Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Religious sisters teaching in Catholic schools have become a rarity today, as vocations to the religious life have declined dramatically in the past few generations despite a growing Catholic population. Yet a handful of Catholic schools have been bucking the trend, and have seen the reintroduction of young, traditional nuns into the classroom to the delight of pastors, parents and students.
St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, for example, is a parish of 2,800 families in the Atlanta suburbs. Its parish school has 550 students, 350 in the grade school and 200 in the preschool. In recent years, the school has welcomed three Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, or Nashville Dominicans, to the teaching staff, and a fourth serves as principal.
St. Catherine’s pastor, Fr. Neil Dhabliwala, has been most pleased with the sisters’ presence. He said, “They have made a big impact on emphasizing our Catholic identity in particular as an orthodox Catholic school, with a strong emphasis on beautiful liturgy and solid spiritual formation and well-rounded education.”
Although there are some requirements to having the sisters be part of the school staff, such as allowing them the time and opportunity to enjoy a community life, Father noted, “There haven’t been any difficulties with logistics for the sisters or any issues incorporating them into the life of the parish.”
The parochial school of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Bremerton, Washington, reintroduced three Nashville Dominican sisters at the school in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. Previously, Dominican sisters had begun teaching at the school in 1926, had 12 sisters on the teaching staff by 1944, and saw the last one retire in 1994.
“It has been fabulous,” said Jeannette Wolfe, Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic School principal. “They bring a joy that is constant—they smile a lot—they bring patience and wisdom, and they bring a sense of peace.”
School enrollment for 2018-19 jumped by 25 students after being fairly constant in previous years, which she attributes in a large part of the presence of the sisters. She continued, “We’re a more conservative parish with a big homeschooling population, and it’s been a big draw that the sisters are here.”
She said that Fr. Derek Lappe, the pastor, had long desired to have the sisters teach at the school, and made a request through his archbishop, Peter Sartain of Seattle, whose sister is a Nashville Dominican. The sisters visited the parish in 2016, and sent three to teach there at the 1st, 5th and 8th-grade level. The school serves 165 students K-8, and has 27 preschoolers. The three sisters are part of a teaching staff of 14.
“We’d love to have more, but they’ve told us they don’t have anyone more to send,” Wolfe continued.
Wolfe said the sisters bring their unique talents. One, for example, is athletic and enjoys playing basketball, in full habit, with the students. The 8th-grade teacher is particularly well versed in religion, and has been tapped to teach it to the students. Wolfe noted, “Sr. Maria Caeli, who teaches our eighth grade, has made religion interesting. She tells stories, talks about the saints and leads interesting discussions with our students at a time when they have lots of questions. I’m glad to have her up there answering them, because she knows more than the rest of us!”
The sisters are in high demand outside the classroom as well. They have led multiple retreats, both for students and women, and have many requests from groups to deliver talks. All requests, however, must be balanced against their need to maintain sufficient prayer and community time.
The parish community has embraced the nuns since they’ve arrived, Wolfe said, and have contributed much to get the convent ready.
She said, “I can’t rave about them enough. They’re delightful. They incorporated themselves into our staff seamlessly, are well respected and easy to like.”