Religion and Children’s
BARBARA BENNETT WOODHOUSE
Maria Urso entered first grade when she was barely five, around the time of her first communion. She had to stand on a desk to reach the blackboard. An exceptionally intelligent child, she was promoted rapidly from grade to grade. Maria was impressionable, soaking up information and ideas from her surroundings. She believed in God and attended mass with her mother. She prayed with her family around the dinner table. Her secular education and religious education were intermixed. Attending a free public school operated by Catholic nuns, she would gaze at the symbols on the schoolroom wall—a large crucifix depicting Jesus on the cross, flanked by portraits of Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy, and his beautiful consort, Elena of Montenegro. Maria worshipped her teacher, also called Elena, and thought of her as the Queen incarnate. Indoctrination in fascism was also a part of the mix. Her family was apolitical. But fascism was everywhere—all the children belonged to fascist youth groups and Maria was proud of her Girls of the Fascia uniform of a white blouse and black skirt. Children reciting the alphabet were taught to say “A is for Albero (tree)” and “M is for Mussolini.” Maria saw and felt sorry for children she saw in her village who had to work instead of attending school. But, far removed from the persecution engulfing Jewish children in other parts of Italy and Europe and growing up in a comfortable farmhouse surrounded by olive trees and almond trees, with a large family and many farm animals for companions, and with fields for running and the ocean for swimming, Maria experienced her childhood as a “paradise.”
Then came the Allied invasion—the beach where she had played was black with ships. The airplanes and bombs, the amphibian tanks, the alien soldiers, the destruction and terror would mark her forever. “A child is never the same,” is how she puts it. But amid this chaos, she also experienced the solace of prayer and the power of her own agency. Ten-year-old Maria prayed for deliverance when a huge airplane came down the street strafing it with gunfire and all the doors she pounded on were barricaded. She escaped the bullets and was able to reach safety. Later, she stopped her family from leaving their sanctuary; terrified of the bombers, she refused when her father tried to move the family back to their farmhouse. That night, a huge bomb destroyed the farmhouse including the very room where Maria and her family would have been sleeping. It was her force of will that saved her family.