In St. Vincent, the movie(available on DVD), New-to-the neighborhood Oliver, before his first day of school, takes the B119 bus bound for Sheepshead Bay, and double-checks his location on the screen of his smartphone, which shows a segment of map depicting the area of Fort Hamilton, and pinpointing the location of St. Patrick’s (Catholic) School. The fictional St. Patrick’s, (filmed at a real catholic school and church combo in Bay Ridge) being a parochial school, is seen to have (somewhat stereotypical) Catholic school uniforms for its students: jumper dresses in shades of blue plaid for the girls, pale blue button-down shirts, gray pants, and blue plaid ties for the boys.
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It is also seen in exterior shots as being in proximity to a grand, old-fashioned style Catholic Church, which, as it turns out, is a genuine Catholic parish church in the Marine Park neighborhood of Brooklyn; Good Shepherd Church on Batchelder St. While Oliver’s newly-divorced mother, who is surely hurting for money, ends up working long hours as a CAT-scan technician, and having no other immediate childcare options besides their grouchy, foul-mouthed new neighbor, Vietnam vet Vincent, played by Bill Murray, is somehow paying Catholic school tuition; she must be doing so in the belief that Catholic school offers a superior educational experience, or a refuge from the violence and other social ills which beset public schools. While in the context of this movie’s fictionalized world, I cannot speak to the former (the merits of Catholic school versus public school are a matter of hot debate in real life to people in the New York area), the latter unfortunately proves to be an empty promise, as on the first day of school, while in the locker room for gym, bullies assault Oliver, and end up stealing not only his street clothes (Catholic school uniform), but his cell phone and keys, forcing him to walk home in his gym suit, and turn to his neighbor, a seemingly “mean” old man, for help. Though (to the fictional St. Patrick’s School’s credit) the gym teacher tries to stop the stop the bullies during the initial encounter, he was unable to prevent both the theft of Oliver’s afore-mentioned essentials, and future assaults by the bullies both on and off school grounds. It is only Vincent’s coaching Oliver on how to land an effective punch from below on a much larger assailant which puts a stop to the bullying by giving the leader of the bullies a dose of his own medicine, and it is only when both boys are punished by the school administration for fighting that the dialogue can begin which leads to a truce between them. Vincent informs Oliver that “tree-huggers didn’t build this country” and those who fail to defend themselves “get mowed down”. Though Vincent served in the military during the Vietnam War, he didn’t want to go to war, but considered violence as a phenomenon to be a regrettable necessity in certain situations. Contrary to the Church’s message of “turn the other cheek”, and the portrayal of Oliver’s initial embrace of Catholic/Christian values of self-sacrifice shown in his reading aloud of The Giving Tree and his commentary upon it, the Gospel According To Vincent proclaimed violence as a necessity, but primarily in self-defense; Vincent didn’t advocate looking for a fight. Vincent rationalizes his teaching Oliver to fight with the fact that “he’s a little runt, he’s got to learn to defend himself”. Though the show of force “worked” to end the bully situation, violence was only justified in self-defense. In spite of this, and Vincent’s many other deviations from the Catholic Church’s ideas of how one should conduct oneself in living one’s life (the cursing, drinking, and “spending a lot of time with the lady of the night” couldn’t be considered good attributes in the eyes of the Catholic Church) , Vincent becomes Oliver’s choice for a school assignment which calls for Oliver and the other students to determine if people they know “have the qualities fit for sainthood”. When his class starts the study of the role of saints and the concept of sainthood, Oliver, having become cynical about the world around him, is dubious about both the relevance of sainthood to the world at large, as well as the factual existence of the qualities of sainthood in individuals (his mother thinks he has absorbed the negativity surrounding the divorce). When Oliver discusses St. William of Rochester in class, whose official biography states that he was killed by his adopted son, Oliver points out that many people get killed in the present day “and they don’t get to become saints”. However, Oliver eventually comes to the conclusion that even someone who seems the “least-likely” to qualify for sainthood on one level, could manifest a number of qualities of sainthood on another level. Though Vincent’s bad qualities are obvious to all, especially Oliver’s parents, Oliver digs deep to find the hidden good qualities of compassion, sacrifice, and altruism which are present in Vincent but a lot less obvious than the bad qualities, because Vincent has the virtue of humility and does not brag about his good deeds or put on a “good face” for society. Vincent’s hidden struggles include financial worries from over-mortgaging his house, a losing streak in his horse-betting hobby, a wife with early Alzheimers’ in a mansion-like nursing home which is no doubt the main cause of his financial problems, a pregnant girlfriend, and the problems of everyday living, later made worse by a stroke and having to use a cane. Oliver later compares Vincent to St. William of Rochester in his presentation for the “Saints Among Us” assembly at his school, because Vincent “took him in when he didn’t have to and probably didn’t want to”, and cites several examples of bravery on Vincent’s part, including but not limited to his saving two officers’ lives in the Vietnam war, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. He also describes Vincent’s regular visits to the nursing home to check in on his wife, even though she had for a long time been in a mental state where she “doesn’t recognize him”, and doing her laundry for a number of years, “because saints never give up”.
