Religious bring spiritual presence to diocesan schools
By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer
Sister Carla Thomas, MFIC, social studies teacher for grades three through six at Bishop’s Academy at St. Charles Borromeo in Syracuse, said her religious community has always been committed to educating elementary school students. Her order, Missionary Franciscan Sisters, was first asked by Pope Leo XIII to work with Italian immigrant students in the U.S. “Our foundress also went to Georgia to work with African American students,” said Sister Carla.
A graduate of Villanova University in Philadelphia, and SUNY Cortland, Sister Carla has been teaching since 1965. Before making her home in Central New York, she taught in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia.
Sister Carla said the presence of religious in schools brings the element of prayer into the classrooms. She helps with the planning of prayer services and with the liturgies for the Masses at St. Charles.
She told of how last May, in honor of the Blessed Virgin, she led some of the children at school as they enacted the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I also stop into the lower grade classrooms to tell them Bible stories,” said Sister Carla. “They really enjoy that.”
Sister Carla said she enjoys teaching in Catholic schools. “You just see that the children are growing spiritually,” she said. “It’s very satisfying and enriching to see that you have a part in it and you have a part in their future.”
Sister Donna Driscoll, MFIC, principal at Bishop’s Academy at St. Charles Borromeo, said that even though her order’s ministry has branched off into other areas, the order is first and foremost dedicated to education.
Sister Donna said the sisters bring the gift of spirituality into the schools. “Our lay teachers here at St. Charles are also very spiritual,” she said. “That’s due for the most part to the sisters’ programs in the school.” The sisters plan liturgies one or two times a month in additon to prayer services.
Sister Donna has taught in Georgia and for the last eight years at Catholic schools throughout the Syracuse Diocese. Prior to that she worked at a treatment center for emotionally troubled children in Boston. “It was a great experience,” said Sister Donna. “I learned a lot about disabilities and it has helped me to have a different insight into children and parents. I still hear from those that I helped.”
Sister Donna said that the staff at St. Charles stresses the values of being kind and respectful to others and to themselves. “We also try to instill the fact that we share the earth with other living things and we have a responsibility to animals and our environment,” said Sister Donna.
Sister Donna said she enjoys educating young people. “I like it when you have good parents and teachers,” she said. “We have a tremendous staff here. They are dedicated and they see this as their ministry. They are phenomenal educators and role models. I really think that Catholic education is a priceless education because the environment and atmosphere is so conducive to the education of the children.”
Many members of the community to which Sister Bernadette Joseph Kupris, OSF, belong, (the Sisters of St. Francis) teach in many locations. She is now the only religious who remains at St. Mary’s School in Baldwinsville. Sister Bernadette teaches fifth and sixth grade social studies and sixth grade religion, English language arts and science. “Teaching is a wonderful job and experience,” she said. “I get to share the wonders of God by bringing Him into the picture when I teach. It’s exciting.”
Sister Bernadette graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C and Scranton University in Pennsylvania. She has taught at schools throughout the Syracuse Diocese since 1975. Sister Bernadette feels that the presence of
religious in the schools provides a Catholic identity and the presence of Christ to the students. “It’s a safe atmosphere where they can practice their faith as well as their academics,” Sister Bernadette said.
Each Monday morning the students at St. Mary’s gather in the school’s gymnasium to participate in a prayer service. “It’s a friendly, family atmosphere,” said Sister Bernadette. “At that time, we also give out any awards for things like reading and sports.”
Sister Bernadette said that teaching for her is rewarding and that the profession has its high points and low points. “It’s challenging to keep up with technology,” she said.
She tries to make learning exciting and come to life by bringing the elements of nature into her lesson plans. “I grew up on a farm,” said Sister Bernadette.
Sister Nicolette Vennaro, OSF, has been teaching for the last 48 years. “I love to teach — I love the children,” she said.
Sister Nicolette teaches third grade at Blessed Sacrament School in Syracuse. She also teaches drama to pre-k through second graders and track and field to third through sixth graders. A competitive runner herself, Sister Nicolette said she will compete in the 2009 Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii.
Two years ago, Sister Nicolette took her drama classes to Hamilton College to compete with other schools. The Blessed Sacrament students took second place in the competition when they performed the play Alice in Wonderland. This year, the children are rehearsing Hansel and Gretel.
Sister Nicolette began her teaching career in Camden, N.J. After six years, she taught the primary grades in various schools in Syracuse. “I have lots of memories,” she said. “It’s nice when the adults that I taught as children come back to see me.”
Sister Nicolette believes that the presence of religious in the schools is an important one. “The children see us as a role model who exemplifies good values — as someone who is kind.”