Showing posts with label Torta della Santa Maria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Torta della Santa Maria. Show all posts

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