FAITH Grand Rapids magazine features friendships formed in Catholic school 75+ years ago

75 years of friendship formed at Catholic School

By Tom Rademacher. Photography by Holly Dolci. Originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of FAITH Grand Rapids magazine.

As they were turning 10 and midway through grade school, World War II was just beginning in Europe. France was executing its last person by guillotine. Lou Gehrig was retiring from baseball after being diagnosed with ALS. The first car boasting air conditioning was rolling off the line. People flocked to the theaters to see a new movie entitled Gone with the Wind. Gas cost a dime a gallon. The average annual wage was $1,730. And you could buy four cans of Campbell’s soup for two bits.

But at times, it all seems like yesterday for the women who are still living and meet as members of “Club 48,” whose origins date back to the 1930s and stand as a testament to friendships forged in a cauldron of faith.

The group originally numbered about a dozen, all of them 1944 graduates of St. Alphonsus Catholic Elementary School in Grand Rapids. From there, most went to Catholic Central (a few to Mount Mercy and Marywood), earning their high school diplomas in 1948. Today, eight survive, and of that number, a handful still meet regularly for lunch.

They reminisce about everything from favorite nuns and naughty boys, to marrying sweethearts and raising kids, to burying friends and loved ones – all that, and more, over the course of getting together for more than 70 years running.

“My daughter calls us ‘The Dollies,’” says Agnes Burch, 89, who until she married Bob, who died in 1992, was Agnes Millard. She worked 30 years as a nurse after graduating from Mercy School of Nursing in 1951. She’s one of few in Club 48 who held a full-time job outside the home.

Phyllis Purwin is another. In fact, at 90 years old, she still works, driving almost daily to do the books at the body shop in Comstock Park founded by her late husband and still operated by sons Jim and Nick and Jim’s son John. Jim is amazed at the stamina and verve his mother and her friends still have. “I’ve always admired how they’ve managed to continue getting together all these years,” he says. “They take such pride in meeting, and it’s exciting to know they still do it.”

No one seems to remember how Club 48 came to first meet, or the exact time and place, but they do credit the late Barb (Deschaine) Lee for the glue that initially kept them together. Early on, they realized they had something good going. More than one of the women has kept a scrapbook, filling it with mementos from their days together in grade school and high school.

As they flip through photos (including one snapped in 1967 showcasing all the club’s members, spouses and kids -- 88 people in all) and bulletins and gaze at everything from announcements to holy cards, the memories surface in rapid-fire fashion.

One minute, they’re remembering how the stone steps at St. Al’s had dips in them from decades of use. And in the next, they’re recounting how you always stood when a priest entered the classroom … that Sister Augustine taught them how to square dance … (“I remember it ‘cause I hated it, that’s why!” says Agnes) … and how naughty Mickey Boylen would clap two erasers together above the heat grate so that the room would be filled with airborne chalk dust.

Not every memory conjures up joy or whimsy. Members of Club 48 also have dealt with grief and tragedy: The loss of husbands, of course, and a member who lost a son in a motorcycle accident. One classmate’s brother drowned in the Grand River. Another who married young, became pregnant, and died along with her unborn baby. A son who succumbed to AIDS. There have been surgeries and cancer and heart disease – the stuff of life and death that, in their eyes, can only be understood and reconciled through their abiding faith.

Phyllis goes into her “rosary room” each morning to whisper while her fingers move along the beads. Donna (Steiner) Krenselewski, 89, still prays the rosary every morning with husband Tony. Agnes Burch attends a novena every Tuesday evening. All three still have keepsakes from their first holy Communion – threadbare prayer books among them.

Over the years, as everything from cars to hairstyles to fashions to lifestyles changed, Club 48 stayed true to its unofficial mission: Continue meeting to honor uncommon bonds created against the backdrop of a Catholic education.

Phyllis and Donna and Agnes aren’t shy about making comparisons between then and now when it comes to the Church. “I think we had a much stronger faith than some today,” says Donna. “We had nuns and priests teaching us, and I think that made a big difference.”

Agnes nods in agreement: “They were more a part of our lives then. And another thing – we never questioned the pope.” Adds Donna, “In some ways, you don’t see the same sense of respect for the Church today.”

While some may wince to recall school days at the hands of nuns and priests (think: paddles and rulers), members of Club 48 tend to focus on the positive aspects. That would include putting a spin on the proper way to do things. For instance, all three women fondly recalled how a nun would use a handheld clicker at Mass and click it once to signal when it was time to genuflect, and then two clicks to enter the pew.

In the classroom, penmanship was nearly as important as spelling and arithmetic; Donna remembers needing extra help with the Palmer method.

Social justice meant pitching in with pennies for the pagan babies. Agnes remembers knitting blankets for soldiers with help from Sister Juliana. And all three agreed that it was an era when if you didn’t have something you wanted, you just went without or “made do.” For her graduation from St. Al’s, for example, Donna wanted a corsage to wear like some of the other girls would have, “but my mother and father couldn’t afford one, so my mother went into the garden and made me one from a rose she’d grown.”

Life then was simpler, they all agree. And while today’s children may enjoy far-flung excursions to amusement parks and tropical paradises and foreign lands, Phyllis and Donna and Agnes were perfectly happy with touchstones close to home. That included going to a home on Plainfield Avenue to buy religious artifacts from a couple of endearing spinsters – parishioners Marguerite and Asia Dalton, whose two brothers, Richard and Frank, served as Redemptorist priests at the parish.

When it came to hijinx, they recall pretty tame stuff, such as declaring your puppy love for another classmate by writing down both person’s initials. Agnes, for instance, had a crush at one time on Patrick Mitchell, and can still see herself writing “AM + PM.”

Through love and loss, Club 48 continues to endure. And through it all – the weddings and showers and birthdays and anniversaries – they cling to the hope that they can enjoy many more years together as they move through their 90s.

“We’ve always had a reason to continue getting together,” says Phyllis, who took over organizing their monthly meetings after Barb died. Adds Agnes: “It’s funny how one memory triggers another and another.”

Donna agrees, then smiles wryly. “After all this remembering,” she says, looking at the other two, “I think I need to go home and take a nap!”

The members of Club 48:

  • Sally (Gavinsky) Baldini
  • Agnes (Millard) Burch
  • Ruth (Oosdyke) Burkholder
  • Nancy (Feutz) Cyr
  • Theresa (Cochran) Gravelyn
  • Donna (Steiner) Krenselewski
  • Barbara (Deschaine) Lee, deceased
  • Barbara (Malone) Magin, deceased
  • Marianne (Grypma) Nash, deceased
  • Phyllis (Wood) Purwin
  • Rosemary (Kersjes) Rapp
  • Barbara (Miller) Spielmaker, deceased

Pictured: Members of Club 48 gather at Phyllis Purwin’s home last summer: (seated) Theresa Gravelyn, Rosemary Raap and Agnes Burch; (standing) Ruth Burkholder, Phyllis Purwin, Nancy Cyr and Donna Krenselewski.

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