The Village Church

As a rather frail youngster whose health limited his activities, young Martin Scorsese found the parochial school and Old St. Patrick's Cathedral an improbably congenial environment after two years of public school in Queens. Neither of his parents were particularly religious. Their sending their son to the Catholic school did not reveal any particular act of devotion on their part, but it was rather the standard practice for even nominally Catholic families in New York at the time. The Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn across the river both supported enormous school systems, which in many locales equaled or surpassed public school enrollment. With the number of teaching sisters volunteering their services during this period, most parishes were able to provide free elementary education for their parishioners. His going to St. Patrick's rather than to public school should not be conceived of in contemporary terms as a family's financial sacrifice to send their son to a private school.

In Martin Scorsese's case, the choice of St. Patrick's over public school was in fact particularly fortuitous. Catholic schools and churches of the time bristled with religious images representing incidents in the life of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Each image told a story in a way that carried a desired emotional impact. The art may not have been very good, but to a child, the connection between picture and story stamps the imagination forever. As an altar boy, who dressed in ecclesiastical robes and assisted at church services, Martin Scorsese witnessed up close the splendid rituals reenacting the events of the liturgical year: Christmas, Lent, Easter, and the celebrations of the feasts of the Blessed Virgin, Joseph, and the other saints. Each of the rites brought its own delight of senses: the vestments, candles, shimmering altar vessels, incense, and music. In catechism class, he would have learned about the hierarchical structure of the Church, with its leaders and followers, the importance of unquestioning loyalty to group mores, and the dread of excommunication, all of which eerily colors his portrayal of criminal gangs, or in the case of The Age of Innocence, the equally closed upper reaches of Edith Wharton's New York society in the nineteenth century. Involved as he was with church activities, Martin became close to a young parish priest, Father Frank Principe, who encouraged his interests in music and art, especially the movies. This relationship stirred in this sensitive youngster the desire to become a priest himself.

Scorsese's decision to enter Cathedral Prep, the minor seminary of the Archdiocese, at the age of fourteen was perfectly consistent with his parochial school background. These early priestly ambitions took him away from the sanctuary of Elizabeth Street all the way uptown to West Eighty-sixth Street. As a genuine New Yorker, he took the subway, under the heart of midtown, with its legitimate theater and movie cathedrals, right to the door of the school. Although Woody Allen recalls feeling a childhood awe at the sight of the midtown movie cathedrals like the Radio City Music Hall, and although Sidney Lumet began his artistic career on the stage, both of these elements form little part of Martin Scorsese's artistic biography. For him, going to a swank uptown theater meant the Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street, an area that even by the 1950s was well past its prime. The commercial life of the area was dominated by the huge cut-rate department store, S. Klein's, on Union Square, a minipark noted for its radical left-wing political speakers. Or so we thought in the 1950s.

After little more than a year at Cathedral Prep, Scorsese had second thoughts about his priestly vocation, prompted in part by poor academic performance, and withdrew from the prep seminary. He continued his studies at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, which involved an even longer ride on the subway underneath the length of Manhattan. The schools changed, but the grades did not. Finishing in the bottom quarter of his graduating class, he failed to gain admission to Fordham University, also in the Bronx. Thus ended his ten-year involvement with Catholic schools. It would be misleading to conclude that this early education was parochial in the pejorative sense of the word, and therefore an obstacle to his development as a mature artist. Clearly, his later productivity demonstrates that he was scarcely hobbled by his early education. The schooling, coupled with his quasi-confinement to his immediate geographical surroundings, provides a point of entry for understanding Scorsese's sense of commitment to immediate circles of friends and families that marks the internal struggles of many of his individualistic and even narcissistic characters.

Especially around the time of the release of The Last Temptation of Christ and its surrounding controversies, Scorsese provided several quotable protestations of his lingering belief in Catholicism, including, most famously, " I wanted to be a priest, My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else."9 At the same time, he explains his alienation from the Church beginning in 1965, after hearing a priest in Union City, New Jersey, preach about the Vietnam War as a holy enterprise. After several divorces and failure to "make his Easter duty" for years, Scorsese considers himself "excommunicated," even though, as he explains, "I haven't gotten a letter yet."10 Yet his Catholic awareness of good and evil, of redemption and forgiveness, of community and loyalty, remain at the heart of his filmmaking.11

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