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John P. Schlegel, S.J.November 19, 2012

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.

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John Walton
9 years 6 months ago
I think to a winter storm we had in the early 1960's - my 5 siblings were going stir crazy (6 children being a modestly sized family at the time.)  Despite school closure, Sr. Agnes Gerard OP called my mother (anda few others), and invited us to to to the school building and do arts and crafts with her.  So we trudged through the snow and spent several days until the midwestern winter let loose its grip.

As a youthful reprobate, I was compelled to attend morning Mass by the side of the principal, each and every morning.  Sr. Blanche Marie O.P.

And who amongst us does not react in Pavlovian manner to the sound of the nun's clicker, instinctively genuflecting upon its command?
9 years 6 months ago

Blessings on the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, NJ! These are the good women who taught me from Grades 1 through 8, at Sts. Peter and Paul School, St. Thomas, V.I. where my family lived until 1946 when we transplanted to NYC.

About ten years ago I learned that my First Grade teacher, Sister Gertrude Agnes, was living at Convent Station, so I hurried  over and for the first time in about seventy years we met and talked! Back to the late 30s, to this day I remember Mom picking me up after school in First Grade, timid and clinging to Mom’s dress, hearing Mom  asking Sister Gertrude, “How did he do?” I remember Sister’s reply, “He tries to be so brave, but quietly cries to himself!” Yes, that’s me!

Those  great Sister of Charity of Convent Station! In those days they rose early for Morning Prayer, prepared breakfast, washed the dishes, hurried off to Mass with the children, then to classes of forty or more students. At the end of the school day it was back to the convent to prepare supper, do the dishes, more prayer, correct papers, then to bed. God bless them – they worked so hard and got paid so little! No wonder they are monetarily challenged today, as are all our Sisters, needing a special Sunday collection. They deserve it!

Thank you, Sisters for all you did for me, for all. We love you and fully understand why sometimes tempers flared justifiably, as Jesus’ did too! All you holy women, my teachers, now with the Lord, pray for my wife our three sons, seven grandkids and for me!

Joy Peterson
9 years 5 months ago
While you perfectly describe Sisters Fluerette and Constance (Both of whom are directling both library stacks and speechmakers in heaven), you missed identifying their community membership. There were Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary - not our dear friends, the Visitations. Joy, PBVM

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