Bee in the Bonnet: Halls!

By Bernie Bates

HallwayThe blue light of early morning filled the intermediate boy’s dorm of the Saint Joseph mission, when Brother Robby came in to announce: “Time! Time, boys to get up. Time!”

But I was already awake – this was to be my first memory of the Catholic Residential school system.

As the lights went on they made a ‘ping’ sound. One by one they were turned on and one by one they sounded off; Ping, Ping, Ping. It’s kind of funny, the things a person remembers. They say that the senses can provoke powerful memories and stir emotions you’d thought to be long dead!

It’s been many, many moons since I attended the mission and in that time I’ve forgotten a lot of things, or, should I say, repressed. But recently I had the opportunity to walk the halls of an old mission. Even though the place had been refurbished and was now a fancy resort, the basic structure was still intact.

“Standing at the entrance, I was struck by the immense size of the building, I’d never seen anything so big. I was scared and I just wanted to leave this place and go home with my Mommy!” But, hey! I was now on holiday with my wife! I wasn’t a small kid anymore and this building was no longer a Catholic Mission either.

As I said, the human senses have a way of bringing the past back with an intense fervor.

Checking in at the front desk was as the same as any other hotel, until I was told that the room was once the ‘visiting room’ (a room where parents and children would meet). It was then that a feeling came over me like a flood of water, tears, to be more exact. I remembered it as the ‘crying room,’ because, anyone that came into that room would break down in mournful sobs or out-right wails of sadness- I was eleven- again!

Walking down the halls, I could hear the steps of a hundred shoes following behind me. We were all in a line marching to the recreation room to say our pre-meal prayers. The junior, intermediate and senior boys all standing against the walls, shoulder to shoulder, heads bowed, and, in unison, a roar of voices would begin; “Our Father….!” Then I snapped back to the present day and I was standing at my hotel room door with my wife saying, “Well? Are you coming in?”

My wife, being a person of non-native heritage, had no idea what was going on in my head or in my heart. To her, all she saw was me standing there with our suitcases and a blank stare on my face. Little did she know I was carrying a lot more ‘baggage’ than either of us realized!

If you have a little more salt than pepper in your hair, you’re probably old enough to have attended a mission and you’ll know what I’m writing about. But, if your hair is still as black as the feathers of a crow- I hope you’re be able to read and get the ‘feelings,’ I and many others felt, both good and bad.

As some would have you believe- it wasn’t all sex abuse and cultural devastation. Some of the Fathers, Brother and Sisters were very concerned with our feelings of abandonment, due to the fact we were left in the care of an institution, especially for the younger ones.

They did their best to help us adjust to the loneliness a person can feel, even as they stand in a crowd of hundreds. And for me that saviour was Brother Robby.

I truly believe Brother Robby saved me from my self-imposed depression. I was very upset at my parents for leaving me at the mission. And to punish them for their betrayal, I, at first, hated them as hard as I could. When that didn’t work, I decided to pout and became as sad as I possibly could.

The only thing wrong with that plan was- Brother Robby wasn’t going to let me do that to myself!

He was a ‘hell of a guy,’ for a Catholic Brother! I swear he could make the Devil himself smile. He just had a way of sensing when you were down and he’d do something to get your mind off of whatever was bothering you.

Everything from a joke out of his well worn bag to crossing his eyes, sticking out his tongue and making a funny face to an understanding nod of his head, accompanied by a sympathetic smile.

I don’t know where you’re at, Brother Robby, or even if you’re still alive …. I just hope, somehow, you receive this – “I thank you, for helping me! And I love you like a brother, for your heart-felt compassion!”