It was the prettiest of my mother’s hybrid irises. I snapped it off and carried it protectively to my destination. When I gave it to her, she smiled and winked. I suspect she knew I had snatched it. She put it on her desk and class began. I looked at that iris all day, fearing what my mother would say. At the bell she put it in front of the Mary statue and said, “You can tell your mother that her flower is honoring the mother of Jesus.” And with that, Sister Mary Edwarda, B.V.M., my third-grade teacher, saved my skin—not for the last time.
My paean to religious women was triggered by a recent trip to Iowa for a 50th high school reunion and the occasion to visit some of my boyhood haunts. Like many of you I have been blessed by the presence of “the nuns” in my life; hence this reminiscence.
Two of Sister Edwarda’s colleagues made lasting impressions on me. Sister Eugenio was my eighth-grade teacher, principal, moderator of the altar servers and disciplinarian. I knew her in all these roles. When I was caught tasting the leftover altar wine after Mass, I was less than happy with my punishment: I was not allowed to carry the cross at the Easter Sunday high Mass.
The other Dubuque B.V.M. was Sister Grace Ann. She was overseer of the motherhouse property where I worked on the grounds crew. She liked the way I trimmed hedges but was less impressed with my precision in setting headstones in the cemetery. She gave me responsibility and special tasks that built both my confidence and my work ethic.
Our high school was a consolidation of four Catholic academies; so we were taught by a platoon of religious women. There was the duet of Dubuque Franciscans who merited an eternal reward for trying to instruct me in algebra, geometry and physics. To this day I do not know how Sisters Rebecca and Elvira survived that Sisyphean venture.
Sister Fleurette, a Presentation nun, was the librarian; she was constantly breaking the library’s code of silence. She chatted with every student who entered the room, while I was responsible for monitoring the noise level.
Her comrade, Sister Constance, was very special. She moderated the speech and debate programs. It was here that I fashioned my high school persona. Given my need to hold down several jobs, I did not participate in sports. So I joined the speech and debate clubs. The problem was my lisp. After months of patient practice, I entered my first contest against a Jesuit school in Wisconsin. That contest resulted in the first of many gold medals, trophies and certificates gleaned over three years of speech and debate. I even ventured into theater. Sister Constance was just that, a constant presence during those formative years.
This was before Vatican II.
After the council, my life has also been graced by the presence of women religious. During theology, graduate school and university work—as both faculty member and administrator—there were women who were wise philosophers and faithful theologians, as well as ministers in student affairs and campus ministry. Over time, women religious seriously undertook the council’s call for renewal. The nuns gradually disappeared from the parish schools. They found other ministries with the poor and outcast, with prisoners and abused women, and in health care and community development.
Over a few beers, my reunion buddies agreed that what we experienced, the ways we were enriched by the presence of the “good sisters” in our education, was not the experience of their children or grandchildren. It was something never to be experienced again. That made all of us more grateful for these extraordinary women.
This column has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
Corrections: December 4, 2012
An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of the author's high school librarian and misidentified her religious community. Her name is Sister Fleurette, a Presentation nun, not Sister Florette, a Visitation nun.