When completing the article entitled, A Benedictine with Franciscan Roots, I ended by saying that I also needed to give some women credit for sustaining my vocation while I was in elementary school. And so I will now give voice to the story of the religious women who were so very important in forming me in a spiritual way and perhaps providing me with the necessary material to form a very pleasant image of God.
While I am old enough to be still a part of the long tradition of education in one-room-school houses of rural Nebraska, that was only one year for me—my kindergarten year.
And although I would have to count that year as a very good one as well, immediately after that I was sent to a new Catholic elementary school in Albion, Nebraska—St. Michael’s.
The parishioners of St. Michael’s were very proud to open the doors of the elementary school when I was a first grader, along with the religious women who would staff the school—the Benedictine Sisters of Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. It happened the fall of 1955.
In my time there at St. Michael’s, I was blessed to have several religious women teach me, actually three of them. Sr. Adelaide Yeoman, Mathias Eich and Sr. Leonilla Mock.
Sr. Adelaide was the teacher of the first and second graders. I had her for two years of my elementary years. My memory of her is that she was very young and a very pretty woman—from what I could surmise of her looks in a full habit—only her face was exposed for anyone to see.
My memory of this religious woman was kindness, compassion and tenderness. For me she was the prefect person to be teaching young children. She used to select a student’s papers and post them on the bulletin board as examples of good handwriting or simply good work. I remember my papers being selected at times to be posted and it gave me confidence and spurred me on to do even better.
Then when it was time to move on to the next classroom the third and fourth grade classroom, I was introduced to Sr. Mathias Eich. Sr. Mathias was an older woman, but not less enthusiastic nor less compassionate. Yes, she could keep discipline, but she was able to do so because she drew respect from her students.
In those days of education, the Hardy Boys novels were popular. Sr. Mathias used a Benedictine practice with us as students all those years ago. (People in monasteries listen to lots of reading all their lives.) She would read to us after the noon recess. She used this as a type of practice that would settle us down and allow us to focus better after getting exercise outside. So we really looked forward to this time of listening to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. One day she had particularly captured our interest and we really did not want her to stop reading. So we begged her to continue. She agreed to read a few more pages. We continued to beg for more reading and believe it or not, we convinced her to read the rest of the afternoon. (In hindsight of this experience, I think St. Mathias wanted to find our what was happening in the book as well and perhaps she was delighted that we were all so interested.) It was a wonderful experience and she made us all so happy. We could save the same homework that was due that day for the following day.
Just this little experience of pleasant reading and entertainment taught me a lot about this woman and how the life of a religious could be enjoyable. I will always be grateful for this experience. And to top it off, Sr. Mathias came back after my fourth grade year only to move into the fifth and sixth grade classroom. So I ended up having Sr. Mathias for two more years of my elementary education and a total of four years with her. Indeed, she was a great woman. I know that she continued to teach many years after she had me in the classroom. In fact, she had some of the students of Mount Michael in York, Nebraska when she began to teach even younger students—like second graders. So I actually had some her students in my classroom as well.
When I moved to the seventh and eighth grade classroom, I was introduced to a very serious educator, Sr. Leonilla Mock. I say serious because Sr. Leonilla moved us into student projects and student presentations. We were not allowed to be passive or just absorb information. We had to take the initiative to do research and be presenters, like the teacher was doing.
Admittedly, this was quite a change for me and it was intimidating, especially to stand up in front of my peers and give a presentation. I remember being very nervous about doing this. However, Sr. Leonilla was reassuring and encouraging. I also remember that she was a bit challenging. She told me that if I wanted to be a priest one day, indeed, I would have to learn how to speak in front of people and work at being comfortable in doing so.
So perhaps one of the greatest gifts Sr. Leonilla gave me was overcoming a bit of timidity and fear in speaking before a group of people, especially my peers. I knew that I would have much more to learn in this regard, but definitely Sr. Leonilla was the initial person in helping me get on the right path.
Both Sr. Mathias and Sr. Leonilla were present at my ordination here at Mount Michael. I am sure that they were proud, seeing one of their former students, a Benedictine being ordained to the priesthood.
Over the years of many different assignments away from Mount Michael, I will always cherish the days of being retreat director and chaplain for a short period of time at Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota. Although I was never there while Sr. Matthias was still alive, I can remember times when I was there and could visit with Sr. Leonilla. I even had the privilege to deliver the homily at Sr. Leonilla’s funeral liturgy.
The last point that I would like to make about these women of South Dakota is that they still have a grasp on me. One of the places where I love to spend time when I visit Sacred Heart is their cemetery. Of course, the community has been there for many years and the community was very large at one time – over 600 members. It is still a large community. (Female Benedictines have always out numbered male Benedictines). Nonetheless, the cemetery is an awesome place. It winds along the back of the monastery on the high banks of the Missouri River, just below Gavin’s Point Dam. It is not easy to describe the feeling I get when I am there among those women buried there. I know what at stalwart Mother Jerome was. I know how influential those women were, who were my teachers. I know how mellifluously those women sing and how I have always been moved by that fact. Quite honestly, I always feel that I am in a celestial place when I am in that cemetery, among hundreds of very holy Benedictine women. Really, I have learned how saintly they are!
I will always be grateful to these women, who really silently drew me to Benedictine spirituality.
And as I draw this little story to completion, I feel that I still have more individuals who had an influence on me in my early years. I should give acknowledgement to them as well. Those people would be two female Franciscans relatives and some pastors of my parish in Albion. But then again that it is another story for another time.