“Thank You, Sister…”: A Tribute to the American Nun

I became a Catholic at the age of 40. Naturally I was curious about what I’d missed all those years. I read every book or article on Growing Up Catholic I could find. I had no experience with sodalities or novenas, but I did know some religious, and they bore no resemblance to the vicious women who appeared in these memoirs. Nor did they resemble the innocents in films like Sister Act.

Had a major transformation occurred right before my conversion, or was the general public only hearing one side of the story? Surely the millions of American sisters couldn’t all have been like the cartoon characters in the popular media.

I began searching through biographies and magazine profiles for people, Catholic and non-Catholic, whose lives had been touched in a positive way by sisters. I also personally contacted a number of prominent Catholics. What quickly emerged was a much more balanced, and believable, portrait of the American nun. The following are some preliminary sketches for that portrait.

The Cruel Classroom?

On the principle of eating your broccoli first, I tackled that fearsome figure: Sister Sadistica. Was life in a parochial school nasty, brutish, and long? Corporal punishment was definitely practiced in the Catholic schools of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Of course, it was also practiced in most homes and schools. Unlike other private institutions, parish schools seldom had admission requirements beyond the ability to pay the modest tuition. Nor were students readily expelled. Classes were large. Even today, 50 students per teacher is not unheard of. Some students were there because they had been unruly, or unproductive, in other schools. Many had parents with little education, ill-equipped to give Sister much support from home, other than beating the child for misbehaving. Accounts of “teacher torture” in parochial schools remind me of the tales of drill sergeants at boot camp or women in labor. One begins to suspect an element of exaggeration for dramatic effect.

Having been an educator myself for 18 years, I shudder at the way some Mothers Superior deployed their troops. Many a novice took her first teaching post with no more preparation than copies of the assigned textbooks. I’m not surprised their inexperience and frustration was occasionally expressed with a yardstick.

How often did that happen, I wondered. Attorney Walter Bansley (inspiration for the prosecutor in “A Few Good Men”) tells me, “the sisters were never hesitant to use the ruler,” but admits, “I cannot think of one circumstance where its use was not appropriate.”

Greg Blache, defensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers, says, “I met a lot of very strict nuns, but never a sadistic nun. Being strict is a talent and a virtue, not a negative. The problem with our world today is that our youth have very few people who care enough about them to be unpopular and strict, to demand the best of them.”

TV host Regis Philbin agrees: “Sister Mary Michael was the toughest in a school filled with nuns, and we feared her, but loved her, too. The discipline we learned in her class kept us in good stead for the rest of our lives.”

Discipline is the key word for football great Roger Staubach as well. “Sister Aloysius instilled in me the importance of knowing my priorities and keeping them in order. When I didn’t do my homework, I had to stay in during recess. This made an impact on me, because even then sports was a major focus. During that third grade year, I learned discipline.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard agrees, “I’ve never met any of the sadists—nuns accused of, if not ruining lives, at least leaving a terribly negative impression. I have an especially fond memory of Sister Ludmilla, who would pass a football around with us on the playground and would even hoist up her skirts and give the ball a kick.”

The sisters were undoubtedly aware of their reputation and not afraid to use it in a good cause. As Ed McMahon remembers, “There was this little nun, when I was eight, who was not much bigger than I. I had done something really horrendous in school. She brought me up in the front of the class. She had a big yardstick. She brought it down really forcefully and was going to strike me with it. She stopped one inch from the back of my knees. I yelled out the most heart-rending cry for help, ‘Ahh, Oww!’ (the terrible pain she was inflicting). Of course, the whole class saw that the yardstick didn’t hit me, and it was a big laugh. She got her point across, and she did it in, I thought, a very amusing way.”

At the opposite extreme, Mary Cunningham Agee was moved from parochial to public school, because the nuns were too easy on her. Biographers recount how Vivien Leigh had the sisters of Roehampton wrapped around her lovely little finger.

