Sister Mary Anthony Lovezzola is not surprised by the reactions she’s been receiving lately — she admits that a bald nun is a bit of an oddity. “People come up to you and say, ‘Whoa! What happened to your hair? ... People are asking all the time. You kind of stick out.” 

But the sixth-grade teacher at St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia is quick to explain that she shaved her head to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer — a cause close to her because of one of her students, Zachary Nolter, has had leukemia since second grade. 

“When he was in the third grade, I watched him when other kids could go outside to recess [and he had to stay in because] his legs were so sore,” the Holy Family of Nazareth sister told Our Sunday Visitor. “He would stay upstairs and he would draw. He never complained, never asked, ‘Why can’t I go out?’ He’s the type of kid you talk about when you talk about making lemonade out of lemons.” 

Team effort

Earlier this year, when Sister Mary Anthony challenged students preparing for confirmation to evaluate their individual gifts and ask how they could give back to their community, she said Zachary, 12, immediately knew what he wanted to do. 

In December, he had celebrated news from doctors that he is cancer-free, and having spent years at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) recovering from treatments, he wanted to give back to the cancer community. 

“So, the first thing he did was he drew all these Disney characters and brought them in to children at CHOP, and then he came back to school and said, ‘You know, Sister, it’s not enough. I want to do something more.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’” 

That’s when they decided to look into St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization that runs one of the world’s largest volunteer-driven fundraising events for childhood cancer research. 

St. Baldrick’s started in 2000 as a St. Patrick’s Day benefit for kids who had lost their hair to cancer treatments. The name St. Baldrick does not derive from a real saint, but rather plays on St. Patrick’s name.  

Volunteers sign up to have their heads shaved, and ask sponsors to support the cause through donations. 

She and Zachary rallied a team of nine participants and set out to raise their goal of $2,000 before the March 14 event. The response was overwhelming. 

“People were very supportive financially, but also what was beautiful for me was that people called up or left me messages on e-mail and said I’m doing this in memory of so-and-so, and this person in my family has cancer. … I found out how cancer really does affect a lot of different people’s lives. I was very touched by a lot of those stories,” she told OSV. 

Braving the shave 

Those stories, she said, also inspired a prayer ministry. She explained that with each donation they received, she and Zachary would add the names of those people with cancer to the outside of a brown paper lunch sack that would be lit up with a candle like a luminary. “I had this in my classroom, but I would also take it to the chapel each night. My class was praying for all these families and these people [affected by cancer]. And then I, personally, at night, was praying for each one individually too,” she said. 

In the final days leading up to the head-shaving event, the team raised more than $4,500, and Sister Mary Anthony said she thought that feat merited a rare look at her hair. 

“The day before we shaved, I didn’t wear my veil,” she said. “You don’t see a nun’s hair too often if you wear a veil, and I do, so that was a big draw.” 

On the day they “braved the shave,” Zachary was entrusted with shaving nearly three-fourths of Sister Mary Anthony’s hair. She said the overall experience was well worth the price of a bald head. 

“It wasn’t about me or the hair, it was really about Zachary,” she said. 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV’s assistant editor.