Up Front and Personal

Sisters Are Still Teaching Lessons

by Matthew Monahan

Leave it to the Sisters for teaching some of their biggest lessons outside the classroom.

It happened the other Saturday at Our Lady of the Angelus in Rego Park.  The pastor, Father John Mendonca, wanted to publicly thank Sister Jo Ann Schwarz, S.C., for her 37 years of devoted service to the parish; celebrate her golden jubilee and express appreciation to the Sisters of Charity of New York who came to the parish to staff the new school in 1959 and recently concluded their ministry.  So, he put all the themes together and the Sisters graciously agreed to be, for once, the center of attention.

Nearly a dozen priests and deacons with current or past ties to the parish were in the sanctuary.  In the front row were beaming Sisters, who, by my rough calculation, have given over 450 years of service with no signs of stopping.

For an instant I was back in geography class watching Sister Joseph Mary, who had the innate ability to face the students, chalk in hand, and in a backward sweeping motion, draw a nearly perfect circle from the bottom of the blackboard, to the top, and back down again.

At the Mass, Msgr. Edward Wetterer, pastor of St. Michael’s, Flushing, and an assistant pastor at OLA from 1975 to 1985, was the homilist. He spoke with a touch of amazement at how Sister Jo Ann earned the confidence and trust of five pastors of completely different personalities during her years of ministry there, and of the enormous and enduring contributions the Sisters of Charity made and make in the fields of education, health and child care.
Sister Jo Ann was a multi-tasker decades before the term came into use. During her tenure she was director of religious education, parish coordinator, led RCIA and sacramental preparation and for people who were shy, alone or reluctant to ask, arranged countless free rides to and from airports, doctor appointments and medical treatments. She led Christmas carolers through the neighborhood; organized holiday gift-wrapping sessions that always wound up as a party. Sister ran the weekly collection, counting with precision – keeping a particularly irascible counter in line with zingers, delivered with perfect comedic timing.

In addition to her devotion to the Mass and community of Sisters, she offered counseling and was a mainstay at the school that is led by the dedicated and energetic principal, Joan Armstrong, and her dynamic faculty and staff.
For too many, the thought of a nun is little more than some wise-cracking, rosary-twirling woman in a black and white costume who either is just like them – looking dizzy or dim; bitter or repressed.  The next nun I see matching that description will be the first.

How can we ever thank them enough?

Matthew Monahan is a former Tablet reporter who currently serves as communications director for the NYC Dept. of Construction and Design.