The surprising life of Sister Mary

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
August 19th, 2016

At the risk of appearing to be living a cliché of the retired life, I must say that I have been spending more time these days reading obituaries. It could be because I have more time to read the morning paper and the obituaries are printed in the same section as the funnies.

I always turn to the funnies after a brief glance at the bad news on the front page. Bad news can wait and, if I somehow miss it in the paper, that’s what television and Internet news programs are for.

I also receive obituaries by email from old friends and classmates who learn about the deaths of people we both know. At my age, most of these deaths are former teachers or other older people who have helped me along life’s path.

The most recent death notice to come my way is that of my high school Latin teacher, Sister Mary. Actually, in those days, almost all of my teachers were Sister Marys, first in elementary school and then in high school.

The nuns who taught us all took the name of Mary followed by the name of a saint of their choice unless, of course, the saint’s name had already been claimed by another sister in their order. The popular names like Francis and Theresa were the first to go, leaving new sisters with more obscure saints with less common names. Still with more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, there were plenty of holy men and women to go around.

When one of our friends surprised us all by entering the convent after high school, she became Sister Mary Amy, a name she lifted from the license plate of her car. I’m not sure if there is a Saint Amy but since the name is derived from the Latin word for love, the Mother Superior let it stand.

I will simply call my Latin teacher Sister Mary to preserve her anonymity and leave the rest to your imagination. I was not surprised to read Sister Mary’s obituary since I imagined her to be at least middle aged even when she taught me Latin in high school.

What astonished me first was that she was a young woman of 30 back then or six years younger than my daughter is now. As every passing day reminds me, age is relative. When you are 14, even if you knew your teacher was 30, you would still consider her old. And if that teacher happens to be a nun wearing a traditional habit, then the usual cues to age like gray hair are simply not available.

All I could see of Sister Mary were her face and hands. The set of her eyes and the curve of her mouth signaled kindness, focus, and determination – qualities that shone through in the way she conducted Latin class and ran her homeroom.

Last year when I was completing a questionnaire about my high school experiences in advance of our 50th reunion, I listed her as one of my favorite teachers. I wrote that she was very kind, knew her material and taught in a clear, logical way that made it easy to learn.

But Sister Mary was more than that. I could have also said that she was serious but never solemn and determined but not without an appreciation for the lighthearted and playful moments of the school day.

Her obituary sent me to our reunion booklet to see what other classmates thought of Sister Mary. One person liked her because of her “personality” and another wrote, “She gave me confidence in myself with her words of encouragement.” Yet another classmate cited Sister’s “concern for and interest in each individual student.”

Not everyone chose Sister Mary as a favorite but those who did described a compassionate woman dedicated to her students and her subject matter.

Reading Sister’s obituary, I was discovering just what an amazing, accomplished woman she was. Sister Mary had or later earned a master’s degree in linguistics, a doctorate in administration and a law degree, all from prestigious universities.

After teaching in high school, she became the director of personnel services at a university. The article implied that Mary left the convent when she started a second career in business but her family chose to remember her in print with her picture in the more modern habit that her order later adopted.

She lived a rich life, not only through her vocations but also in her family and personal relationships – a loving aunt, loyal sister and devoted friend. Sister Mary died last year at 84.

In response to what I now know about Sister Mary, I am surprised but not surprised. When you are 14, you can’t imagine your teacher in any role other than the one you see in the classroom. When your teacher is a nun, the stretch of imagination is even more difficult. Given Mary’s intelligence and personal qualities, she could have done anything with her life. The surprise is that she did and that, in some corner of my mind, I am still her incredulous 14-year-old student.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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