Why Can’t I Be Good


I am the product of what’s called a Catholic school education. Grade school at Immaculate Conception in the then Poletown section of inner city Detroit. “Then,” because that historic immigrant community was dispossessed to make way for a Cadillac factory in the early 1980’s.

There was quite a lot of community resistance to the razing of that neighborhood. Mr. Ralph Nader even joined the battle. I read that he and the group of protest organizers set up headquarters in the basement of Immaculate Conception church.

That basement was a focal point for me several times in my formative years.

The basement itself was a full basement, exactly the size of the footprint of the church itself. Easily large enough to accommodate 500 seats. At the head of the space, directly under the altar, was a raised stage, and directly opposite on the other side was a huge walk in room where various liturgical items were stored. It was also the gathering/changing room for the altar boys when on special occasions the whole bunch of us were conscripted into spectacular service. The dress code was a cassock—black for most days, red for holidays—and a white blousy surplice on top. My mother took special pains to see that my surplice was always snow white and crisply starched. Somewhere there is a portrait of her little angel in full regalia, at a kneeler with nothing but heavenly thoughts showing on my face. This is what the outfit looks like. (The little devil in the photo is not me. But close.)



The Immaculate Conception grade school was directly across the street from the church. Every year the good Felician Sisters would host a party for the kids in the church basement. I looked forward to this half day off from school and that kids-only party with the many treats at what they called the “Bazaar.” There was ice cream and cake and all kinds of games of chance. A free-for-all. 

One year I won what nowadays would be considered a true bazaar surprise. Literally, bizarre. I came home from the party to present my mother with a live chicken. Imagine giving a live chicken to some grade schooler as a prize to take home. Nowadays there would be repercussions. My mother said it was a capon. As she would always say, “a capon = good soup.” We didn’t live on a farm, but in the city. The bird spent a few days in the basement, and then one day we had chicken soup. My mom knew how to make soup. From scratch. Starting with a live chicken; that’s from scratch. Also, homemade hand cut egg noodles. She would brag about how many egg yolks went into her noodles. Be that as it may. Simply delicious. Serve with pieces of meat and some cooked carrot and parsley root, garnished with finely chopped parsley. A prize winning bowl of soup. From a prize chicken.

Another time, and to my great surprise, the good Sisters thought we should be schooled in the social graces. We had dance classes, in the church basement. Probably the first time I got to hold a girl in my arms. But, at a reasonable distance, mind you. All my best moves are still based on those core choreographic trainings. Fox Trot, the Waltz, and the Jitter Bug. Albeit, with a mélange of accumulated flourishes tacked on along the way. Trendy dances like the Chicken, the Twist, the James Brown, the Macarena, and the Lambada I had to learn elsewhere.

My crowning glory in my church basement days was performing a violin solo of the Ave Maria at the party for my eighth grade graduation.

But . . . it was a two-step process to get to the depths of depravity.

The first shoe toward my downfall was at the eighth grade class play. I was supposed to be the male lead in some little drama. I just couldn’t take it all that seriously, so they moved me into a lesser role; as a priest, no less. Well, even then, my irrepressible side couldn’t be completely covered. The church Pastor, Father Alexander Cendrowski, was a most stern individual. With the additional overlay of his priestly authority, he was severe. Without knowing exactly how to put it at the time, even then I recognized that he may have been a little too much in the role with his superior position. I instinctively disliked the man. If he had a heart only his mother and Jesus would know for sure. He did like his cigars. So I made sure I went on stage for that one and only performance with a big old cigar between my fingers. Years later I named my dog Alexander. I did love that dog, though.

Cendrowski and I had history.

On the plus side of the report card, I am remembering the time when in the first grade we were given the assignment to make butter by hand from cream. My mother set me up with a clean mason jar and a cup of heavy cream. Some interminable shaking later and there it was. We separated it from the whey and my mom put some of it in a small glass and covered it up with wax paper (pre-plastic wrap days) secured with a rubber band. At the class show-and-tell it was deemed nice enough, and I delivered it across the street to the rectory for Father Cendrowski. I don't know if I got the credit for that, but I sure didn't have any with him when the chips were down. I think the adults tended to view children in general as born devils in need of stern learning.

The other shoe took a little bit of working to finally drop. A two part process.

We had another falling out later on when I was an altar boy. During the summer months we altar boys took turns serving at the daily Mass in the morning. Father Cendrowski must have known that to a young boy, having to get up to serve at Mass was not up there on the favorite things to do list. I did not object and dutifully and reliably kept my commitment. But one day I got sick right in the middle of the service. I honestly was conflicted about whether or not to interrupt Father Cendrowski to tell him. I was not in a condition to ride it out, so I bailed. Without explanation. Father Cendrowski later sent a boy over to my house to tell me not to come back to be an altar boy any more. Without inquiry or explanation. That was what the adults around me were like. Hard lessons. Infractions, strictly punished. You’re either good, or you’re bad. No gray. No recourse or explanation. But, Father Cendrowski was particulary and needlessly harsh. In his arch sternness he was in fact a little gray himself. Literally.

The last straw came when after Sunday services from time to time the men and their sons would gather to have fellowship under what was called the auspices of the Holy Name Society. My dad and I would dutifully go to these events. But I never felt that I fit in and didn’t ever get the point of belonging to that group. Just what the heck did they do besides meeting a few time a year. At one point when I was in my high school years Father Cendrowski invited me to join the Holy Name Society. I bluntly told him that I had nothing in common with those folks and didn’t see “what was in it for me.” The following Sunday I sat there mortified as Al got all up in the pulpit to tell the story of the selfish young man who could not see beyond what was in it for him.

Years later at my nephew’s graduation from high school I met up with Father Alexander. “Hello, Father Cendrowski. I’m David Wronski, remember me?” All he ever said, and the last thing I ever heard him say was a flat serious, “I remember you.” As in, you are not worth further attention, you impudent miscreant. Ouch! Really snugged up my hairshirt of guilt. I took it like a man. But, as you must suspect, it still chafes a little to recall. What would Jesus do? Well, I know. And I would. Peace be to you Father. And, yet, I hope Our Lord gave Father Alexander a good talking to before opening the pearly gates.

I do lament that Immaculate Conception Church no longer stands. CLICK here to read another essay where that beautiful gem of my youth is mentioned.

I often like to say that my downfall was that I was a “good” boy. By that I mean not following my inner voice, but too often and needlessly succumbing to outside pressure. As a youngster you do have to do what you are told. But, slowly, if you are being properly raised, you start to develop the discrimination and discipline to choose based on what is appropriate and right for you and for the situation. And, to be brave to stand for what you believe and know even in the face of disapproval and dissent from the highest places.

These words ascribed to The Buddha put it succinctly:"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

Also remembering the time when assiduously attempting to be a "good boy" I was troubled with so-called impure thoughts. And you know how if you try to suppress thoughts, they just keep coming back with even more insistence. I went to confession. The priest seemed to have no idea that I was a mere ten year old. He interpreted I was confessing to having sexual relations with a woman. I was so mortified and stunned at this, I didn't even know how to clarify the point with him. That's how we left it. Go, and sin no more.

Just speculating if that confession was good for a Hall Pass on some future misdeed? The bad boy in me thinks it's a pretty clever ploy to go to confess something you might want to do in the future to work around the possibility of eternal damnation should you do the deed and not get to the confessional in time before your demise. Interesting idea. Don't you think?

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