Nun, priest feel blessed to be at Ludden

Father Daniel C. Muscalino and Sister Beth Ann Dillon cherish their roles at Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School in Syracuse. “Complete happiness only comes when you really listen to God,” Sister Beth Ann says. The day starts with prayer, Father Dan says, “and then throughout the day you pray.” They both have a devotion to the Blessed Mother. - SUN PHOTO | TOM MAGUIRE

They let the school know the Church is there for them

By Tom Maguire

Associate editor

Sister Beth Ann Dillon, DSMP, likes to say she is standing in for God. She is quite the animated, expressive stand-in — all vocational fire, full of prayerful devotion.

   The same is true for Father Daniel C. Muscalino. He and Sister Beth Ann give Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School a distinction: They constitute the only religious-life duo on the full-time staff of a diocesan school. 

   They are longtime educators — professional, demanding; but not stuffy or remote. He will play his trombone in school if he wants to. She wowed the kids by singing, dancing, and clapping at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

   When she started in September 2017, Sister Beth Ann went into the Ludden office and said: “‘If you need to page for me, it’s Sister Beth Ann.’ ‘OK!’ And I tell the kids, ‘Don’t call me Sister Dillon, call me Sister Beth Ann.’ … I said, ‘Sister Dillon might answer the telephone at home in the convent, but she’s here with you today.’ So: Beth Ann is important.”

LATIN SPOKEN HERE

   Likewise, her co-worker is addressed as “Father Dan”; nobody calls him “Father Muscalino.” A self-described “language geek,” he will even answer to “Pater,” the Latin word for “Father.”

   Father Dan often erupts into excited speech, with lightning movements of his hands. His signature expression is “That’s OK!”

   “I’m much too Sicilian not to be expressive,” he said with a big smile. “My gene pool.”

   Sister Beth Ann comes from a big, happy Irish family, and when she quotes people she has known, she often breaks into an impression of their voice. Her Italian connection comes from her order: Daughters of St. Mary of Providence, founded by Blessed Aloysius Guanella. “Her founder looks like my Uncle Paulie,” Father Dan said. He and Sister Beth Ann exchange quips in Italian throughout their work day, particularly when they don’t necessarily want the students to know what they are saying.

   By discussing their unique standing in diocesan schools, they hoped to stimulate thoughts of possible vocations. They feel that parents and students should pray for guidance on the topic and let God make the call.

A SAINTLY ENCOUNTER

Father Daniel C. Muscalino, second from left, sings with the barbershop quartet in the 2008 Bishop Ludden musical, The Music Man. “I remember that it was a great deal of fun, a lot of work, but worth every minute,” Father Dan says of the show.  -SUN PHOTO | TOM MAGUIRE

   In Father Dan’s view, everyone has a vocation, whether it be the religious life or not, and the point is to give witness to Jesus Christ. Sister Beth Ann had another vocation in mind early in her life; she was engaged to be married. But gazing into the “big eyes” of Mother Teresa can draw one into something different.

   Before she took her religious vows, Sister Beth Ann lived in California. She wound up staying temporarily with her parents in Chicago while her fiancé attended Marquette University. One day, she attended a speech by Mother Teresa at a Chicago convent. She asked a “little Italian sister” what she should say to the renowned speaker. The nun, Sister Angelina, came up with a question: “‘How does one know if you have a vocation?’”

   “And so, Mother Teresa was just so angelic,” Sister Beth Ann recalled. “She just looked at me with her big eyes. She said, ‘Do you love Jesus?’ Well, it took me off guard and I said, ‘Of course I do.’

   “She said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what you do: Every day after work, go to your nearest church and sit in front — the Blessed Sacrament — for ten minutes, and let Jesus love your heart. And then in a short while you’ll know what to do.’”

   Sister Beth Ann took the advice: “My heart was being changed. … I was in, hook, line, and sinker.” She met the sisters and the schoolchildren, including students with special needs, and she thought: I could do that. “So there we are.”

   “I think it’s a great story,” Father Dan said. “I saw Mother Teresa once myself; it doesn’t surprise me at all that this woman has such a powerful effect that people are willing to listen to her.”

ABOVE ALL, A HUMAN BEING

   Sister Beth Ann remembers her late father saying to her regarding her fiancé, “‘Are you crazy? He’s Catholic,

Sister Beth Ann Dillon is shown in 2014 with a group from the Lifetime television show “Sisterhood: Becoming a Nun.” “You’re looking for priests and sisters?” Sister Beth Ann says. “They come from families that are happy families. Because they’re generous; they learn how to give and help one another.” – PHOTO COURTESY SISTER BETH ANN DILLON

he’s going to be an attorney, and he’s Irish — what else do you want?’ And I said, ‘Dad, I don’t know why; I have to find out; let me find out.’” Her dad got over it when he “realized the joy — I could come home every year and see him.” She still gets to see her mother and her four sisters and two brothers, and they respect her vocation, she said.