Not only was it easy to unearth satisfied alums, but many parochial students have one sister, in particular, who was extra-special. Just two examples:

For TV producer Chris Plourde it was Sister Agatha. “She had a classroom of 60—count ’em, 60—six-and seven-year-olds and never raised her voice. Almost always smiling, almost always the calm in the storm (serene, in fact), and always warm to us kids. She best epitomized the saying of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, ‘Acquire of the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”

Edna Hussey, of Hawaii Writing Project, University of Hawaii, was similarly touched: “I lost my mother when I was 14; so I had no women regularly in the home. The Sacred Heart sisters were my model, Sister Regina Mary Jenkins, in particular. She was the one all the girls would go to between classes and before and after school.

“She didn’t say very much, but she listened. I don’t know where all the things we told her went. Maybe into her habit! I could tell her anything—personal, important, values, morals. She was like a teenage friend and the mother I didn’t have. “She’s a missionary in India now (she’s ageless), and I miss her. When I teach, I remember her, and the other sisters, and try to follow their example. I sit down and try to really listen to my students.”

Wimples or Blinders?

If their rulers were rigid, critics say, the minds of teaching sisters were even more inflexible. In part, these are the remembrances of the Woodstock generation, who rejected the entire middle-class ethic. I think a case could be made that Catholic educators were not so much afraid of change as committed to the essentials. Several studies have compared public and parochial students in terms of academic achievement and personal ethics. The products of Catholic schools consistently outperform their public school peers. Perhaps the sisters knew what they were doing, after all. Their defenders say what was really most rigid about the nuns were their standards. Former New York Governor Hugh L. Carey describes Sister Mary Maurice as “a disciplinarian who goaded, encouraged, demanded that you do your best and even more. She made learning a challenge. She instilled a sense of confidence. She gave priceless counsel to inspire and overcome the hazards of doubt and despair which may have afflicted their young minds in the great Depression years. Whatever I became in life…, I owe to Sister Mary Maurice.”

General Alexander Haig had a similar experience: “Sister Mary Paula established the culture of Saint Mathias School. She maintained the highest standards of educational excellence but was also equally dedicated to the educational process as it affects the whole person. She was sensitive, empathetic, and at the same time, uncompromising when basic principles were at stake. To this day, I consider Sister Paula to have been one of the most important influences for good in my lifetime.”

During his confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas cited Sister Mary Virgilius Reidy as an example of all the sisters who were “unyielding in their expectations that we use all of our talents, no matter what the rest of the world said or did.”

Greg Blache, another African-American, is grateful to his guidance counselor, Sister Mary Charles, who “encouraged me to take my PSAT and SAT tests early to qualify for the National Achievement and National Merit competition. I received letters and scholarship offers from over 200 colleges and had no idea of what was open to me before that time.” Nuns and priests, he continues, “helped me and thousands of other black youth maintain a positive self-image in a segregated and very racist South.”

Catholic schools in the inner city still expect, and find, academic success from their students. Dolores B. Grier, on the staff of the Archdiocese of New York, told America that the black community owes a huge debt to the Catholic schools who demanded as much from black as white students.

Standards, however, are useless if teachers don’t show students how to meet them. A variety of prominent Catholics recall how effectively the sisters prepared them for “the big bad world outside” (Regis Philbin). The enthusiasm of Sister Joseph “left a lasting impression” on Coach Dave Shula of the Cincinnati Bengals. Sister Mary Agnes “encouraged individual talent and made school exciting” for Governor Joan Finney of Kansas.

Why would a Catholic education be superior to a public one? Lane Gutstein, a New York teacher, was a young Jewish girl at Mother Cabrini High School. She suggests the advantage the nuns had as teachers was that they had more time to devote to their students. (Note to purveyors of the “closed minds” calumny: Mrs. Gutstein was not only exempt from religious education classes but encouraged to share her knowledge of Jewish customs and traditions with her classmates, and always was guaranteed the honor of decorating the classroom Christmas tree.)

