Sisters witness to the Faith in the classroom

One of the most dramatic changes that occurred after the Second Vatican Council was the decline in the number of religious sisters serving the Church. In 1965, there were 180,000 in the United States; today, less than a third remain. 

In generations past, many of these sisters staffed the nation’s Catholic schools. Today, just a small percentage of the teachers and administrators in American Catholic schools are women religious. 

While lay teachers in Catholic schools are often outstanding, Vatican authorities have long stressed the importance of having religious serve in Catholic schools. A decade ago, for example, Pope John Paul II approved the release of the Congregation for Catholic Education’s document “Consecrated Persons and their Mission in Schools,” which noted that not only can religious teach, but they play a vital role in passing on the Faith to future generations: “It thus becomes clear that consecrated persons in schools, in communion with the bishops, carry out an ecclesial mission that is vitally important inasmuch as while they educate they are also evangelizing” (No. 6). 

While women religious have disappeared from many Catholic schools, some have been fortunate to maintain or reintroduce their presence. Our Sunday Visitor recently talked with representatives from three such schools.

Drawing students

St. Gertrude School in Madeira, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, is staffed by four Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, whose motherhouse is in Nashville, Tenn. Dominican Sister Mary Aquinas Halbmaier serves as St. Gertrude’s principal and the other three sisters teach religion at different grade levels. 

The parish has been served by Dominicans since its founding in 1934. In addition to the sisters, the parish is staffed by Dominican Fathers. The community’s novitiate house is also located there. 

“The big advantage we have as sisters is our formation and training,” Sister Mary Aquinas said. “We’ve been steeped in the teaching of the Church in a way laypeople have not, unless they pursue such a formation.” 

Sisters in habit teaching in the Cincinnati archdiocese’s Catholic schools are a rarity, Sister Mary Aquinas said, and hence the school has developed a reputation in the area. Parents of children in the school drive from 27 different ZIP codes because they want their children to be taught by Dominicans. In fact, only 10 percent of St. Gertrude’s students live within a three-mile radius of the school.  

“Our Catholic identity is off the charts,” Sister Mary Aquinas said. 

Leah and Todd Naumann belong to another parish but have their son, Kyle, enrolled in St. Gertrude’s first grade and plan to send his younger siblings there as well.  

“We’ve been to the sisters’ motherhouse. You experience total joy in God’s love when you visit the sisters there,” Leah Naumann told Our Sunday Visitor. “We want our children to be a part of it.” 

Carol Tallarigo serves as president of St. Gertrude’s Parent Teacher Organization. She has two sons in the school. “The biggest benefit of being at St. Gertrude’s is the Dominican presence. It’s a rarity that our kids are exposed to nuns in full habit,” she said.

Inspiring vocations

St. Teresa Catholic School in Lincoln, Neb., serves 296 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. It is staffed by 20 teachers. The principal and two of the teachers are School Sisters of Christ the King. The sisters are a diocesan community founded in 1976; their community of 29 works in eight of the diocese’s 40 schools. 

Sister Anne Joelle, St. Teresa’s principal, said: “The witness of our sisters’ consecration to God helps both our students and lay staff to build on their own relationship with Our Lord. It also helps our children think about religious vocations.” 

The two other sisters teach second and fifth grade, strategically placed to prepare children for first Communion and confirmation. 

Jean Timmerman has five children in St. Teresa’s. She herself was part of the School Sisters of Christ the King community for four years, but opted instead to marry and have a family. 

“I love the sisters. They’re a wonderful community,” she told OSV. “They exude joy, and communicate to my children who God calls them to be.” 

“The kids can’t pass by a sister without tackling her with hugs. They’ve developed a strong spiritual and emotional connection to the nuns. They just love them.” 

Theresa Kottwitz has had five children graduate from St. Teresa’s, with three more currently enrolled.  

“I love them. They are a great witness to our children, particularly the girls,” she said, adding that she has a daughter in college who is open to a religious vocation.  

“She’s open to the idea because of her experience with the sisters at St. Teresa’s,” Kottwitz told OSV. 

One notable measure of the parish’s support of the school is reflected in St. Teresa’s tuition, which is $100 annually per student, with a price break for parents with multiple children in the school (elsewhere, Catholic elementary school tuition is often in the $4,000-$6,000 range). Of the parish’s $1.2 million budget, $900,000 is devoted to Catholic education. The funds not only support the elementary school, but students going on to Catholic high school. The school funding is often provided by older parishioners who no longer have minor children. 

“Paying only $100 tuition is remarkable. Otherwise, we would never have been able to afford Catholic school,” Kottwitz told OSV. “When our children are grown up, my husband and I plan to return the favor and give to future students.” 

Variety of subjects

Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, Calif., is one of four high schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. It serves 723 students in grades 9-12. Two years ago, the school welcomed four Dominican Sisters of Mother Mary of the Eucharist. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based sisters are young, wear the full habit and have teaching apostolates across the United States. They recently expanded into California, joining the staffs of Marin Catholic and Presentation School in Sacramento. None of San Francisco’s other Catholic high schools have nuns in habit, and few elementary schools do. The sisters came to Marin Catholic at the invitation of Bishop Thomas Daly, auxiliary bishop of San Jose, Calif., and former president of the school. 

Tim Navone, current president of Marin Catholic, said: “Many of our students in Marin County hadn’t seen a habited sister before. But they’ve come to accept and love them in every way. The kids are drawn by their warm, gentle spirit; you never see the sisters walking across campus by themselves, they always have large groups of students hanging around them.” 

The sisters teach chemistry, theology, math and English. Navone said it was the goal of the school to “breathe Catholicity across the board.” Hence the school wanted sisters to teach not only religion, but secular subjects as well.  

But whatever they’re doing, Navone said, they’re witnessing Christ: “A sister could be in the classroom discussing a chemical reaction or a novel by Goethe, and by being in her habit, she is subtly preaching the Gospel.” 

Jim Graves writes from California.