Loisel Village

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1956 in Loisel Village

by John Frey of Chicago

 

On a fine spring day in 1956, from the yard of our house in Loisel Village, we watched the parish church, St. Philip, bum to the ground. The church's steeple, which rose serenely above the roofs in the neighborhood, was enveloped by flames and huge billows of black smoke. My mother, at the suggestion of our neighbor, Mary Ellen Osland, got out an 8 mm movie camera and began filming. Although we were three blocks away, strange black ashes, the size of sycamore leaves, came floating down from the sky.

We children jumped and scrambled to catch them. All at once the entire steeple was hidden by the smoke, but we could tell where it was from the bright flames. Then the flames fell, slowly, headlong into the smoke below. When it cleared again, the steeple was gone.

In 1956 Loisel Village was the youngest part of East St. Louis, a subdivision carved out of the farmland in the northeastern comer of the city, just below the bluffs marking the edge of the Mississippi River flood plain. The new houses, made of brick, contrasted with the frame houses of the older adjoining neighborhood. The freshly minted white sidewalks were lined with maple saplings so fragile they had to be held upright with wires and stakes. Nearby was a remaining acre or two of land still being planted with corn and horse radish. In springtime, when the farmer turned the soil, we would search the furrows and find pottery shards, flint, and an occasional arrowhead.

But new did not mean luxurious. The houses were all of one story, with modest yards cluttered with swing sets, sliding boards. dog houses, tiny wading pools (mostly of the blow-up variety), sandboxes, and patches of bare earth representing the bases of crude ball diamonds. Only a few houses had basements, and a fireplace was unheard of. A concrete driveway was more common than a carport or garage; a workhorse of a station wagon was more often parked there than a new sedan.

For some reason, perhaps proximity to French Village, the streets of Loisel Village were christened with French names, Our family lived on Decouagne (pronounced "doo-CANE") Drive, and there were Vieuxcarre, Bouganville, and Godier. The names of the families who lived on these streets were more diverse. There were the Timpers, the Doyles, the Bueses, the Hunnicuts, the McBrides, and later, as new houses were built, the Wappels, the Costellos, the Eiseles, and the Clarks. In one thing, though, these families were not so diverse: religion. Almost all were Roman Catholic and members of the parish whose church had just fallen to rubble.

The center of the Loisel Village universe - at least for kids - was the shopping center, built by Keeley and Sons Inc. It had opened in 1952, as the first houses were going up, and by 1956 the place to us was the equivalent of a modern mall. In three low pink stucco buildings were a Tri-City Supermarket (managed by Sam Pershall), a drugstore (operated by Leo Schuerger). a Ben Franklin dimestore (run by J. Hoover), a television and radio repair shop (operated by Robert Brainard), a hardware store (ran by Jerome Mackin and John J. Keeley Jr.) , a liquor store, a dentist's office (Dr. James Murphy) beauty shop, gift shop, and the new office of my maternal grandfather, Dr. Edmund Holten. Dr. Holten was the son of longtime Illinois representative Frank Holten. after whom the state park is named, and his specialty was obstetrics. The physicians' office was shared with Dr. F. Bina. The mall's parking lot had room for 400 cars. As I grew older, it seemed that every other person I met was brought into this world by my grandfather.

The kids of the neighborhood would spend hours at the shopping center - buying baseball cards, paper dolls, comic books, pea shooters (and a bag of peas), popsickles, rolls of greencaps for toy pistols, and all the other necessities of childhood in those days. Behind the shopping center was an undeveloped area we called "The Weeds," which was intersected by a dirt path that led to the blank rear walls of the stores. The Weeds were a grand, wild playground, full of secret places and things, where no adults ever appeared. We would spend hours there during the summer, playing at made-up games and, although we didn't know it at the time, clutching at our youth and our freedom.

But The Weeds only seemed to exist in summer. For the rest of the year, there was school, and for most of us that meant St. Philip grade school. And the main thing to remember about St. Philip in the late 1950s was the nuns who ran the place with an iron but usually gentle hand. They were School Sisters of Notre Dame, so they all had the initials "S.S.N.D." behind their names. And their names were like no others - Sister Stanislaus, Sister Theodoretta, Sister Hermelda, Sister Florita, Sister Brigid Maureen, Sister Francis of Assisi, Sister Philip Marie, and Sister Enrica (the ancient music teacher who had taught piano to in), grandmother, Elizabeth Small Holten, which made it all the more astonishing when we learned that Sister Enrica's father had just died).

The sisters wore habits that covered every part of their bodies but face and hands, leading us to wonder if the), had ears ,and elbows like everybody else. In fact, their habits so restricted their peripheral vision that, when one or two of them were finally permitted to drive an automobile, they had to wear a headdress specially altered for that purpose.

But St. Philip was also associated with another thing, not so strange: baseball. The pastor, Father John Fournie, was an immense scowling man with a voice that made us tremble, but he did have one redeeming quality in his organization of an elaborate sports program for the parish. St. Philip was blessed with grounds large enough to hold five baseball diamonds. The outfields of three diamonds ended at "The Canal," actually a long earthen embankment, so hitting a ball "all the way to The Canal" was considered a rare achievement.

On every evening during the summer the ballfields of St. Philip were alive with baseball and softball games. Even if you weren't playing that night, it was still exciting to ride your bicycle there and watch, or more likely, spend some nickels and dimes at the refreshment stand, which specialized in snow cones, popcorn, and assorted candy. There were many different leagues of teams, some for boys and some for girls, all divided by age group, with names like Ranger, Crusader, and Pioneer. Most of the teams were sponsored by local businesses. Loisel Village Shopping Center had a team. So did Veterans Bridge. Johnny Connors - Jimmy's brother - pitched for them. Other teams included Geiger Printing and Jim Kathmann Company.

Behind the ballfields and playgrounds were the old parish rectory and the convent, and in-between the two stood the new church built to replace the burned one. It was low and plain and modem, with no steeple. There was nothing left of the old church except some souvenirs that the parish sold to raise funds, mostly old square headed nails stuck into small pieces of scorched wood. But inside the new church Father Fournie's sermons still boomed out just the same, and on the outside, for many years to come, kids still tried to hit one to The Canal.

 

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