Carrying on the Legacy

Story and photos by Dave Eck

In the doorway of Precious Blood Sister Nancy Wolf’s kindergarten classroom at Immaculate Conception School in Celina, Ohio, is a colorful poster of Mark 10:16: “And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.”

The poster expresses the heritage of the Precious Blood Sisters, who have been educating Catholic children for more than a century. In Catholic elementary and high schools throughout the country, generations of students learned their core subjects for academic success, but they also learned how to be good, faith-filled people. The Sisters taught values, compassion for others, and a love of God and the Eucharist. Today, four Sisters – two principals and two elementary school teachers – carry on that legacy. In addition to Sister Nancy, Sister Paula Gero is a fifth grade teacher at St. Pius School in Flint, Mich.; Sister Patricia Kremer is principal at St. Christopher School in Vandalia, Ohio; and Sister Anne Schulz is principal at Mother Teresa School in Liberty Township, Ohio.

“I hope I’m carrying on the legacy of my community,” said Sister Patricia, who was educated by Precious Blood Sisters in elementary school and at Regina High School. “The nuns that I had in grade school and high school clearly influenced my life.”

The Sisters taught academic discipline along with a love of God and the Eucharist to the more than 100 schools in which they ministered. They opened many of the parish schools themselves, particularly in northern Ohio. The schools typically created a family atmosphere and were tight-knit.

The four Precious Blood Sisters working in elementary education say they bring a strong focus on the faith to their students. They plan Masses, celebrate the feast days and often work God into their lessons. While the laity does an admirable job in teaching religion, the Sisters said, a religious typically brings a stronger view.

In Flint, for example, the diocese once sent out a list of prayers Catholic students should know. Sister Paula “ran with it,” parceling out the list and forming a committee to make sure the kids knew the prayers.

“I think that my slant on education is probably colored by my feeling that this is a school that ought to be focused on Jesus. It ought to be focused on good behavior for the right reasons. Maybe I do that better than a layperson who has other priorities and other distractions and more constraints on their time,” Sister Paula said. “I hope that I bring a sense of religious values and I hope that I’m one of the people who keeps calling us back to our true calling.”

A 45-year teacher, Sister Paula offers her students a light and airy disposition that makes learning enjoyable. One November morning, she ran through her academic lessons with song and gestures. She discussed Matthew’s Gospel 25 and how doing something for those in need is actually honoring God. Her lessons are short to keep the kids engaged.

To help break up the day, she helped the kids with an embroidery project once the schoolwork was finished.  She also pitches in with them whenever she is needed. During the recent Christmas pageant, a student got sick so Sister Paula took her place as a servant in the stable. “I hope the costume matches my eyes,” she said with a chuckle.

Sister Paula also makes sure the students perform a production for Easter as an expression of Precious Blood spirituality. She is serious about teaching religion.

“She’s just instrumental in helping this school be a Catholic school,” said R.J. Kaplan, St. Pius principal, who has a son is in Sister Paula’s class. “I think it’s important that we show the vocation of religious life to our kids and have someone who is that person. We need our boys and girls to see Sister Paula. Her choice was to take this vow. She makes it very tangent to them.”

A storyteller, Sister Paula’s students “love her,” Kaplan said. His son came home one day and told his father he believes in Jesus because of something Sister Paula said. She brings a gift of making her students believe in Jesus, Kaplan explained. It’s something he and his wife – a former student of Sister Paula’s at St. Pius X – want for their children.

St. Pius X is now celebrating its 50th year. Precious Blood Sisters opened the school and except for a 3-year break have been there since. Sister Paula has been teaching at the school since 1978, mostly teaching fifth grade.

A native of Missouri, Sister Paula grew up wanting to be a teacher and a woman religious. She entered the community in 1964 and originally wanted to teach high school history. In college, however, her superiors encouraged her to focus on elementary school teaching because of her bubbly, upbeat personality. It was the right decision.

