When the fire that devastated Our Mother of Consolation School broke out last month, I was at the Jenks playground with my 4-year-old grandson.
When the fire that devastated Our Mother of Consolation School broke out last month, I was at the Jenks playground with my 4-year-old grandson. We watched as a caravan of fire trucks raced up Germantown Avenue, heading for the school, where flames and billowing clouds of black smoke poured from the roof. Within minutes, I started getting text messages from my siblings.
“That is so sad,” texted one of my sisters. “Feel so sorry for those kids and families.”
The news was grim. The roof was gone, reduced to charred timbers. The contents of the school — books, desks, pens, pencils, computers and the students’ cherished artwork —
had been destroyed. The OMC website noted that the building was temporarily closed.
A few days later, I drove up to OMC. As I slowed down to park, I spotted a statue of Mary through the shattered glass of a second-story window. I found it hard to believe that the three-story Gothic Revival building was so vulnerable. The granite and limestone structure on East Chestnut Hill Avenue had housed the school since 1916 – the year that a summer heat wave drove thousands to the Jersey shore, and several shark attacks prompted seaside towns to enclose their beaches with steel nets to protect swimmers.
At OMC, I had my first crush, learned to diagram sentences on the blackboard and discovered soft pretzels and double Dutch. I took piano lessons in the convent next door. I spent nine of the most formative years of my life at OMC, starting in kindergarten and graduating in 1967. Two of my sisters and a couple of my brothers were students there. In our small world, OMC was everything – the place at the top of the Hill where childhood dramas in the classroom and on the playground unfolded under the watchful eyes of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
I hadn’t thought much about OMC until my husband and I moved back to Chestnut Hill in 2021, after living in Washington, D.C., for almost 30 years. These days, I live just nine blocks from OMC, where, in the 1950s and 60s, each class had about 60 students. Now, the school, which is celebrating its 160th anniversary, has a total of 230. After the fire, I spent hours poring over published accounts of the school and the archives of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.
Weekday mornings would find me and my siblings scrambling at the last minute for clean socks and ironed uniforms. Sometimes we would walk to school with older OMC students who lived nearby. For me, the walk home from OMC usually included stops at the Chestnut Hill Library to check out books and at a small penny-candy store near Pastorius Park to buy wax lips and candy cigarettes.
I was at OMC on a Friday afternoon in November 1963 when I found out that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. Sister Marie Charlotte shared the sad news with my fifth-grade class and then dismissed us for the day. Around the city, flags were lowered to half-mast. As a 10-year-old, I was elated to get out of school early, but I sensed that the president’s death was really serious, judging from the sad faces of the grown-ups around me.
Sister Marie Charlotte – like many of the nuns who taught at OMC – was a mystery to me. Even on the warmest of days, they never seemed to break a sweat, despite the black-and-white habits that covered them from head to toe. I marveled at the stiffness of the large white bib that was part of their habit. What was it made of? I was fascinated by the way they glided down the hallway, with rosary beads suspended from their waists that swayed and sometimes clacked like musical instruments.
After the fire, I discovered an OMC Facebook page created by one of my classmates. On the page were the standard-issue photos from fourth and eighth grades – rows of headshots, the girls dressed in blue uniforms and white blouses with Peter Pan collars, the boys wearing jackets and ties. I searched the photos for faces that I recognized, finding many that I remembered. Judging from my fourth-grade picture, it appeared as though someone had placed a bowl on my head and simply trimmed around it. By eighth grade, I was sporting a more sophisticated look, with shoulder-length hair parted in the middle that dipped toward my eyebrows and flipped up slightly at the ends.
My love of writing stems, in part, from diagramming sentences at OMC. I eagerly awaited my turn at the blackboard to pick up a piece of chalk and draw a straight line – the first step in diagramming – and then figure out where the noun, verb and other parts of speech should be placed. After school, we’d take turns clapping the erasers outside, producing clouds of chalk dust that settled in our hair and covered our uniforms.
Like the rows of wooden desks that filled the classrooms, life at OMC was orderly. When going from one part of the building to another, we always walked quietly in a line, each of us an arm’s length apart. We could buy soft pretzels at recess and a half-pint of milk in a cardboard carton to drink with our lunch, which we ate at our desks in my early years there. During the month of May, we would take turns bringing flowers to school, where they were placed in front of a statue of Mary. I would pick lilies of the valley from our yard, first wrapping the stems in a piece of wet paper towel and then in a cone of aluminum foil.
What did I take away from my years at OMC? The melody of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” which I learned to play in the convent. What have I learned since graduating from OMC? Despite the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, you can go home again.