Matt C. Abbott
Man remembers nun's kindness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+
By Matt C. Abbott
May 11, 2010

The following (edited) reflection was provided to me by Jim Boushay.


Nuns and knuckles

By Jim Boushay

Sister Joseph Marita — who now goes by the name of Sister Mary Lou Hayden — was my 5th and 7th grade teacher at All Saints in Jersey City. Long after my graduation in 1962, she, a Sister of Charity of Convent Station, N.J., became the "permanent" principal at the school.

Each year of each class she taught, Sister Marita would find a way at private opportune moments to call each student out of the classroom and into the private hallway. There she would simply tell the student that, no matter what, God always, always loved them decisively. Even if you should steal, she said, or say something hurtful, or lie, or mistreat your family members, even if you kill, or if someone harms you, "God will never stop loving you." And she added, "That's why we have to try to love God back and be good in God's name."

Depending on each student and what she knew about the student's family — and she knew a lot — Sister Marita nuanced each unique message of God's mercy and love. A walking, practicing, pragmatic "theologian," to my way of thinking. But even to term her a theologian seems superciliously inadequate. Only God knows. She nurtured, and was nurturance personified. Most of the kids thought she was kind of crazy, perhaps because at that tender age of childhood they had no in-the-moment context for why and what she was telling them.

In my 40s, I happened one summer to stop in at the school to see what was up. Surprisingly, I found her. I didn't think she'd remember me. Standing on the second-to-the-top step of a ladder, holding tight with one hand, not a soul around, with the other hand extended upward, she was painting the ceiling of a classroom. She was 76.

Sister Marita looked down and said immediately, "Hello, James Boushay. How are you and your family?" For a while we visited in her principal's office — "neat as a nun" (Hemingway). We got caught up on family stuff and professional matters of interest. Astoundingly, she knew more of what I had done and where I had been since graduation than I could have ever imagined possible, not in a thousand years. (I had not been in touch with her at all.)

It was a scenario of inexplicable intimacy, uncannily "miraculous," more than a touch of sheer synchronicity, of almost unbearable light in that incredulous moment. It was "affirmation" writ large. During the get-back-in-touch conversation lasting maybe 90 minutes, we laughed over so many things. Concerning one sister I mentioned, she smiled and said kindly, if pointedly, "Ah, I've tried to run her out of gas. No luck."

I asked Sister Marita about what I referred to as "your rather odd practice of calling the kids out of the classroom." Delighted to reply, she said, "Oh, I wasn't doing it to help the pupils then and there. What would they know? Too young. I was doing it so that they would be able to remember God's love as adults in life's toughest moments, long after graduation and beyond, when life frequently becomes insufferably painful and brutal." She was prescient; she just "knew."

Sister Marita also said, and this is a main point here, "Some of the sisters were mean to the kids. I knew that. But I wanted the kids to have a stronger sense of God's love and mercy than they might take with them otherwise because of the terrible disciplinary practices that were sometimes used."

While on her own she may have privately counseled the sisters to choose less harsh methods of discipline and punishment, although I don't know. She herself confidently adopted instructional methods that were instinctively kind, perhaps even tender. She was an educator par excellence, exquisitely drawing people out of darkness and into more light.

Sister Marita was one tough teacher, to boot. She expected excellence, and got what she wanted. She taught all subjects. If you legitimately earned a hard-to-get "A" grade in any subject, then too bad. She handed you a book for further reading and expected you to give her a thoughtful oral report privately on what you had learned from the book. She was determined, and was no mealy-mouse wall flower of a teacher. The mostly ethnic parents — Italian, African-American, Irish, German and Polish — loved her for it and often expressed their gratitude. She won their trust and confidence.

Quietly and without drama, Sister Marita refused to capitulate to the harsher kinds of non-educational disciplinary treatments, rightly described by former students as unnecessary and sometimes cruel. She did things, er, differently, but didn't make a big deal out of it; nor did she employ the less-than-salutary techniques of control and manipulation that some religious were using in the classroom.

In part I tell this remarkable story of Sister Marita because, without attacking or diminishing any of the other religious, she found for herself marvelous instructional methods of cultivating obedience. She embodied and advanced lifelong educational values. These, she explained to me in our visit, were critical to healthy and ordered religious belief. She connected the dots and took quite seriously that she was an "ordained" religious sister — an instrument of grace and the unbounded love of God.

Sister Marita remained true to herself, her ministerial vocation, her teaching and administrative duties, and to God, as she understood each of those four interconnected realities. They derived from a combination of rigorist training, along with lived and observed experience.

Interestingly, she said to me — a bit like a proud Roman Catholic — "I'm part of the laity." She seemed never to fail in her "call-outs." They were intended to ensure each student had the chance to remember into the future something truly good and wonder-filled about God. She gave each student something that was meant to help comfort and sustain in a godless culture. She tried to live holiness and wholeness. She is a saint.

Because the above reflection is more or less bereft of untoward cynicism, it can easily call forth from a reader a certain suspicion or doubt. I doubt it myself sometimes, it's fair to say. Yet it tells of facts mixed with my own perceptions of the facts — a not all that unusual approach to story-telling. And well to remember that famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger (author of Whatever Became of Sin?, one of his best-selling books) said persistently, "Perceptions are always more important than facts."

© Matt C. Abbott

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

Click to enlarge

Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 'Unsolved' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.

(Note: I welcome thoughtful feedback and story ideas. If you want our correspondence to remain confidential, please specify as such in your initial email to me. However, I reserve the right to forward and/or publish emails that are accusatory, insulting or threatening in nature, even if those emails are marked confidential. Also, if you give me permission to publish a quote of yours, please do not contact me at a later time to request that I delete your name. Only in limited circumstances will I quote anonymous sources. Thank you and God bless!)

Subscribe

Receive future articles by Matt C. Abbott: Click here

More by this author

October 28, 2018
A Catholic priest's unsolved murder and a Church in crisis


October 4, 2018
Accused Minnesota priest speaks out, pleads for justice


September 25, 2018
'Credibly accused' Catholic priest wins court case


September 22, 2018
Chicago’s Cardinal Cupich removes pastor who was sex abuse victim


September 17, 2018
Cardinal O'Malley and the Father Cuenin controversy


September 15, 2018
Slain priest's 'intimate relationships'?


September 9, 2018
Catholic watchdog group returns with revamped mission


September 6, 2018
Who can properly investigate the Catholic Church's sex abuse crisis?


August 30, 2018
Francis, Benedict, Viganς, Sipe, Abbott; Did Albany priests refer women for abortions at Planned Parenthood?; Cupich's recent remarks


August 11, 2018
'Agnes' and the Bernardin legacy


More articles