The numbers of religious women teaching in the classroom started dropping in the 1970s, partly because of an aging population of sisters, fewer vocations and expanding ministry opportunities.

Those who remain carry on the tradition of Catholic education — reaching and teaching the young people who are the future of the Church. Here are some of their stories.

Sister Martina Marie Arriola

The Sisters of St. Benedict Center, Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were founded in 1949 primarily to preserve Catholic teachings. One way was through publications. That expanded to teaching — and to the founding of Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Still River, Mass., in 1979.

The school has 100 students in first grade through 12th, and 10 of the 16 sisters are on the teaching staff that includes religious brothers and lay teachers. Sister Martina Marie Arriola teaches third grade and is the elementary school principal.

“We try to form our young people by our own examples, by our teaching (of) the truth of the Church, which is Christ’s truth,” she said. “We do our best, by God’s grace, to imitate our Blessed Mother so that we may show the love that she had for Jesus.”

“What teaching means to me is that we are bringing others to Jesus Christ through Mary, and that’s the way that we give our lives as teaching sisters,” Sister Martina Marie added. “The ultimate way to give our lives to God is to bring others to love him.”

Sister Jean Marie Lara

The School Sisters of St. Francis in Panhandle, Texas, teach at St. Joseph School in Amarillo, one of the poorest schools in the Diocese of Amarillo.

St Francis sisters
Sister Jean Marie Lara and Sister Francesca Marie Grantham.

“We keep trying to help the Sudanese and Hispanic populations that are growing, and the Church can hardly keep up,” said Sister Jean Marie Lara, regional superior of the congregation.

Educating the poor was the original charism of the founding sisters in 18th-century Austria. They came to the United States in 1931. Now their regional house has fewer than 22 sisters and, mostly because of age, only a handful are still teaching. Several volunteer to tutor students.

Sister Jean Marie entered the community 25 years ago after seeing a small ad in Our Sunday Visitor. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, but left the classroom for her duties as regional superior.

“St. Anthony’s Catholic Elementary School in Dalhart just celebrated 50 years, and the first principal was one of our sisters,” she said. “We have done well here.”

Changing demographics have brought challenges in education not only in the schools, but also in parish religious education.

“We are helping with religion classes and trying to figure out the best way to approach the spiritual side of the parish work,” Sister Jean Marie said. “There are all kinds of different issues. The sisters are older, and the ones who can drive can go out and continue teaching. We keep on doing the best we can.”

Sister Barbara Roche

Sister Barbara Roche entered the Loretto Community with the intentions of teaching, but ended up in administration. She served 27 years as the president of Nerinx Hall High School in Webster Grove, Mo., and now is interim president of Marian Middle School in St. Louis.

Sr Roche
Sister Barbara

The congregation was founded in 1812 for the purpose of educating children on the Kentucky frontier and then spread out west.

“The Sisters of Loretto and other communities went out to meet the needs, which were sometimes in some pretty rough circumstances,” she said.

Marian Middle School serves 71 girls, grades five through eight, who haven’t had the best education. They are from low-income families, and some have chaotic home lives. The students have various or no religious background, but everyone takes classes to learn about the Faith. There have been some conversions.

“I think the trick to good teaching is to engage the students and to get them thinking about what (faith) is and what it means to them,” Sister Barbara said. “They are actually very interested, and they want to talk about those things. It’s great when their teachers can really challenge them to not just say something because they have it memorized, but to understand what it means and to own it themselves.” 

Sister Michelle McKeon

The Sisters of Charity of New York arrived in 1817 to educate the poor Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants, and from the beginning founded 167 schools.

Sr Michelle
Sister Michelle McKeon, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul School in the Bronx, with some of her students. Photo by E. Miranda, SCNY

Although some have closed and most sisters have been replaced by lay teachers, the focus on educating poor immigrant children hasn’t changed.

“We still deal with the poor,” said Sister Michelle McKeon, principal of Sts. Peter and Paul School in the Bronx, who just celebrated 50 years with the Sisters of Charity. The school also celebrated its centennial.

She has seen a number of changes in Catholic education, particularly in sisters vanishing from the classroom.

“And now instead of memorizing, the children experience faith and are more involved in the sacramentals, the liturgy and parish life,” she said. “We have baptisms during the school day, and we have first Communion and confirmation, so it’s a way of evangelizing the children who come to us unchurched. Many of our kids don’t have the practice of faith. But we have seen some of our kids bring their parents back to church.”

School is important to many of the children from poor neighborhoods, and Sister Michelle saw a lot of happy faces when classes resumed.

“So many of our kids have no place to go when their parents work,” she said. “They can’t go out, so going back to school is like getting out of prison. Some don’t get hot meals during the day except here, and some stay late after school until their parents pick them up.”

The kids keep her young, said Sister Michelle, 68. But a few years back she said that it would be time to retire when a third generation of her students starting attending the school.

“So far, I have five grandchildren of children that I taught,” she said, and she’s still there. “Even though they don’t live in the neighborhood, the grandparents are bringing them back. That shows the stability in our school.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.