work with someone with a problem, day in and day out, because he had the patience and perseverance to do it without shaming the student in trouble.

Sister Eulalia is long gone and probably did not know it then, but it was because of her, that I made education my career.

When I served this cake at St. Johns, people thought it had come from a bakery. With its almond paste and raspberry filling it reminded me of Polish coffeecakes I ate at my grandmother's house in Detroit.

Raspberry Almond Tart
“Torta della Santa Maria”

What’s fun about this recipe is that you take an off-the-shelf mix (good in its own right!) and make it something extraordinary both in appearance and in taste. At our church breakfast this morning someone told me that she thought my tart had come from a bakery and that it was the best thing she had ever eaten. Seriously. I am truly humbled. Please try it and let me know how yours turns out!

1 box Krusteaz Raspberry Bars mix
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, divided
1 8 ounce can Solo brand almond paste
2 eggs
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons flour
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


Melt 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter.

Empty full pouch of crust mix into medium bowl and add melted butter. Stir thoroughly until all of the pouch mixture has absorbed the butter.

Spray a 9-inch springform baking pan with baking spray.

Spoon crust mixture into prepared pan. Press dough firmly on bottom and about 1 inch up the sides of the pan. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven.

Spread full pouch of raspberry filling evenly over the hot crust.


In a medium mixing bowl beat until fluffy 1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter.

Add 1 can almond paste by tablespoonful.

Beat until butter and almond paste are smooth.

Add eggs, orange zest, almond extract and flour and beat until smooth and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

Spread almond filling over top of raspberry filling being careful to spread filling to edge of crust.

Sprinkle with sliced almonds.

Bake for 35 minutes.

Allow to cool 10 minutes before removing springform collar. It helps to run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan before removing the collar.

When completely cool dust with sifted confectioners’ sugar until top is lightly covered.

Slice if desired and then dust with a bit more confectioners’ sugar.

Serve at room temperature.

Serves 12.
Baking time: 45 minutes
Prep time 30 minutes

Almond Raspberry Coffee Cake, Torta, Santa Maria
Torta della Santa Maria