   Father Dan has two brothers and a sister; he is the youngest. “I’m their brother,” he said. “I have done weddings for their children, and I’ve baptized their grandchildren, and I buried my brother’s wife. So there are times when I can do that for them. … Or I’m their kids’ uncle. I’m a member of their family.”

   His greatest role, he said, is human being — a priest who lets the students know that the Church is there for them. And although he serves God in many ways, he doesn’t feel as if he is dividing himself up. Earlier in his vocation he was on the faculty at Seton Catholic High School and Bishop Grimes Junior/Senior High School. He has been at Ludden for about 30 years.

   He teaches junior religion (morality, social justice) and senior religion (introduction to philosophy, comparative religions); and two electives: Latin and Greek, usually for 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders.

   He is also the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in Marcellus. “I do morning Mass every morning,” he said, “except Tuesdays, and that’s an evening Mass. My feeding comes from the Eucharist and the daily prayer of the Office, and I pray the rosary every day.”

   Father Dan recently was proctoring a pre-calculus exam, so he prayed the rosary right there. He’s done it before: “They like that. … You pray because it’s like breathing.”

   Her religious community, Sister Beth Ann said, observes a midday moment of quiet prayer. She considers her post as the campus minister to be a “God-gift.” She helps Father Dan to motivate staff; teaches the New Testament to two 10th-grade classes; and supervises some ninth-graders’ advanced study of the Old Testament — “very brilliant kids … deep thinkers.”

ABOUT THAT ESSAY …

   Sister Beth Ann, an educator for about 30 years, has also worked in Chicago, Rhode Island, Italy, and Canada. She never asks students to do anything she wouldn’t do, and she knows the secrets of scholastic motivation:

   “I’ll say: ‘Great essay, that was the best essay ever.’ … And some of the boys will go, ‘Really?! It was really good?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I expect you to do it again.’ [She takes on the look of a downcast student.] ‘Oh, well, I don’t know.’ ‘Yes you can! Yes you can!’ … I’m cheerleading for them.”

   Sister Beth Ann spends a lot of time in the school chapel. Sometimes students join her; she invites them to pray the rosary and to add to the book of intentions that Father Dan addresses at the school’s Tuesday morning Mass.

   She said it’s “very important that the kids know that they’re not being forgotten, that someone cares about them.”

   Father Dan cares about Ludden’s theatrical productions too. In 2008, for example, he donned a yellow- and black-striped jacket and a straw hat to join the barbershop quartet in The Music Man.

   “I remember that it was a great deal of fun,” he said, “a lot of work, but worth every minute. It is good for the students to see their teachers in a different light, not always teaching academic lessons and grading papers; it is also good for teachers to see the students in a different light. There are truly a number of very talented and gifted young people who have gone through and who are currently at Bishop Ludden. As a side note, I did make a ‘cameo’ appearance in this fall’s production.”

   In 2014, Sister Beth Ann appeared in the Lifetime reality television show “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” Five women who were interested in discerning a vocation visited three different religious communities. “So they would have the cameras rolling and things like that,” Sister Beth Ann said. “And we were blessed to have one of the girls from that group join our order.”

ZEAL OF A 10-YEAR-OLD

   God has worked in her to help inspire more than a dozen vocations, mostly priestly vocations, Sister Beth Ann said.

   She remembers a fourth-grader in Canada who helped set up a youth rally: “I said, ‘How old are you?’ He said, ‘I’m 10. But I know how to help set up chairs and things.’ He was more involved in youth ministry than all the kids in high school. And he ended up going into the seminary, and now he’s going to be ordained next year. I’m going to go to Canada for his ordination in May of 2019. So I’m really excited.”

   Father Dan remembers teaching two students who have become priests: Father Joseph M. O’Connor and Father Peter F. Tassini. Both Father Dan and Sister Beth Ann credit God for the vocations, instead of taking personal credit for them.

   Father Dan tells young men who are married that God may be calling them to the permanent diaconate, “which we need more and more and more as we get older and older and older!”

   He remembers the late Bishop James M. Moynihan always challenging parents at Confirmations to pray: If a child’s religious vocation be God’s will, they would support it.

WHO WILL DECIDE?

   Sister Beth Ann said a man told her one time at a vocation encounter in Minnesota: “‘You know, Sister, I’ve known your sisters since I was three years old. And my mother was in your nursing home, and all our kids went to your school. But I don’t want you to have my daughter to be a nun. I love your sisters but I want grandkids.’ He was very clear and up-front with me, because he only had one daughter and seven sons.”

   She told him: “‘Well, I think we should let God help her decide.’” (The woman did not become a nun.)

  Both Father Dan and Sister Beth Ann said the religious life is not at all a burden. “You cannot get burned out if the flame is the Holy Spirit,” Father Dan said.

   On days when he is more tired than he used to be simply because he is older, he said, “I say, ‘OK, Lord, let’s do it.’ And then it gets done!”

  And that, in Father Dan’s opinion, is more than OK.

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