Scotland's National Catholic magazine

Growing up Catholic and Jewish in Glasgow

Cynthia Spillman grew up in sixties Glasgow, the daughter of a French Catholic and a Russian Jew. She explains how that unique background gave her the strength to survive a life marked by tragedy.

My mother went into labour at the Regent Picture House, whilst watching the film ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,’ starring Ingrid Bergman.

I bounced into the world as they were distributing the fruit salad, at Park Nursing Home, Glasgow, on Thursday 26 March 1959, to a French Catholic mother and a father of Russian Jewish extraction.

Baptised Cynthia Yvette Stone, I am the elder of two daughters. I have three half-brothers as my mother had previously been married to an American GI, who was killed in a car accident in 1954.

My brothers went to St Aloysius and were friends with the likes of Ian Bankier, now Chairman of Celtic Football Club and the late Ian Nelson, son of the former manager of The Central Hotel, a book which I contributed to after the hotel’s major refurbishment in 2011.

I belong to Glasgow – or is it Odessa?

My first experience of Catholicism, was starting Notre Dame primary School in 1963. Those were the days of the Ford Zodiac, the Beatles and fish on Fridays. My late father, Sheriff Marcus Stone, prepared my application for the headmistress, Sister Ignatius on his new red IBM Golf ball electric typewriter.

She was so impressed, she showed the letter to the whole school.

It was confusing enough having a Jewish father and going to a convent school – but there was another hitch. I didn’t speak a word of English – so I had to sit my entrance test in French.

Shortly after I started, Sister Agnes was appointed as the new headmistress. Despite their religious differences, she was taken with my father.

He invited Sister Agnes to come and watch him in court, after which he took her to lunch. She was enthralled and, the next day, announced in assembly that we must all ‘pray for Sheriff Stone’s ongoing judicial wisdom and divine guidance’.

The nuns were foreboding, dressed in their black habit, their hair covered.

Many felt that nuns were aliens and questioned if they even went to the toilet, like we lesser mortals. Religious education was of paramount importance. Our first confessions were held in the near dark, with Father Gillespie on the other side of a screen, resembling a disembodied voice.

We attended masses which were still recited in Latin and learned the Catechism off by rote.

Sex education was nil. We were simply instructed never to sit on a man’s lap without there being a telephone directory separating us nor to wear patent shoes as our knickers would be reflected in them!

In 1970, I passed the entrance test to go on to Notre Dame High School. I lasted a year, but failed to flourish academically.

I gained academic confidence at the relaxed, non-denominational Park School for Girls, and vowed I’d never enter a Catholic church again. I didn’t stick to my guns as in 1978 I married the father of my two children, a Protestant from a Glasgow dynasty.

I promised to raise my children in Mother Church. We were married in a Catholic church, complete with a Nuptial Mass.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans

I avoided religion like the plague, thereafter. It was only after succumbing to alcoholism in 1997, 10 years after witnessing my five-year-old son Anthony burning to death in a car accident in 1987 and the severe facial disfigurement of my seven-year-old daughter Samantha that I became willing, through gritted teeth, to believe in a ‘Power greater than myself.’

Aftermath

My old-school (literally) Catholic upbringing, combined with my authoritarian parents, had instilled in me immense confusion about men and love. For the greater part of my life, I confused abuse with the latter and it was only after the death of my father in 2012 that I spotted the connection between my fear of God and my fear of my father.

This awareness has given me the ability to let go of both brands of the ‘F word’, and to begin to dare to live my truth, no longer dreading the judgement, disapproval and rejection of either.

I refer to myself as being a combustible mix of Catholic guilt and Jewish neurosis.

My Jewish cousins tell me that they viewed me as being ‘exotic’ when I was young.

At convent school, I was definitely the odd one out. Some of my father’s immediate family had made my mother most unwelcome on her arrival in Glasgow, but in time this changed and indeed my father’s brother, the late Sir Alexander Stone, married a non-Jewish woman when he was 80 – somewhat a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

My mother returned to Catholicism at the end of her life. I was amazed to hear that she was attending mass with the other care home residents, resulting in my arranging her Catholic funeral, officiated by the ‘coolest’ priest I’ve ever met.

Focus on the similarities and not the differences

At first glance, it would be easy to focus on what appears to be the vast differences between Judaism and Catholicism. But in the broader sense, this is inaccurate.

There are similarities between the two religions. Family and tradition are of huge importance to both.

Jewish or not we’d attend family Passover gatherings in the grand house in Pollokshields, as well as bar mitzvah’s, weddings and funerals. It was great fun! For the greater part of my life, I felt that I didn’t fit in anywhere.

When I was young, I wanted to marry either a Jew or a Frenchman, probably in an unconscious attempt to complete the part of me which was ‘missing’.

Now extremely happily married, I’ve achieved neither, but I feel more ‘whole’ than I ever have during any other period of my oft-troubled 63 years.

My mixed heritage has given me courage during my darkest moments. After Anthony died, I used to remind myself of the holocaust survivors and draw on this for strength.

If they could survive their horrors then I could survive mine. In these troubled times, whatever our origins, tolerance and the way we treat our fellow man and woman is the hallmark of the truly spiritual person. It remains a joy for me to have one foot in both camps.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Cynthia Spillman is a writer and journalist who specialises in helping those who are seeking love or suffering from loss. She divides her time between Nice, and Pembridge, Herefordshire. She can be found at @CynthTellsIt.

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