A Tribute to My First Grade Teacher

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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I received word recently that my first grade teacher, Sister Claudia Kunzler, OSB, passed away. Sr. Claudia died at the age of 79 and in the 61st year of religious life.

Because she had not been in good health the last couple of years, the news of her death was not a great surprise. Nonetheless, her passing prompted a moment of sorrow, a flood of memories and a prayer of gratitude for her dedicated service and her lasting impact on my life.

Sister Claudia was a member of the Benedictine Sisters who staffed St. Teresa of Avila School in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. I entered first grade there in September of 1954. Ever since that time Sr. Claudia has been part of my life’s journey. She stayed in touch while I was in the seminary and during my parish assignments. She was enormously proud of the fact that I became a priest and bishop. Sr. Claudia was practically a member of our family and was one of my mom’s closest friends, offering companionship and a sympathetic ear, especially towards the end of my mom’s life.

I don’t remember all of the details, of course, but I know that it was Sr. Claudia who first taught me the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. In reading I heard the fabled stories of Dick and Jane, Spot and . . . what was the name of the cat? In writing, it was Sr. Claudia who taught me the alphabet and the beginning of cursive writing, that fine art that eluded me throughout my academic career. And in arithmetic, from Sr. Claudia I learned that 2 plus 2 equals 4, a long time before the “new math” made everything seem so complicated.

More important than these intellectual tools, however, was the fact that Sr. Claudia taught me the basics of the faith, building on the strong foundation I had learned from mom and dad at home. Sr. Claudia helped me practice my prayers – the Our Father, Hail Mary and “Glory be.” It was she who introduced me to the Bible, using colorful and familiar Bible stories that even a child could understand. She helped me memorize the first questions of the Baltimore Catechism: “Who made you?” “Why did God make you?” “What is a sacrament?” (I’ll be you remember the answer to these questions, don’t you?)

I’ll always be grateful to Sr. Claudia for introducing me to the Catholic Faith, the primary commitment of my life, and for supporting me with her prayers every step of the way. And her impact on my particular story is multiplied many times over since she taught elementary school for 55 years in several schools in three different dioceses. As her newspaper obituary said, “She was deeply committed to spreading the faith to young people in the Catholic schools. She was known to be a woman of strong faith, deeply committed to her religious life.”

But this article is not about Sr. Claudia only. In writing about her, I pay tribute also to the many other religious women who taught me and helped me at various stages along the way. At St. Teresa School I had other great teachers like Sr. Marcia and Sr. Mary Michael who instructed us, challenged us and made school really enjoyable. And I remember the principals who led our school – Sr. Mary Ruth and Sr. Eileen. It was Sr. Eileen, I believe, who provided the very flattering recommendation I needed to apply for the minor seminary. I’m sure that God will forgive her momentary lapse in good judgment!

At St. Mark’s Seminary in Erie, PA, the Sisters of St. Joseph were an integral part of the community. Sr. Ramona and Sr. Leonora were demanding but professional teachers in the classroom. Sr. Eymard was the infirmarian – compassionate of course, but intimidating enough to make us all really want to stay healthy. And Sr. Josina and Sr. Flora ran the kitchen with the discipline and crispness of a military unit. But you’d do the same if you had to feed two-hundred-and-fifty high school and college students three times a day!

In recalling the service of these good and devoted women, it strikes me that we should all remember and honor the religious sisters who have served so generously and effectively in our Catholic schools throughout the years. They taught generations of students in this country – in elementary schools and high schools – and in so doing they formed “the greatest generation” of faithful Catholics who built the Church we’ve known and loved. They prepared well-educated and highly motivated leaders for the Church and our nation. Though they seldom received much recognition, they were, without a doubt, the “power behind the throne.”

In his Apostolic Letter on the Consecrated Life, Pope John Paul recognized the members of religious communities who have devoted their lives to Catholic education. He wrote: “The history of the Church is full of admirable examples of consecrated persons who have sought and continue to seek holiness through their involvement in education, while at the same time proposing holiness as the goal of education. This is one of the most precious gifts which consecrated persons today can offer to young people, instructing them in a way that is full of love.” (Vita Consecrata, #96)

So, as I pay my final respects to Sr. Claudia and thank her for her faithful life and generous service, I hope you’ll take a moment too, dear readers, to think about and thank God for all the religious women who taught you or touched your life throughout the years. In their words and example they have passed on the faith, and they have “instructed us in a way that is full of love.” For those lasting gifts, we should all be grateful.