Chance to start boys' basketball team 'a classic God move,' says sister

Sr. Pauline Wolpert, coach of St. Michael School's boys' basketball team in South Sioux City, Nebraska, talks to her players before a game in 2017. (CNS / The Catholic Voice / Jerry L. Mennenga)

Omaha, Nebraska — She entered religious life thinking skills she'd learned on the soccer field and volleyball, basketball and tennis courts would have to stay on the sidelines.

Then came the boys and girls of St. Michael School in South Sioux City, Nebraska, praying and hoping they would be granted a basketball and volleyball coach.

"It's a classic God move. He surprises and uses people," Sr. Pauline Wolpert told the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

A member of the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, she is obtaining her education degree online and is among several of the religious community's sisters based in South Sioux City who either teach or help in other ways at the school.

Eighth-grader Alex Campos, co-president of the student council and a forward and team captain on the boys' basketball squad, said he was among the students praying Wolpert would coach.

"It was like talking to God, praying that hopefully Sister Pauline would have enough time," he said. "It turned out great."

It started slowly. Sports teams hadn't been part of life for about 10 years at St. Michael, a school of 165 students from pre-K to eighth grade.

First, a Catholic league that pitted border schools from South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska against one another disbanded. In response, St. Michael students joined Catholic school teams in nearby Sioux City, Iowa. But about three years ago, the Iowa Athletic Association put an end to that practice, banning students from other states.

This school year, principal Sandra Williams decided organized sports should be back on the table at St. Michael. Williams knew Wolpert's background as a soccer, volleyball and basketball player at Bishop Heelan Catholic High School in Sioux City and a basketball player at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

She also learned Wolpert might be interested in coaching and asked her if she would lead summer volleyball and basketball camps for girls.

"We're trying to give our students every opportunity to excel," including sports, Williams said. Many students want to play sports in high school and need experience to succeed, she said.

The summer camps led to Wolpert coaching a girls' volleyball team, which boasted 19 players last fall. Not enough girls were interested in girls' basketball to put a team on the court.

That's when Alex and several other students asked Williams if Wolpert could coach the boys in basketball. Williams said maybe, and she encouraged the boys to pray about it.

Sr. Pauline Wolpert, a member of the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters in South Sioux City, Nebraska (CNS / The Catholic Voice / Jerry L. Mennenga)

Williams and Alex also asked Wolpert, and in the end, she told them yes — after several days of doubt and second-guessing about coaching boys rather than girls.

"I thought, 'It's not me. It's for someone else,' " Wolpert said.

But St. John Bosco sprang to mind, Wolpert said. A priest in the 1800s in Turin, Italy, who dedicated his life to educating disadvantaged children, he believed not only in teaching but also playing with children, to become a brother to them, she said.

Having Alex ask her was like a little brother asking a big sister for help, Wolpert said.

"How could I say no to that?" she said.

Trying to start a team with the season nearly underway meant the 11 seventh- and eighth-grade boys — later eight boys, because three dropped out — had to prepare quickly, and the school scrambled to find open slots in other teams' schedules.

They played three games against South Sioux City Middle School, losing 48-3 to the school's eighth-grade B team, losing 18-10 to seventh-grade B team but winning 24-6 against the seventh-grade C team.

Wolpert said she was inspired by the boys' courage and perseverance.

"A lot of them hadn't played basketball before," she said. "A lot of our boys went into something totally unknown."

It was a learning curve, Alex said.

But Wolpert could see the difficulties and taught them to avoid fouls, work on defense, practice their shots and keep running plays on offense, he said.

"She was a great coach," Alex said. "She knows basketball. She played it herself."

Wolpert was a point and shooting guard on Heelan High School's basketball team, played defense on a soccer team that took third in state, and played volleyball and tennis.

She played basketball her freshman year, 2005-2006, and part of her sophomore year at Christendom College. In 2006, she was honored as the team's rookie of the year and won its leadership award.

She applied her faith to sports, had good friends in a great Catholic environment, but something was missing, Wolpert said. And she remembered the sisters and brothers of the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who served in South Sioux City while she was growing up.

"The thought came that God's calling me to this community," she said.

So she quit school in the middle of her sophomore year and has been with the sisters in the religious community ever since. That has included ministry in the Philippines, Australia and since 2014 in parishes and schools in the South Sioux City area.

And Wolpert continues to bring her faith to sports and everything else she does.

"Sports is a mirror to the spiritual life," she told the Catholic Voice. "You can't become holy without holy habits, without that routine. With all the saints, they had that devotion to prayer, every day. They were consistent through ups and downs. And if you're not exercising every day, you won't do well on the court."

[Joe Ruff is news editor of the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.]