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The Golden Girls of Saint Maria Goretti

GRADUATION DAY at Convention Hall was unforgettable, with Cardinal O'Hara himself presiding. Sisters Grace and Alice had endlessly rehearsed our procession to the music of Aida played by an all-student orchestra.

GRADUATION DAY at Convention Hall was unforgettable, with Cardinal O'Hara himself presiding.

Sisters Grace and Alice had endlessly rehearsed our procession to the music of Aida played by an all-student orchestra.

Being so short, I was selected to lead one of the lines to the stage where the honor students would sit.

Equipped with smelling salts in my white glove and a crimson-covered diploma secretly tucked in my left sleeve for the final ceremony, I was startled by a photographer blocking my path.

I told him pointedly to move (before I knocked him down). The first graduation of Saint Maria Goretti High School for Girls could not be interrupted!

"Don't wear black patent leather shoes to the prom."

Oh, yes, one of our teachers actually said that because, of course, "they reflect up." Such quaint admonitions (instant fodder for comedy writers) were taken very seriously in 1958 as our class prepared for Goretti High's first senior prom. Our teachers also hinted that we should only buy a gown that would pass inspection by the Blessed Mother.

Treasured memories remain five decades later as our class is about to commemorate (on Oct. 19) the 50th anniversary of Goretti's very first graduating class.

All these years later, we're celebrate a uniquely rich experience at a high school for Catholic girls in South Philadelphia. That disciplined, same-sex education indelibly stamped our intellect, our character and our womanhood.

As a Hallahan freshman, I lived close enough to 10th and Moore that I could see Goretti's construction from the ground up. My homeroom teacher, Sister Rosaria, even asked me to take photos of the ongoing work.

Few know that the school site used to be an annex of St. Mary's Cemetery. I decided to skip the disinterment part, but I'm sure they disturbed the resident rodents because those first months in the new building were punctuated by screams as invading field mice scampered down the halls or crossed classroom floors.

I also witnessed the installation of the huge outdoor statue of Maria Goretti, the teenage virgin martyr, that faced 10th Street. She was an Italian peasant girl who resisted her would-be rapist but succumbed to her knife wounds.

With her last breath, she forgave her young attacker, thus acquired the holiness that eventually made her the patroness of tens of thousands of teenage girls in South Philly.

Our class of almost 500 girls entered the new building in 1955 as sophomores with no upper classes. The freshmen, who graduated in 1959, like to say that they were the first four-year class - but too bad, we got to the dance first.

Yes, first and only! We were virtual seniors for three years. As 10th-graders, guided by a hand-picked faculty, there was nothing we couldn't do. We pioneered student government, a school newspaper, a literary magazine.

Our orchestra and glee club performed in concert after only a year of training. Our best athletes formed a winning basketball team with a white lamb (what else?) as mascot. We excelled in debating, art and Latin competitions. The impact of such dauntless empowerment of adolescent girls is incalculable.

The first principal, Father Tracey, was a stickler for ladylike decorum, especially at social events. Although Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and James Dean were the sex symbols du jour, and "Bandstand" might be an "occasion of sin," we were expected to remain chaste.

Our sex education consisted mostly of "cross your legs, wear mid-calf skirts and keep a phone book on the car seat between you and your date!" Even with all that, some girls dropped out quietly to await what was quaintly dubbed a "blessed event."

Discipline was relentless. There was a rule against opening textbooks in the cafeteria, for example. Once, feeling unprepared for a post-lunch Latin test with Sister Mary Agnes, I sneaked a peek at my book.

I was caught by one of the disciplinarians and immediately handed a detention slip. Imagine! Others were disciplined for such far-out infractions as striking the "forbidden" backspace key on the typewriter or daring to apply lipstick in the lavatory at dismissal.

Talking back could get you suspended or expelled to the (shudder) public schools.

We can laugh now, but we were in awe of those religious women. (Mrs. Kane, our gym teacher, was the only lay person.) Other schools had college fairs - we had a "convent fair" in the cafeteria with booths competing for applicants to the many communities of nuns that staffed the school. One of my favorites, Sister Saint Joachim, quipped that it was like "collecting box tops!"

A large percentage of our class did enter the convent, but most left. (I was one of them.)

IN REMINISCING about those dedicated teachers in medieval garb who set such high standards of behavior and scholarship, we truly appreciate what we owe to them.

And especially to our courageous - and oh so naive - younger selves.*

E-mail Gloria Cipollini Endres '58 at