Money and possessions are like diet soda—they satisfy momentarily, but they do not nourish.
- Kevin Anderson
St. Patrick, the missionary patron saint of Ireland, always reminds me of my days at St. Denis, the Catholic grammar school I attended in Philadelphia.
Like the block I lived on, the school was heavily Irish and Italian, the roll call full of names like O’Malley, Zerelli, Thompson, Nordone, O’Hara and, of course, Grinnan—since there were four of us Grinnans growing up on Hillcrest Avenue in Havertown.
Over on Darby Road was the public—read Protestant—school. Not much green there on St. Paddy’s. We fought those kids after school or crossed to the other side of the street when we saw them. They called us names, we screamed names back. I had no Protestant friends, not one. No one specifically taught us to hate. It didn’t happen like that. But it didn’t help that when my Aunt Cass Gallagher instructed me on the “true” history of Ireland she would always admonish me with her father’s dictum: “Never trust an Englishman.”
Aunt Cass also loathed a new music group out of Liverpool called the Beatles that I listened to. “They sound like the screams of the damned in hell,” she liked to say. It didn’t help that they were Protestants.
One spring day coming home from St. Denis a group of us crouched in an overgrown empty lot, hoping to ambush some kids getting out from the public school. We lay silently in the weeds, our breathing quick. I raised my head slowly. All at once I felt a tremendous blow to my skull, a cold rush of pain and blood steaming down my face. I whirled around to see an older kid, Tim Kelly, with a bloody rock in his hand. He mistook me for a Protestant and bashed me over the head.
We rushed to my house in a panic and my mother hustled me to stately old Dr. Volk, who put a few stitches in my scalp after shaving away a little hair. “How did this happen?” she asked. I explained. Dr. Volk shook her head sadly and readied a tetanus shot. Volk didn’t sound Irish, but I assumed she was a Catholic.
Then that summer my world shifted on its axis. One day a big John Ivory moving van showed up in front of our house on Hillcrest and off we went to Detroit, where my father had been transferred. Imagine my shock that fall when I landed in a public schol in suburban Birmingham, Michigan. Our neighborhood was so new that our parish, St. Owen, hadn’t even built a permanent sanctuary yet, let alone a school. Besides, everyone said the schools in Birmingham were top notch.
There were plenty of Catholics at Meadow Lake Elementary, but there were even more Protestants, and a number of mysterious Jews, including the Greenes, who lived next door to us and who were the first to welcome us to the block with a pan of lasagna, something I thought only Italians were allowed to make. And everyone loved the Beatles.
When St. Patrick’s Day arrived that first year it was a revelation. The halls of Meadow Lake were decked out in construction paper shamrocks. Protestant and Catholic alike wore the green. And Mark Greene, my classmate—well, he had his name and could sing “Danny Boy.” He led our little impromptu parade around the recess yard at lunchtime.
Today we are a far more diverse and tolerant society, despite our occasional lapses, and I work for an organization founded by a Protestant minister. Hatred is an acquired taste, and prejudice a lie one generation tells the next. We human beings have far more in common with one another than not. After all, Aunt Cass forgot to tell me one little historical fact: St. Patrick was born an Englishman.
Edward Grinnan is Editor-in-Chief and Vice President of Guideposts Publications. Edward lives in New York City with two blondes—his wife, Julee, and Golden Retriever, Millie, who has been featured in his blog and popular videos. Edward loves cycling, hiking with Millie at his house in the Berkshire Hills and Wolverines that hail from Michigan.
If you need a little boost of inspiration, pick up a copy of Edward's book The Promise of Hope: How True Stories of Hope and Inspiration Saved My Life and How They Can Transform Yours.