“I enjoy the company of fifth grade children,” she said. “I feel it uses my talents well. I’m quite intelligent and could probably do something else, but I wouldn’t have used so many aspects of myself.”

In Celina, Sister Nancy is completing her 30th year at Immaculate Conception, 27 of which have been teaching kindergarten. Precious Blood Sisters opened the school in 1878 and have been serving there since, except for a brief time in the 1970s.

Growing up in Wapakoneta, Ohio, she wanted to be a teacher since the second grade. She graduated from then-Precious Blood High School and entered the community in 1962. When Sisters began leaving education for other ministries in the 1960s, Sister Nancy remained in the classroom.

“I love teaching,” she said. “That’s always been something I wanted to do and the students just keep you going. It’s a love and a gift.”

She enjoys weaving Precious Blood spirituality into her lessons, teaching children to love God and that He’s the center of their life. She often tells her students to thank God for His gifts as she discusses such things as the environment or human senses.

Then there are the “little miracles” when she sees the children embracing God in their lives. At the end of each day the class prays and Sister Nancy asks the kids to talk with God and tell Him what they liked about the day. Once, Sister Nancy forgot to encourage them to talk with God and one little girl brought it up. It was then that Sister Nancy realized she had instilled prayer in the girl.

“To me the most important part of a Catholic school is being able to put Jesus and God into the everyday life,” Sister Nancy said. “It’s not just learning for learning’s sake, it’s because God loves (us). The children learn that and they know that prayer is an important part.”

Sister Nancy’s energy and enthusiasm are clearly evident as she keeps her kindergarteners engaged in their work. She diagrams a sentence on a white board, reads to them, moves them into groups to illustrate basic math and plays music to help them recognize the alphabet. In discussing the Gospel story of the lost sheep, she uses a stuffed sheep as a prop.

“She presents a tremendous example to our children of living out your vocation of love for God,” Immaculate Conception principal Polly Muhlenkamp said of Sister Nancy. “It’s very evident in everything she does. She’s such a superb teacher. I think children feel blessed to have been taught by a Sister.”

In an era dwindling religious working in Catholic schools, Sister Patricia said working at St. Christopher is important to her because she is carrying on her Sisters’ legacy. Precious Blood Sisters opened the school in 1959 and served there until 1974. Sister Patricia, a Norwood, Ohio, native, marked their return when she came as principal about 20 years ago.

Like most Catholic schools, St. Christopher balances academic success with lessons about the faith and Precious Blood spirituality

“When they are finished here at St. Christopher I want them to be strong in the faith or at lease well on their way,” she said. “I want them to have an excellent education that has prepared them to be responsible people in the world. I want them to leave here and go to any high school and be successful because they have a solid foundation.”

The students attend an all-school Mass weekly, but Sister Patricia also wants her students be a life-giving presence to others.

“They get a message like that every single day here at school,” she said. “I want them to constantly be working on being better people, being that face of Christ for others.”

In Liberty Township, a burgeoning suburban area between Cincinnati and Dayton, Sister Anne has been principal of Mother Teresa School since it opened in 1998. A Bristol, Conn., native, she enjoys the impact she can make on children.

“Children are our future,” she said. “If you give kids a good, solid foundation, then you have strong adults. That’s why I stayed in education and really believe in it.”

As a woman religious, she brings a strong focus on religion to the school, Sister Anne explained. The value of prayer is one.

“One big thing I always stress with the kids is just give God five minutes,” Sister Anne said. “I give them a love of God. I gave my whole life to God so they can pray to God for five minutes.”

While the Sisters realize that laypeople do a good job in teaching the faith in Catholic schools, a woman religious brings a stronger focus on religion and vocations that isn’t easily replaced.

“I do think my being a Sister means that I am conscious of prayer, liturgy and the reasons for good behavior,” Sister Paula said. “I think I can do more concerning the religious life of the children.”