Among those benefitting from the nuns’ extra attention was Walter Bansley’s brother: “Sister Barbara Ann was responsible for finally detecting the reason for my brother’s inability to perform at the level of his peers. After spending an appreciable amount of time with my brother in an individual setting after school, she referred him to a diagnostic reading program that was in its infancy at the time at New York University. After a series of tests, it was determined that my brother suffered from dyslexia. He received assistance in combating this problem and was able to continue his education. My family has been very grateful ever since.”

Bill Dodds, a free-lance writer, got extra speech training from. Sister Susanne Perri: “I stood at one end of the parish hall. Sister Susanne stood at the other end. In full Dominican habit, this very proper woman stuck her thumbs into the side of her head where her ears were hidden behind white cloth and waggled her fingers at me. She rewarded me with a smile when I ignored her and just kept talking. We both now knew that I could handle whatever the night’s audience might say or do. My palms still sweat a bit before I stand up to speak, but audiences have never intimidated me. No matter how they react, or fail to react, they just can’t compete with a little nun doing her best to look like Bullwinkle.”

The Talent Scouts

Sometimes this extra attention reaped lifelong rewards. Bil Keane, creator of “Family Circus,” recalls: “Sister Ann did more to steer me into being a cartoonist than any subsequent vocational counselors or career guides. She was my sixth grade teacher. Because I was constantly drawing little cartoons in the margins of my school papers and attempting to entertain the class with jokes and ridiculous antics, Sister Ann inaugurated a class newspaper and named me editor. It was my official forum for communicating ideas, humorous and otherwise, to others. I liked the notoriety it created for me and enjoyed the satisfaction of creativity. I haven’t stopped drawing cartoons since.”

Perhaps the same desire to preserve classroom decorum caused Sister M. Seraphia to use similar tactics with Steve Allen: “Having become aware of my ability to write, she made me the editor of a little schoolroom newspaper, supplied me with books, and in every possible way encouraged me to exercise my gift. Years later, in gratitude, I dedicated one of my early books to her.”

Kindly instincts alone, however, likely lay behind the experience that changed novelist Robert Cormier’s life: “Sister Catherine was my seventh grade teacher. I’d begun writing poetry, expressing all the longings and turmoil in my 12-year-old heart. I wrote at recess when my classmates were playing the usual games. Finally, one day, I gathered my courage and showed Sister Catherine the poem I had written under the schoolyard steps. She read it, looked down at me from her towering height and said: ‘Robert, you’re a writer!’ With an air of discovery. And certainty. At 12, I knew my name and where I lived but did not know what I was. She told me, gave me an identity. From that day to this, I have been a writer. I sometimes wonder, with a shudder, what might have happened if she had read my poem that day and then told me to go and play with the other kids.”

And what tact Sister Berarda showed with young Thomas S. Monaghan, the orphanage boy who became the owner of Domino’s Pizza: “I remember telling the class that when I grew up I wanted to be a priest, an architect, and shortstop for the Detroit Tigers. The other kids laughed and said that was impossible. I couldn’t be all three. Sisters Berarda quieted them down and said, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s ever been done before, Tommy, but if you want to do it, there’s no reason why you can’t.’”

Former Louisiana Congresswoman Lindy Boggs told the Washington Post that Sister Stanislaus, who worked in her convent school kitchen, was a musician and philosopher, demonstrating by example that a woman can be both domestic and intellectual. She also claimed the practice of students peddling raffle tickets—begging in a good cause—was great preparation for serving on the House Appropriations Committee.

Artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt compares the attitude of the sisters to that of the medieval Church. He was permitted to leave class to construct toy churches, design bulletin boards, and paint palls and stoles.

It’s not surprising, given this extra care, that many Catholics developed lifelong friendships with their special sister. One example is the late Speaker of the House, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill: “Sister Agatha introduced me to Millie Miller. She used to say that Millie was the girl for me, and she was certainly right about that. Millie and I were married in 1941, and we’ve been happy together ever since.

“I graduated from high school and went to work driving a truck. One November day, I ran into Sister Agatha. ‘Thomas,’ she said, ‘you should be going to college to make something of yourself.’ Now, if anybody else had told me this, I wouldn’t have listened. But Sister Agatha was special, and if that’s what she thought, well, maybe she was right.”

