I can’t tell you the date of our last sandlot football game. We didn’t commemorate it or mark with a special ceremony. We probably didn’t even know it would be our last game together.
After school, the kids would come to my house. Our next door neighbors, the Nahers, had a double lot, and Mrs. Naher was a former professional women’s baseball player. She loved sports and kids and let us tear up the the lawn they manicured all summer by playing sandlot football in the fall and winter.
“We” were three or four classes of boys who graduated from Epiphany School between 1975 and 1979, roughly. Joe Cox, Matt Ellison, Dan Ellison, Dan Psaris, Bobby Psaris, Chris Winkelman, Jerry Walk, Sonny Oliver, Francis and John Godfrey, Don Vopel. Sometimes others. We played by our own set of rules. I believe that two forward passes constituted a first down. Rushers had to count to “three Mississippi” before rushing the quarterback.
We planned the games and chose teams at school, at Epiphany. Then we picked teams, again when we realized that a different set of kids showed up. Joe Cox or Matt Ellison would often volunteer to ref.
It was during those cold, wet, painful football games that I learned about drive, desire, strengths, and limitations. I learned that I was fiercely competitive and could be vengeful. I also learned that I was fast and quick despite being one of the bigger kids. And I learned to laugh and to be funny. I would catch myself noting the kinds of jokes that “worked” and the kinds that didn’t.
By the time I reached seventh grade, the games were over. The Nahers had moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, and the new owners put in a fence. Our attentions shifted to girls. And we had less carefree time as got older. CYC league basketball, soccer, and baseball practices became more frequent and more intense. There was more homework. And we were getting bigger and stronger, able to inflict far more pain and injury with each passing year.
I thought about those games and those boys and the girls of Epiphany today. The parish held a special mass and reception for Epiphany School alumni. The school’s closing after this year.
The church looks very different than it did when I left for the Navy in 1984. It’s both more modern and more worn, like the manicured fingernails of a wealthy old lady. The neighborhood looks the same, although many of the houses have been town down and replaced.
I sat with two of my three sisters and my dad. We’re all alums. So are Dad’s sisters and brothers. With Dad, they are Margaret, Mary, Jack, Jane, Jerry, Geraldine, and Jim. Of that brood, my dad was the lone preventative.
Next to me was my youngest son, Patrick. He’s almost seventeen. He didn’t go to Epiphany, but he and I wish he did. After moving to the suburbs in 1995, I never moved my boys back to town. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but on days like today, it gives me a little twinge of guilt. Maybe I could have saved the school.
Mark Palardi was there. His son will have the honor of graduating in Epiphany’s last class. From 1912 to 2010, thousands of students received excellent educations at the school on Smiley Avenue. Alumni include local celebrities Mike Shannon and Mayor Francis Slay.
Mark hung around Epiphany taking care of things after graduation. So did my best friend, Dan Psaris. And Jim Przada, who was there today. So did Richard Hanneke, now a Monsignor. He concelebrated today’s mass. Dan and Mark and Jim and I attended Fr. Hanneke’s very first mass after ordination in 1976. After that mass, we did something, but I don’t remember what. Probably played baseball, considering it was may. May 22 to be exact.
The cycles of a Catholic parish’s life include the boys who become men and the girls who become women. They meet in kindergarten, grow apart, return to the parish, and make it stronger.
Only that last part isn’t happening anymore it seems. My childhood sweetheart and I didn’t marry and return. She went off to be a star and I went into the Navy after numerous failed attempts at growing up.
The classes at Epiphany dwindled. From 1912 to about 1972, each class grew larger and stronger. My sister Mary was the first class in the “new” school building. during her time at Epiphany, the Baby Boomers filled the place to the rafters with over 1,000 students. The men of the parish built makeshift classrooms in the Upper Gym.
The school was shrinking when I arrived. My class had about 60 students, not the 120 my sisters’ had. But 60 meant a student to teacher ratio of 30 to 1. (Despite those numbers, they learned us real good.)
And generations moved away.
Regulation, costs, fewer nuns, state mandates all drove up the cost of a Catholic education. The parish aged. It’s too expensive to continue operations, so the kids will disperse to St. James, St. Joan of Arc, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael. The Archdiocese will lease the school building to someone else who will operate another kind of school. There, the kids will learn everything they need to prepare for adulthood, except the two most important things.
These two things were the most important lessons we learned at Epiphany—lessons that some of us learned and practiced while others of us pridefully ignored.
Those lessons were to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ and to return home to keep your parish going.
The new operators of the school on Smiley won’t teach those lessons. And because of that, the school will never be Epiphany again.