May Crowning

The topic of today’s post–long overdue–is May Crowning. And being that it is nearly October, you probably thought I was going to chat with you about apple orchards or Halloween. Ha! I have no October Catholic school memories etched into my brain. All Souls Day is scarcely the stuff of memories.

No, Catholic School + seasons for me only results in a few writing topics:

  1. Stations of the Cross during Lent
  2. May Crowning

Both are more memorable than Christmas and all the holy days of obligation combined because they both represent unrelenting suffering. Let me begin with May Crowning and the associated suffering, which continues to this day.

Despite the fact that the May Crowning procedure was the same every year, we practiced. And practiced. And practiced. And practiced. E_V_E_R_Y  D_A_M_N  Y_E_A_R. Talk about taking the joy out of those first spring days in Chicago . . .

My Catholic grade school was situated on Cumberland, the speedway of the Chicago suburb where I grew up. The school was located on the west side of Cumberland, but the playground was located on the east side.

A short aside: The “playground” to which I referred in the previous paragraph was really a parking lot. It had no play features whatsoever. I have a vague memory that about the time I graduated, “they” spray painted a few hopscotch outlines on the pavement, but that was it. The south half was designated the girl’s half, and the north, the boy’s. God forbid we play in the same half. Heavens no! In fact the ONLY time I ventured into the boy’s half was when my grade was assigned a north-half location for May Crowning. It goes without saying that the statue of Mary was on the girl’s half–one of the few privileges the Catholic Church extended to females of the era. Naturally we could NOT be altar boys. HELLO–the title is “Altar BOY.” The roles available to me were

  1. Reader at daily Mass (Although I signed up, each time I was called, I feigned illness because I was petrified. Brilliant strategy–I got credit for volunteering but never exhausted my emotional capital.)
  2. May Crowner–the 8th-grade GIRL who actually got to put the crown on flowers on Mary’s head (in the south half of the parking lot).

I had many, many years to prepare due to the abundance of May Crowning practices.

A couple of absolutes re practices:

  1. They always occurred on the most unseasonably warm days in May prior to the actual Crowning.
  2. They always occurred in the afternoon, when the sun was beating down.

The first step was getting every room in every grade (3 rooms per grade,  24 rooms @ approximately 30 kids per room) to “line up” and “file out” (“double-file”) of the school  to the sidewalk on the east side of Cumberland. Note: “Double-file” meant that we had a partner; if he/she was absent (lucky dog), God help the poor fool who filled in the space. NO, NO, NO! You leave a space for your absent classmate and process, silently and orderly from the classroom door, down the hall, down the stairs (if you had “graduated” to the grades located upstairs), to the exit, down the school sidewalk to the sidewalk along the west side of Cumberland, to the crosswalk. And for GOD’s SAKE!! DON’T RUSH!!! Some of my fool classmates would hurry along. HELLO??? It is a P-R-O-C-E-S-S-I-O-N for God’s sake. Stately. Calculated, Dignified. Slow. Reverent.

In fact, the only interruption in the procession was the walk light at Cumberland and Granville.

So it went like this:

Process, process, process. STOP (Don’t Walk sign has stopped the advance.)

Process, process, process. STOP (Don’t Walk sign has stopped the advance.)

Process  Process, process, process. STOP (Don’t Walk sign has stopped the advance.)

Process  Process, process, process. STOP (Don’t Walk sign has stopped the advance.)

Let me remind you again of the sun beating down and draw your attention to the fact that the girls wore nylon blouses and wool jumpers. I remember thinking how happy I’d be to pass out as opposed to sweat, process, stop. Sweat, process, stop. And so on.

When all 800+ of us had processed until we’d sweat every ounce of water ingested over the winter AND crossed Cumberland with the “Walk” light, we lined up on the asphalt parking lot according to grade. Of course, the 8th grade was closest to the statue of Mary, because, as I have already hinted, the Crowner is an 8th grade girl and will emerge at the proper time and place the crown on Mary. What that means is that for grades 1-7, after processing to the death and crossing with the light, we must then process PAST Mary to take our place in the north half of the parking lot.

In reality I don’t know how long we processed and practiced processing, but I can tell you that from my perspective, it took several days, made still longer by the fools who didn’t leave a space for a missing classmate and hurried ahead thereby screwing up the whole damn organization for the rest of us. Thank God our teachers/nuns were observant and at the ready to stop and correct the procession when someone’s neglect fouled it up.

At last. In place. In the parking lot. On the east side of Cumberland. Missing partners accounted for, all crossed with the “Walk” light.

Before we go forward, I feel compelled to say that I NEVER envisioned myself as Crowner. It only took a few years of practice for me to recognize that the Crowner would be Mary F.

For starters, her name was Mary. (Thanks for nothing, Mom and Dad . . . Nancy???? I think not. NO ONE named NANCY would be selected to crown Mary.) And I was okay with that. Mary looked beatific, was popular, reasonably smart, and well-behaved. Fit the bill in my book.

Now, I return to the parking lot where we are in place and it is time to practice the May Crowning songs. We must practice every verse, every year, although the soundtrack never varies. There are a couple of run-up tunes . . . the most effortful being one whose chorus was, “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria” but sung like:


Imagine a bit out of key and RRRRRR part requiring one’s voice to go from the lowest possible note singable by a human to one above the highest note singable by a human.

Then, it is time for the piece de resistance: “Bring Flowers of the Rarest.”

It started off slow:

Bring flow’rs of the fairest,
Bring flow’rs of the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our Glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

But then, kicked into the main event:

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Then we processed back: South through the parking lot. Turned west. Waited at the light. Walk sign. Processed across Cumberland, turned north, continued processing north til one (and one’s partner) arrived at the school sidewalk. Turned west. Processed into school.

Every year.

Practices upon practices.

Years upon years.

Now, at long last,  it is my 8th grade year. This is it. The pinnacle.

But who is chosen as the Crowner? Mary F? NO!!!! Suzanne D. WHAT?????????

The name “Suzanne” is no better than “Nancy.” Both are a far cry from Mary, not even an “Ann” or a “Joan” or a “Therese.” Sure, Suzanne had flowing blond ringlets, but What the hell? Where are the standards?????????

I do remember that Suzanne shed a tear, which admittedly was a nice touch. Nonetheless, I was let down. Really let down, disappointed, perhaps even aghast. After years and years, hours and hours, sweaty blouses upon sweaty blouses, “they” picked the wrong person to be Crowner.


I am now 56 years old. I never expected nor wanted to be Crowner. Nor an altar boy. Nor a reader. But golly by golly, all that time in grades 1 through 7 processing and sweating, processing and sweating some more and some more–not to mention waiting for the “Walk” sign. All for a dreadful miscarriage of justice and judgment.