While sitting in the bleachers covering the Isle Huskies versus the New Ulm Cathedral Greyhounds in the state softball tournament this past June, a group of five Roman Catholic nuns replete with their customary black and white habits parked themselves on the seats in front of me.
A cursory glance led me to believe that each of the quintet was quite young, maybe in their 20s. As a matter of curiosity, I introduced myself and initiated a conversation with whom I deemed was the elder in the group. She informed me these five ladies, along with another ten or so, had founded a new sect of nuns nine years ago. Calling themselves the “Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus,” the newly formed sect set up home in the proximity of New Ulm.
Driving home that evening, I could not help but think of the oddity of what I had just witnessed with regard to this young, religious group. After all, in an age when the numbers of nuns, priests and brothers in religious orders throughout our country and the world have diminished to the point of extinction in some cases, here was a group of young, dedicated women starting their own new religious sect from the ground up.
How courageous of them, I thought, to take on a life of poverty, chastity and obedience while devoting their lives to the service of others. And in an age of self-indulgence and the powerful lure of materialism, these women had chosen to live a communal life where the group replaces the self and materialism is substituted for living a simple life, where they said, “the Lord would take care of us.” How refreshing to see this happening in the our state in the 21st century, I thought.
Then, as my vehicle cruised through St. Peter, I harkened back to my childhood school days growing up in the 1950s in St. Cloud when I was being tutored by young Franciscan nuns whose home convent was in Little Falls. My experiences with these fine ladies were all positive. They inspired me to become involved with music, encouraging me to sing, play musical instruments and to perform music in public. It seemed that each nun found something of worth in me, making my grade school experience a wonderful time.
Just a few years ago, I met up with Sister Kenneth, the only living nun from my grade-school past. She had just turned 91 and said she was proud to have recently renewed her driver’s license.
She then told me some stories of what it was like teaching us back in the mid-20th century. “When you were in the second grade, I started the school year with 72 first-graders in one room at Holy Spirit School,” Sister Kenneth said. “It was a wonder anyone learned anything.” She soon put out an all-call for help to Little Falls and another woman in a habit came to the rescue.
Even at that, every year throughout my grade school experience the class sizes ranged from 40 to 45. Today, if a teacher has over 20 in a classroom, it is looked on as way too many to handle. And also back then, the 40 children in the room were a conglomeration of every ability level, every psychological condition, with no leaving the room for “special” class like music, phy ed or reading. This sect of nuns was stuck with us the entire day, except for two 15-minute recess periods, daily Mass and lunch, and they taught us wearing wool habits in our non-air-conditioned building.
As for getting to and from our school, the 20 or so teachers had to be chauffeured from a mile away, prompting Sister Kenneth to ask the local priest if they could purchase a vehicle and drive themselves. The two paid a visit to the local Bishop who emphatically said that no woman under his charge would be driving a car. Call it a sign of the times or whatever, this was not right. Eventually our nuns got a station wagon to drive to their place of employment.
And what were these gals paid for their dedication? Thirty-five dollars per month, according to Sister Kenneth, with that money being sent to the mother house in Little Falls. A dollar a day. Even in 1955, that seems a bit unfair. There was no “teacher’s union” to go to bat for these ladies. Talk about sacrifice!
So from my perspective having being taught by Roman Catholic nuns during my formative years, today I am able to appreciate how selflessly these young women devoted their lives to my welfare back in the 1950s, and I have nothing short of respect for a group of young women cloistered in New Ulm who are continuing a saintly tradition of service to others.
Bob Statz is a Messenger staff writer.