Honoring the work of religious sisters

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CUMBERLAND — Lois Peloquin remembers her days in Catholic school, at a time when entering a classroom and finding the teacher in full habit was commonplace and their methods of strict discipline were feared.

“I remember going in for the first time and thinking that they all looked so pious,” said Peloquin, a volunteer archivist at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. “It was heavenly. I was in awe of their religious attitudes. There was a reverence for them. On the other hand, they could be tough.”

Peloquin also remembers her religious women educators being immensely strict in the classroom.

“They had a higher standard for us than we had for ourselves,” she said. “The only thing was that they demanded it. When they were teaching, they were good at it.”

Shaped by the experiences of her early years, Peloquin now works as one of several staff members dedicated to maintaining a special Catholic School Archive at the museum. Along with the archive, a classroom exhibit vividly portrays a typical 1929 parochial school classroom and shares a story that brings back many memories for those who attended Catholic schools.

A life-sized nun figure in the classroom exhibit also pays homage to the thousands of religious educators who taught from 1869 to the present day.

Raymond Bacon, co-director of the museum, and Eugene Peloquin, director of the Catholic School Archive recalled that a lot of thought and discussion went into the design of the iconic religious educator.

“Some said, why don’t you have her holding a pointer,” Bacon remembered. “Some people said that we don’t want that because it brings us back to the old days where they used to hit us on the knuckles. She would have presented an image that was used for punishment. So instead, we have her holding a math book.”

Mr. Peloquin shared that nuns of today have a reputation for being extremely compassionate.

“They are very warm, humane and kind,” he said.

The exhibit shows that, over the past centuries, the education style used by religious educators has evolved from one in which they display a strong authoritarian role in the classroom to one where there is a stronger focus on nurturing the emotional, spiritual, and academic sides of the student. It is a concept in education with which the sisters of today readily agree.

Sister Marilyn Fanning, a fifth grade teacher at Mercymount Country Day School in Cumberland, feels delighted when she sees a child grow and achieve.

“I love being able to work with the whole child,” she said. “I teach science and math, however I constantly bring religion into it. As a scientist, I want to model reverence for all living things. So when we go outside and I handle a plant or a grasshopper, I want them to see that I treasure that life, and I want them to see that I have respect for the earth.”

Sister Fanning shared that the old image of sisters is really an old image of education.

“Schools have changed and the discipline that we teach in the school has changed,” she explained. Now, we are trying to teach self-discipline through respecting other people rather than the discipline of being afraid.”

“People who have experienced that education, whether it was with the sisters or with the lay teachers of years ago, they have that image of the old days of education. Now it’s more holistic and very hands on. I think anybody that’s stayed in it, if they didn’t change, they wouldn’t be able to continue.”

Sister Jeanne Barry always wanted to be a teacher, even as a child. The principal of Our Lady of Mercy School in East Greenwich has been working in Catholic schools for 51 years. She shared that the many joys of teaching come from the children themselves.

“They are what it is all about,” Sister Barry said, adding that the role of religious women educators has changed in order to keep up with changes in education.

“Before my time, some communities placed sisters in the classroom before they had completed their education,” she said. “For years, however, women religious have completed undergraduate work and most have master’s in various areas of education. We are still trying to spread the Gospel, but methods have changed in many ways.”

Sister Barry feels that the secular perception has changed to match the changes in society and the church.

“I don’t think people are ‘in fear of Sister’ as maybe some once were,” she explained. “I think they see us now more as people. We are more involved with the people than we were 30 or 40 years ago. We don’t just go right home to the convent at the end of the day.”

After volunteering in high school with children with special needs, Sister Nancy McLennon’s vocation to teach was born. The principal of Sacred Heart School in East Providence said that she “fell in love” with helping children learn and experience new things.

“One of the greatest joys is witnessing the joy in a child’s face when they learn something new or finally understand something that they have been working hard on to grasp,” she said. “Being able to teach them about how much God truly loves them is incredible. I love their youthful energy, exuberance and fascination with new concepts.”

Sister McLennon said that many people have voiced their opinion to her that they are grateful to see religious sisters in their child’s school, and feel that their children will receive a “real” Catholic education.

“I know for a fact that some parents have sent their child to our school because there are religious sisters here,” she said. “They are paying for not only a good solid education, but also for the Catholic values that the children will learn. Most of our teachers are laypersons who do an excellent job of imparting Catholic ideals.”

For years, the great majority of teachers in Catholic Schools were sisters; now they are few or none, sister explained.

“Years ago, whatever ‘Sister said’ was not just accepted, but taken as Gospel truth, without question,” said Sister McLennon. “In today’s society, we religious must be just as prepared professionally as our lay counterparts.”

Recognizing the continuous impact sisters have had, archivists from the Museum of Work and Culture work hard to share the stories of people who went to the “schools of the nuns.” The museum invites those who attended or taught in Catholic schools, anywhere in the world, to send photos, reflections, or other memorabilia from their days in parochial school to help capture the past and give tribute to religious educators who have helped to educate the community for generations.

To submit any pictures and written material to the Catholic School Archive, please send to Eugene A. Peloquin, Museum of Work and Culture, 42 South Main Street, Woonsocket, RI 02895.