A new school year and a refreshed legacy

by Julia Walsh

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Like many students and teachers around the country, I recently started a new school year. As this new year began to feel imminent, I looked back on my experience of teaching, so far.

I hesitate to admit that I haven’t always loved teaching. Sure, when I started this important ministry eight years ago, I loved it. I was full of passion and energy and idealism. I was going to change the world, one willing student at a time.

Somewhere along the way, however, I felt my passion for the ministry wane. I fell into a bit of a rut and lost interest in striving for meaningful growth, for myself or my students. I recycled lesson plans and techniques, lacking the energy and motivation to try to find better practices in order to meet the students’ needs. I was questioning whether or not to leave the classroom and transition into another ministry.

But, somehow, things shifted in me over this past summer. The grace arrived unexpectedly, yet immediately influenced my attitude and energy without notice. It took me some time to realize that I wasn’t thinking and behaving as I had been. Conversion comes that way at times; some flowers take months to bloom.

I am not sure why my attitude changed, but it has. I am now creating a dynamic learning environment that is full of collaboration, discussion and discovery, all in response to the needs of today’s youth.

All this good energy could simply be the effects of an enjoyable summer and some solid rest. It’s possible that God gave me many graces as a result of my profession of perpetual vows this summer or that my joy in that process is spilling over into other aspects of my life and ministry.

What I actually suspect, though, is that I have been benefiting from increased energy and grace because something heavenly is happening. I have a feeling that a certain sister in my community is pulling some strings with God now that she’s with Jesus for all-eternity.

The sister who ended an era

On July 26 a legendary sister died. Sr. Lucille Kleinheinz lived over 103 years and had an active mind and poetic spunk right up to the last weeks of her life. She was so dedicated to living the Gospel that she was a channel of grace in some of her final lucid conversations, reconciling tender fractures in relationships and speaking of how Jesus cares for her own brokenness.

In addition to our shared membership in the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Lucille and I had a lot in common. We both enjoyed writing poetry and sharing our batches of homemade popcorn. More than that, we both taught at Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Sister Lucille taught Latin and served as the librarian at Aquinas High School for 41 years, charming students and colleagues alike with her wit, humor and intelligence. Even after her retirement, she stayed close with many of the friends she had gained from her years of service.

Personally, I was amazed by Sister Lucille’s brilliant mind. Even with poor eyesight, she could tell when I was around her through the rhythm of my steps. She asked thoughtful questions about details in my life. Shortly before she died, I visited with her for the last time and found her reciting poetry and commenting on the beauty of the world. During that conversation she encouraged me to keep teaching at Aquinas High School.

Sister Lucille wasn’t the only member of our community who ministered at Aquinas High School. Education has always been one of our main ministries, and Aquinas is the only Catholic high school in this small city.  While interviewing for a faculty position, I noticed a giant plaque hanging in a place of prominence in the school lobby, listing hundreds of sisters who had served at the school. I remember joking with the principal that there wasn’t any room for me on the plaque.

From 1928 to 1992, the FSPAs had been a constant presence at the school. Through the Great Depression and World War II, past the moon landing and the civil rights movement, that’s over 64 years of devoted service. As the last sister to retire from Aquinas High School, Sister Lucille’s retirement, in 1992, seemed to end an era. People doubted there’d ever be an FSPA on the faculty there again.

A different time

When Sister Lucille retired, I was 11 years old, a clueless sixth grader. Teaching at a high school — and even being a high school student, for that matter — felt like a long way off.

Yet at Sister Lucille’s wake in July some sisters casually asked me if I was planning to keep Sister Lucille’s legacy alive at the school. They saw my choices now as being an extension of that time and era. Even though it wasn’t the first time I had heard such a question, I was rattled.

The question about my keeping Sister Lucille’s legacy alive is a fascinating one. To what extent am I a continuation or embodiment of choices that were made before my time? What obligations do I have to my sisters, and to the communities they have served? Is my teaching at Aquinas in some way an extension of Sister Lucille’s legacy? Or is it a pragmatic choice based on my circumstances and call to ministry, today?

The circumstances under which Sister Lucille ministered as an educator are not my circumstances. Her time is not my time. This time is a new time, with new needs. As Sr. Teresa Maya proclaimed to us at the recent Giving Voice gathering, helping sisters under 50 grapple with some of our current generational challenges: “It’s our time.” I need to find a way to live, now, that embodies the ministry as I see and understand it.

A new model of ministry

Before I began ministry at the high school, it became apparent to me that my presence there would be important to many. It mattered to Sister Lucille and many other FSPAs. It also meant a lot to the hundreds of alumni who had been taught and influenced by sisters in our community. But, it didn’t matter to me in the same way.

I’ve never understood my identity as a woman religious as having to do with my relationship with any institution. Sister Lucille and many other sisters of her generation, though, seemed to know who they were as Catholic sisters in part through their relationship with and loyalty to particular institutions.

I am like many other sisters of my generation who have serious questions about institutional models.  I read the signs of these times as saying that what the world needs now are prophetic women who are leading on the grassroots level and willing to model alternative and sustainable forms of communal life.

Someday I might step outside of a settled institution and into a grassroots ministry.

But right here, right now, I am honored to be part of the faculty at Aquinas High School. And I love being here. My classroom and my students are my current reality, deserving of all of my best efforts. There is good news to be shared and young people to lovingly encourage.

As I serve and seek to build God’s kingdom in such an important school for my community, I am aware of both the legacy and the urgings of my time.

I am grateful to be influenced by Sister Lucille.  I am honored to have known her, glad to be connected to her, and grateful that she’s been sending positive teaching vibes my way. That’s totally like her; she’s thoughtful like that.

Here’s to another new school year. I’ll live it out in awareness of my sisters’ legacies, but with my own voice and choice and spirit.

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]