This is National Catholic Schools Week

In Gratitude to the All the Sisters Who Formed Me

(photo: Courtesy of Cristo Rey Tampa High School)

It's National Catholic Schools Week! This is our opportunity to honor the 6,525 Catholic schools across America, where 1.9 million students are currently enrolled. For these students, Catholic schools provide an education that prepares them for higher education, for a competitive work environment, and most importantly, for living a Christian life of virtue in a challenging society.

Since 1974, the Catholic Schools Week – which begins on the last Sunday of January – has been observed with Masses, school open houses and other activities for students, families, parishioners and community members. This year's theme is “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service.”

Bishop George Murry, bishop of Youngstown and chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Education, said, “For centuries, Catholic schools have provided a well-rounded education to disadvantaged families, new arrivals to America, and to all who seek a seat in our schools. We have always tried to accommodate families of all backgrounds while maintaining our principles and teaching in a spirit of charity. Catholic schools are integral to our nation's character – serving the common good, strengthening local communities, and building the Kingdom of God on earth.”


A Shout-Out to the Sisters Who Formed Me

I was a Catholic school kid, and I can tell you firsthand how my teachers – mostly women religious, in those days of ample vocations – strove to instill knowledge and virtue into the children entrusted to their care. 

There are many fine teachers, both religious and lay instructors, who teach in Catholic schools today, often at wages lower than than the salaries of their counterparts in the secular institutions. In my case, growing up in the '50s and '60s, I especially remember 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, doing my small part in celebration of Catholic Schools Week, 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 belt out 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 that's something.

Thank you, Sister Mary Bonaventure. Oh, poor Sister Bonaventure, how the students teased you–calling you “Bonnie” behind your back. You were faithful to your mission and to all of us.

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 most of all, Sister Mary Edward. Sister Edward is the one person from my high school years whom I remember most frequently, who 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 their names. May he welcome them, the brides of Christ, to an eternity in His presence.

Folk singer Michael Smith remembers his parochial school education, too. Here, one of my favorite songs: Sister Clarissa.