Do you appreciate the Sisters who taught you to add and subtract, to diagram a sentence, to pray and to be kind to your neighbor? Before Catholic Schools Week is too distant a reflection in the rear-view mirror, I thought I’d step up to thank several of the nuns who helped to shape the person I am today.
The reason for my reflection? Well, Britain’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education, the opposition party’s leader on education policy, thinks nuns don’t make good teachers.
Shadow Secretary Tristram Hunt is quoted in The Tablet, challenging Catholic journalist Christina Odone about the quality of her Catholic education, asking her. “These were nuns, they were all nuns, weren’t they?” Hunt went on to say,
“I know about your religious schooling, and there’s a difference I think between a state education system having qualified teachers in the classroom.”
Quick on her feet, Odone–whose own education included a Catholic school, a state school and a private school–retorted,
“I wonder what your Ofsted inspectors would say about my teachers. They were absolutely dedicated to us, they didn’t care about political correctness, they didn’t ask questions of us when we were five years old about sexual education, sexual values.”
Well played, Ms. Odone.
(UPDATE: Check out the Catholic Herald article about what’s now being called “Nungate.” It appears this Secretary Hunt fellow would like to mandate sex education for five-year-olds. And Sr. Catherine Wybourne’s Twitter response is priceless.)
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Here in the U.S., January 25-31 was Catholic Schools Week–that annual celebration of Catholic education. It’s an opportunity to support Catholic schools and to focus on the value Catholic education provides to young people and its contributions to our church, our communities and our nation.
For me, I recall especially the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, an order who had their motherhouse in Pittsburgh and who taught at the Catholic elementary and high schools I attended in southeastern Michigan. That was more than a few years ago, and I’m sure many of the Sisters I knew have gone to their eternal reward.
Today, though, in celebration of Catholic Schools Week and in direct response to Secretary Hunt’s snide remarks, I’d like to thank a few of them by name:
Thank you, Sister Mary Amabilis. Sister Amabilis was my first grade teacher. There were 64 baby-boomer children in her crowded classroom, desks closely spaced, coats doubled up on the coathooks, with only one teacher and no teachers’ aides; and yet we learned. Our parents—who sacrificed to send us to Catholic school, believing we would receive a superior education—were not disappointed. Sister Amabilis was never too busy to answer a question or to offer praise for a correct answer. She carried a pointer and a piece of chalk, quizzing us on the alphabet and teaching us to pray with our hands together, thumbs crossed and fingers pointing toward heaven. When the five-year-old me got lost–forgetting whether my class sat on the left side of the church or the right–and had to sit with the second-graders at daily Mass, Sister Amabilis found me and welcomed me back to her brood.
Thank you, Sister Mary Gracille. Sister Gracille was my teacher in both second and fourth grades. That meant that she was responsible for preparing me and the others in our class for three sacraments: for our first Confession and first Holy Communion, which we received in second grade, and for Confirmation, which at the time was administered in fourth grade. She guided us through the Baltimore Catechism
Thank you, Sister Mary Richard. Sister Richard was the principal, and she had a boy’s name, so I was afraid of her. In reality, though, she administered the school well. I think she also taught third grade, although I was not in her classroom.
Thank you, Sister Mary Georgia. Even back then, she seemed so old to me–her face wrinkled, her shoulders hunched. I’m sure Sister Georgia has gone to her eternal reward, but did I ever really thank her for all the time she devoted to us? Sister Georgia introduced us to history and to some really cool artistic techniques.
Thank you, Sister Mary Patricia. Sister Patricia taught music at the high school level. I was so shy in those years, and she insisted that I couldn’t sing under my breath but had to stretch to reach the high notes. She was a forceful presence in the classroom–sharing humorous stories about her own youth, her long strides as she crossed the classroom emphasizing her points.
Thank you, Sister Mary Gabriel. In contrast to Sister Patricia’s exuberant style, Sister Gabriel was quiet and serene. She taught high school French (parlez-vous francais?), which actually comes in handy sometimes when I encounter a new word and can break down its parts to understand its meaning. It definitely did NOT come in handy when I actually traveled to France, because they talk so fast and I’d learned so little, so long ago. Still, I am grateful for what Sister Gabriel was able to pack into my brain.
Thank you, Sister Mary Simplicia. Sister Simplicia made simple the world of home economics. I confess, I no longer iron in long steady strokes as she taught; but thanks to her, I can sauté and poach and blanch and sear and create a roux. It was in her class that I had my only experience with a sewing machine.
Thank you, Sister Mary Sophia. She taught science–and I was a lover of words, not a lover of math and science, so I was intimidated by the things going on in her science lab. Under Sister Sophia’s tutelage, I did manage to pass Biology, though, so there’s that.
Thank you, Sister Mary Virgiline. Sister Virgiline was our soft-spoken high school principal, gloved in velvet not iron. She’d visit our classrooms personally when there was news to share, when we needed encouragement, when she wanted to thank us for a job well done.
Thank you, Sister Mary Edward. Most of all, she shaped my life in a concrete way. Sister Edward was the journalism moderator, and it was she who pulled me out of the classroom to ask whether I’d join the staff of the school newspaper, The Cabrin. It was there that I met–woo hoo!–my future husband, and there that I formed lifelong friendships. My husband Jerry was co-editor of The Cabrin in his senior year; I was editor the following year, walking away from high school with a special “Journalist of the Year” trophy. Sister Edward, in addition to cracking the whip and getting us inexperienced writers to meet the printer’s deadline, taught the essentials of good writing: how to craft a lede, put the heavy details in the first sentence, then explain in greater depth in the story. How to sharpen text, using a strong verb and remaining, where possible, in the active tense. She demonstrated the difference between a news story and a feature. Under her tutelage, we learned layout and always faced photos toward the center of the page.
I’m pretty sure, despite this long list, that I’m forgetting someone else who touched my heart and changed my world. Some were strict, some wore smiles more than they did frowns; but all were trying to help us to understand the Faith and its meaning in our lives. They were stalwart, dedicated to helping us grow in knowledge and virtue and faith. Some achieved that noble goal with smiles and hugs, others with a ruler; but always, with affection. I may not list here all of the sisters who influenced me long ago, but God knows. May he welcome them, the brides of Christ, to an eternity in His presence.
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Folk singer Michael Smith remembers, too. Here, one of my favorite songs: Sister Clarissa.