(Photo courtesy Marin Catholic High School)
Marin Catholic High School student Danny Fitzpatrick, who will be a junior in the fall, poses with three of his teachers, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, Thomas Aquinas Betlewski, Miriam Holzman and Maria Jose Acosta.
Traditional sisters big hit with trendy teens
June 6th, 2012
By Lidia Wasowicz
Traditional sisters and trendy students may not seem like a compatible combination, but at Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, they’re proving to be a propitious pairing.
Since arriving on campus in August 2011, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, Thomas Aquinas Betlewski, Miriam Holzman and Maria Jose Acosta have shattered stereotypes, debunked misconceptions and formed a unique union with the sophomores and juniors in the theology, science and math classes they teach.
The last woman religious, Sister Mary Ferguson, a Franciscan art instructor, had departed in 2004, so students at first weren’t quite sure what to make of the newcomers.
When Tim Navone, Marin Catholic’s first lay president, announced the sisters would be joining the faculty to reinforce the school’s Catholic identity, Allison Galuszka envisioned strict disciplinarians “whacking knuckles with a ruler.”
Henry Harmon, a non-Catholic, pictured them as “old, ugly and mean, like portrayed in the movies, which is the only place I had ever seen a nun.”
Even Torey Tarantino, an alumnus of St. Anselm School in San Anselmo, got it wrong: “I had a teacher who was a sister, but she did not wear a habit, so I thought for sure they would dress normally.”
Imagine the students’ surprise when they beheld three young, attractive, smiling figures garbed in floor-length, crisp, white habits and black veils, giant rosaries hanging from the waist – a style dating back 800 years.
Eye- and mind-opening revelations followed.
The sisters were as classic in their attitude about behavior and belief as in their attire. Yet, they were as youthful in approach – incorporating the latest technology into lesson plans – as they were in age, the average for the 116 members of their order, established in 1997, being 28 years.
They had neither boyfriends nor bank accounts – a “shock” to some of their adolescent charges – professing vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
They personified goodness but portrayed a wicked sense of humor.
“At first, I didn’t know what to expect, but as I got to know them, I found they were kind, trustworthy, tough but fair and a lot of fun,” said junior Tarantino of San Rafael. “And when they say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ it really means something!”
Sophomore Chris Ward, 16, of Terra Linda, laid aside initial misgivings about landing in all three sisters’ classrooms.
“They turned out to be unbelievably connected to us and to really understand where we’re coming from,” he said.
Harmon, a 17-year-old junior from Kentfield who felt “very nervous” the first week of class, has made the sisters his closest confidantes.
“They are so approachable, I can talk to them about March madness, my personal troubles, anything,” he said. “I feel closer to them than to other teachers.”
The sisters believe their traditional habits have a profound impact on the high schoolers.
“Because we wear a visible sign of our consecration to Christ, students are less likely to misbehave around us and more likely to take what we say seriously,” said Sister Maria Jose, a former computer analyst who teaches sophomore and junior geometry.
“The students know we’re not doing this for personal gain or to advance our careers or even for altruism but for the salvation of their souls,” said Sister Thomas Aquinas, who holds a master’s degree in theology.
The special relationship is evident as students stop to greet each sister welcoming them at the door. Settling at their desks, they listen earnestly, speak eagerly and volunteer enthusiastically.
They show genuine interest as Sister Thomas Aquinas explains the relevance of the beatitudes to the typical teen’s daily life.
When she announces “out of love and possibly a bit of craziness” a retake for students who failed a test, several faces grin with relief. No one protests the stringent conditions she places on the privilege.
The multimedia assignments for the next day clarified, 21 heads bow as sister leads the class in prayer.
In the chemistry lab taught by Sister Miriam, a pharmacist, 21 sophomores split work loads and share findings to calculate the effects of temperature change on a balloon’s volume. Several acknowledge the presence of a religious spurs the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
In geometry, 22 students graph concentric circles with Sister Maria Jose’s patient assistance. They smile a polite, “Thank you, sister,” as she dismisses the class with, “God bless you; have a safe day.”
“I was very pleasantly surprised that while the sisters share their devotion to God, each is unique – one loves music, one is a science expert, one is great with the calculator and technology – just like regular people,” said Galuszka, a 15-year-old sophomore from Ross who attended a public primary school.
The sisters, coming from more conservative and less affluent areas than Marin County, have had to make their own adjustments.
“I’m used to schools where nearly all the students are Catholic,” said Sister Thomas Aquinas, who has taught in Florida, Michigan and Texas.
Walking out of St. Francis Chapel following the 7:30 a.m. Mass, she expressed surprise at the attendance of only six of the school’s 719 students, 68 percent of whom are Catholic.
“Of my teaching experiences, Marin Catholic has given me some of the most unique challenges,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve encountered students who don’t have a very religious background so we have to start at ground zero.”
They are making headway.
“The sisters have really deepened my understanding of God and brought me closer to him,” said Tarantino, 16. “I see their goodness in everything they do.”
Sister Maria Jose hopes the sisters’ example will inspire some of the students to follow in their footsteps.
“Because we’re close to the students’ age,” she said, “they may consider a religious vocation is not just for the old but also for them.”
From June 8, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.