Vincent’s good qualities also come forth in his caring for Felix, a big, white, fluffy Persian cat, “who eats gourmet cat food while Vincent eats sardines. Because saints make sacrifices.”
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Vincent doesn’t seem very spiritual, but he does his share of praying at Belmont.
St. Patrick’s School, though Catholic and parochial, is nevertheless religiously and ethnically diverse in terms of its student body. Though Brother Geraghty, the male religious who is Oliver’s teacher, speaks with an Irish brogue, all major physically distinctive ethnic groups are represented among Oliver’s fellow students in the classroom and the rest of the school, in fact, his nemesis, the leader of the bullies is one Robert Ocinski, described as “the only Puerto Rican Pollack in Brooklyn” implying that this individual is a mixture of these two very different ethnic heritages, though American-born. The bullying is not ethnic-based, but predicated on the fact that Robert Ocinski is a much taller, heartier, and more assertive kid, while Oliver is short, nerdy, and new.
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This realistically portrays the situation of an average Catholic parish in the NYC metro area, an entity which may have been started when one particular ethnic group was the numerical majority in the area surrounding it, but is now being attended by people of different ethnic heritages than the parish was initially started to serve. In spite of his mother’s working long hours to pay for his Catholic school tuition, religion does not seem to have been emphasized in Oliver’s home environment and/or perhaps he is new to Catholic school as well as to Sheepshead Bay. When Oliver is introduced to his new class, and asked by Brother Geraghty, his new teacher,to lead the class in morning prayer, he tells Brother Geraghty that “I think I’m Jewish” (not entirely unjustified given the Jewish last name of his father). From the class comes “me, too”; and “there is no God”. Brother Geraghty asks the other students to identify their religious backgrounds, and a number of them claim to be other than Catholic, or to be agnostic, or “don’t know”.
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Brother Geraghty tells Oliver: “Yes, you get the idea. We celebrate all the religious faiths of the world in this room, Oliver. I’m a Catholic, which is the best of all the religions, because, really, we have the most rules. And the best clothes. But among us, a Buddhist, agnostic, we have a Baptist, we have a ‘I don’t know’, which seems to be the fastest-growing religion in the world. And now, we have, ‘I think I’m Jewish’, which is new to the class, Oliver, so thanks for that. But it does not preclude you from giving the morning prayer. Let us bow our heads and pray”. This situation harks back to the 1980s, when the relative lack of charter schools and other secular alternatives led parents of different religions or no religion at all to enroll their children in Catholic school in the hopes of it being better, educationally or in other ways, than the public school system.
Near the end of the movie, Oliver, Ocinski, and Vincent and family have dinner together at Vincent’s house. Oliver incorrectly makes the sign of the cross after having asked Vincent to say a blessing over the meal, and Ocinski shows him the correct way to do it.
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This movie was said to have been inspired by a similar real-life Catholic school assignment done by director Melfi’s adopted niece when she was eleven years old. She, too, chose St. William of Rochester for the purposes of her assignment, but it is unlikely she did such a thorough job of interviewing the living person’s acquaintances, digging up research materials, etc. as Oliver did in the movie version of the assignment.

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