Another political advisor was Sister Mary Maurice. Says Governor Hugh Carey: “On one of my visits, she encouraged me to leave public life and devote more time to my family of 14 children. She saw the needs of my children and family as paramount, as she had viewed the lives of the thousands of girls and boys she had coached, taught, admonished, and stimulated.”

Bobby Ross, head coach of the San Diego Chargers, is close to Sister Agnes O’Mara: “She was my fifth grade teacher. I think the thing that I found the most impressive was her intense interest in people. She has followed my career, been a guest at games, and stayed in close touch with members of my family (she attended my daughters’ weddings) as well as people that I have worked with. She has had a very strong influence on several and has been directly responsible for having one of my good friends return to his faith.”

Coach Ross mentioned faith. While the sisters certainly cared about their students’ minds, they were even more concerned for their souls. The Baltimore Catechism was not their only resource. Helen M. Alvare, pro-life spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, remembers Sister Bonaventure. “She loved her girls but didn’t hesitate to require us to reflect on our short-comings. I’ll never forget the time she specially assigned me to write on the topic of ‘humility.’ Sister Bonaventure was unfailingly kind and never lost sight of her religious aims, even though she has since risen to a place of importance in the administration of her order. She is the feminine combination of talent, holiness, and humility I aspire to.”

Ann McLellan Lardas, a free-lance writer in Houston, found “the nun responsible for preparing us for First Communion, Sister Phyllis,” equally unforgettable. “She had a gentle way about her, and her hands were soft when she reached out to us, which was often. There was one boy in our class, John, who acted up and was sent from the room. Sister Phyllis said, ‘Now, class, when John returns, what do you think we should do?’ We all suggested different punishments we’d seen performed in our various classrooms.

“Sister Phyllis shook her head decisively. ‘I think John acted that way because he was hurting. The only way John will ever behave is if we teach him kindness by being kind to him when he returns. Don’t you think that’s what Jesus would want us to do?’ We were stunned. We were only second graders, but we knew most teachers had a much more punitive philosophy. Some of us were disappointed at not having a spectacle. John came back in, and we were all kind to him, mostly because we were too shocked to do otherwise.

“Often today when I’m trying to talk myself out of performing some inconvenient act of kindness, I hear Sister Phyllis saying, ‘Don’t you think that’s what Jesus would want us to do?’”

“Sister William Patricia,” writes Keith A. Fournier, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, “told me at a very early age that I could talk to Jesus as a friend. I took her at her word and did so. I have very warm memories of kneeling before a statue of the Sacred Heart daily while at school and talking to my friend, Jesus. Many years later, during turbulent teenage trials, I would recall that event. It was the seed that was planted through the evangelical message of Sister William Patricia that God was able to use to bring me back to Him and to His Church.”

I can only guess at the impact one nun had on her charges. Father John Powell, S.J., retells the story: “Sister Helen Wright was one of the young sisters at Our Lady of Angels grammar school. So many of the sisters and children perished in a terrible fire at that school. I am told that Helen Wright was a heroine in that fire. She actually made a bridge of her own body so that children could escape over it from the flames. Fortunately, Helen Wright survived that fire, but her body bore the scars of her heroism to the end of her life.”

Witnesses Still

I’ve been using the past tense to describe our sisters, as if they’ve disappeared from the scene. Though their numbers are fewer, their witness remains powerful.

“I always tell my friends that out of all the things that one could be in life, the thing I would like to be most is a nun. I have always admired the Sisters so much because many of them seem to have something special that very few of the rest of us have. Since my conversion, I have had a chance to interact with many nuns. I can’t tell you how many times I have been amazed by a sister’s simple unwavering faith, words of encouragement, light-hearted smile or laugh, or just the plain sight of a woman who has consecrated herself to God” (Paul Lauer, publisher, You! Magazine).

