Alumni remember life at St. Elizabeth’s
Deacon David Nemetz
Deacon David Nemetz, the seventh of nine children, was the first of his siblings to be born in Richmond and remembers well growing up in the Highland Park neighborhood and attending school at St. Elizabeth’s School, across the street from the family home, and being an altar boy at St. Elizabeth’s, a block away. He has fond memories of both.
“I was an altar boy and we would get pulled out of class to serve funerals,” he recalled. “I loved it and remember I got a dollar to serve at a funeral Mass. That meant 100 pieces of penny candy.”
The pre-Vatican II liturgy stands clearly in his mind.
“Back in the day we had the communion rail and everyone knelt to receive Communion and as an altar boy, I held the paten,” Deacon Nemetz said.
He attended St. Elizabeth’s School from 1966 to 1974, going from the first through the 8th grade. The school was largely staffed by the Sisters of Mercy. He particularly remembers Sister Kathleen McAlpin, who was his first grade teacher and also teacher of his 8th grade class. In between, she served as principal.
Deacon Nemetz said the block in which he lived went from all-white to having only two white families (his was one of them) in a year and a half.
“When we first lived there, the neighborhood was white,” he said. “A black family moved in across the street and within a year and a half, all the other families were gone. It was unbelievable as a kid to see it happen.”
Most of the families who left in what was called “white flight” moved to Mechanicsville in Hanover County. The departing families still wanted their children to attend St. Elizabeth’s School so a bus was purchased to bring them from their new neighborhoods in Mechanicsville back to Highland Park.
“My experience at St. Elizabeth’s was a great foundation for my Catholic faith,” Deacon Nemetz said. “The Sisters of Mercy were the most gracious loving women I ever met.
“You hear all these horror stories about the nuns in Catholic schools, but I didn’t experience any of it.
“When the neighborhood was white, it was probably what you would call blue-collar and then afterwards for about 10 years it was middle class, including the black families who moved in because the people came in and fixed the houses.”
Frances Pope, a member of St. Elizabeth Parish for 43 years, joined the parish in 1970 after moving to Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. At first it was not an easy transition since her previous parish had been closed by the diocese in the spirit of racial integration. The church building was eventually razed.
A life-long Catholic, Mrs. Pope had received all of her sacraments at St. Joseph’s Church, an African American parish which had been located in the Jackson Ward neighborhood and then closed in 1969. The closing was most distressing to her and longtime St. Joseph parishioners.
The mother of four daughters, she pointed out that they attended St. Elizabeth’s School when they moved into the neighborhood. A number of families from St. Joseph’s registered and are still parishioners today.
“I love St. Elizabeth’s because it’s like family,” she told The Catholic Virginian. “Everyone cares about one another, takes care of one another.
“There’s nothing like having a caring church family,” she continued. “There are a lot of stories to be told.”
As part of making outreach to younger families, Mrs. Pope said St. Elizabeth’s is trying to make its worship and programs inter-generational. To accomplish this, a faith formation session is held once a month on Sunday morning after Mass.
“We have four people leading it now and it’s pretty well attended,” Mrs. Pope said.
Leaders are Sandra and David Tourain, and Amy and Phil Brew.
“We’ve had new people to join—black and white people—in the past few months,” Mrs. Pope said. “Strangely enough, they include white people who have moved into the Highland Park neighborhood.”
She had left the neighborhood to move to Chamberlayne Farms in Henrico County in 1981.
Although Father Daniel Brady, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Glen Allen is the canonical pastor of St. Elizabeth’s, Father James Arsenault regularly celebrates Mass on Sundays at 9 a.m. and on Wednesday nights at 6:30.
“Father Arsenault is doing well and we like him,” Mrs. Pope said. “He has really good homilies.”
There have been periods of discontent over the years and for a time parishioners had to worship in the church basement for an extended period when the ceiling in the main sanctuary collapsed after heavy rains.
“There’ve been lots of struggles,” Mrs. Pope said, “but we’ve always overcome.”