The year was 1959 and I was a lad of eight. I came home from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School and announced that my third grade teacher would be Sister Mary Viator. My father asked me to repeat the name. "Sister Mary Viator," I said. To my surprise, he wanted to meet her. This puzzled me as the school year was just beginning and I hadn't yet had the opportunity to get into trouble.
But that isn't why my dad wanted to meet her. He correctly remembered that Sister Mary Viator had been his sixth grade teacher at Saint Vincent's Orphanage in Vincennes, Indiana.
It wasn't long before I discovered why Sister Mary Viator was unforgettable. She was the Pope John XXIII of religious sisters - short, rotund, possessing a countenance that inspired trust and spoke of good humor. Most importantly, she was incredibly wise. She remains at the top of my list of very favorite teachers.
In the late 1950's, classes were large, and mine was no exception. We numbered well over fifty and were, in a word, unruly. The previous year, as second graders, we set new records for generally poor comportment. We were noisy and rude, a seemingly uncontrollable lot who fought with each other, talked incessantly, had short attention spans, and raised the blood pressure of the teacher, the principal, and the pastor - all at once!
That changed when Sister Mary Viator took over. She had a magical effect on us. It's not an exaggeration when I tell you she had us eating out of her hand! She was so kind and loving, that we wanted to be obedient and cooperative. But none of us mistook her kindness for weakness. She was the teacher, the boss, and we were her willing students.
After so many years, I cannot pretend to re-capture the delightful personality of a very special religious Sister. But this much I do remember. Even as hyperactive eight-year- olds, we knew she loved us. As her pupils, we sensed that she was not only challenging us, she was also rooting for us. None of us wanted to disappoint her. If we did, she didn't let on.
Sister Viator had a way of expressing delight when we succeeded in our lessons that made us happy. And no one could tell a story like Sister Viator. I still remember her stories about missionary adventures in Montana - which, in those days, seemed like the moon to me!
Not a day went by without her making us laugh. She knew how to reward us individually and collectively. There still hangs in my parents' home a lovely image of the Sacred Heart that was Sister Viator's gift.
Sister Viator also knew how to inspire high ideals in all of us. She told us about her own vocation and that of her younger sister (Sister Mary William), both of whom entered the Franciscan Sisters in Oldenburg, Indiana. She taught us that God loved us and had special plans for each one of us. Sitting in her classroom, I knew the Lord wanted me to be a priest.
In my childhood imagination, I thought Sister Viator was already about a hundred years old. Truth to tell, she wasn't much older then than I am now. Years later, in the mid-1980s, my parents and I started visiting Sister Viator regularly at the Motherhouse in Oldenburg. Sister Viator remained her lovable self, still wise, still funloving, and proud of her two former students - Dad and me.
Sister Viator has gone home to the Lord but she continues to influence many lives, including my own. She is also one of a legion of women religious who continue to serve the Church through the witness of their lives and though their effective service in health care, education, evangelization, catechesis, social justice, direct service to the poor, administration, pastoral service, and so much more.
This year, the 50th Anniversary of the Diocese of Bridgeport, I am delighted to welcome the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart from Poncherry, India, who will serve at Saint Camillus Health Center in Stamford. In mid-September, the Sisters Servants of the Lord and of the Virgin of Matera, a community that originated in Argentina, will begin serving in Saint George Parish in South Bridgeport, engaging in evangelization, catechesis, and home visitation (watch for stories on these new Sisters in the next issue of Fairfield County Catholic).
In addition, a number of other religious communities are either planning to come to the diocese or expanding their mission here. And I remain deeply grateful to the religious congregations and societies of apostolic life that have a long history of serving the people of this diocese.
As we continue to celebrate our 50th Anniversary, we celebrate the grace of being One Family in Faith. Religious women and men, consecrated to the Lord by the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, are a vital part of our family of faith, enriching our lives by their witness to Christ. So many of you, my readers, have a Sister Viator in your life. May we give thanks to God by fostering vocations to religious life in the Diocese of Bridgeport.
This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.
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