Cartoonist Jim Scancarelli looked to the present, not the past, for his favorite nun: “Sister Pilar Dalmau is head of the Hispanic ministry here in Charlotte, North Carolina. If one was to seek the picture of the perfect sister, it would be Sister Pilar. In fact, so much did I think so, I drew her in a cameo appearance in ‘Gasoline Alley.’ Even during times of frustration and turbulence she is able to look up and beam a bright smile. Tonight at Mass, a little boy wandered away from his parents. Folks were going to communion. Sister Pilar gently stuck out a finger for him to hold and both went to communion together. She soon relocated him with the missing parents. Her goal of keeping the Hispanic community together is working!”

Father Joseph F. Girzone nominates “Sister Dorothy Ederer, a campus minister at Western Michigan University. Besides being very attractive (she used to be a fashion model), she is a very Jesus-oriented person, and through her authentic, happy Jesus spirit, she has attracted over 3,000 students to Masses on weekends. They are all involved and committed, which shows in the choirs she personally trains…. Besides the music, she teaches, does extensive counseling, runs projects for the poor and the missions, trains priests for the American bishops for college campus ministry, plays golf, Rollerblades, and has a reputation for being the best polka dancer in the state of Michigan. She is one extraordinary human being.”

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, echoes that sentiment: “Most of my dealings with nuns have been delightful. Being a teacher by profession, I have always appreciated their contribution and dedication to young people.”

Like Saint Therese of Lisieux, some sisters touch lives without knowing it. Governor Mike Sullivan of Wyoming speaks for thousands in saying, “Mother Teresa seems a natural nomination. Her life and work are so selfless and so meaningful to the world community. People of all faiths, ages, nationalities, and socio-economic strata are moved in the most positive of ways to give of their resources spiritually, physically, and emotionally—attempting to do their small part in alleviating the profound distress of the world.”

Keith Fournier has a “tremendous admiration for Mother Angelica. She has great courage in the midst of an increasingly secularized American Catholic Church. Her faith and her willingness to reach out to do what was considered by many as impossible shows her conviction that the words of the angel to the Mother of the Lord are still true, ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’”

The life of Sister Thea Bowman continues to bear fruit. A recent collection of her writings and speeches has been published with a preface by Mike Wallace, dropping his usually confrontational stance to sing the praises of that unforgettable lady.

To Be Continued

Mark F. Fischer of Saint John’s Seminary told me that anyone who believes the caricatures of nuns is unlikely to change his mind no matter what I write. I hope he’s wrong. I’m delighted by the number of busy people who respond to my queries with enthusiasm, glad that someone is finally giving the ladies their due.

I continue my correspondence and research, and plan to eventually publish a book-length tribute to the American nun. I especially want our young Catholics, many of whom are growing up without ever meeting a religious, to see that this is a real vocation for real women. Perhaps at this very moment some order is forming a successor to Tip O’Neill’s beloved Sister Agatha:

“My son Tommy had been crying his eyes out because he hadn’t been accepted at Boston College. A few days later, a letter came in the mail saying that a mistake had been made, and that Tommy was accepted.

About eight years later, I met Father Walsh, the director of admissions. ‘Say, Tip,’ he said, ‘how’s that little old nun over there in North Cambridge?’

“‘Do you mean Sister Agatha?’ I asked.

“‘That’s the one,’ he said. I’ll never forget the day she came to see me. We had 18 inches of snow, but this nun came over on the streetcar, climbed the hills, and came into my office. ‘I taught Tom O’Neill’s father,’ she said. ‘Maybe he wasn’t the best student I ever had, but he was a fine young man, and today he’s a member of Congress. Everybody at Boston College should be proud of him. I also taught Tom O’Neill’s mother, and Mil lie’s a wonderful woman. Young Tommy reminds me of his parents, and someday you’re going to be proud of him, too.’

“How could I say no to that little nun?”

  • Kathleen T. Choi

    Kathleen T. Choi writes a column for the Hawaii Catholic Herald, and has written for several national publications, including Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic Digest, Saint Anthony Messenger, Liguorian, Review for Religious, Sisters Today, and Commonweal..

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