Matt C. Abbott
Man remembers nun's kindness
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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

 

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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's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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