Sisters say the classroom is their home
Sister Dolores Bachman said the reason she wound up in education was simple.
When she became a Sister of St. Joseph in 1960, her only other option was to be a nurse, but she faints at the sight of blood.
More than 40 years later, she’s still in the classroom.
“I love children, and I love what I do,” said Sister Bachman, who said as far as she knows, she is the only Sister of St. Joseph teaching in the Finger Lakes area of the diocese.
At one time, Catholic schools were filled with women religious. Now, although many schools in the diocese have women religious as their principals, it is rare for them to have sisters in the classroom. There are several reasons for the fewer numbers of women religious at Catholic schools, sisters say.
“We are getting older, we are getting fewer and many of our sisters are no longer in education,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Lorraine Burns, who was formerly principal of Rochester’s Holy Family School before helping found Notre Dame Learning Center in Rochester in 2004.
Even though many sisters are no longer in the classroom full time, some still maintain ties with Catholic schools, said Gerald Benjamin, principal of Avon’s St. Agnes School, which does not at this time have any women religious on staff. Even so, he said several stop by frequently to speak with students.
“The Sisters of St. Joseph have just been a blessing to us and really established a bedrock of quality for our school,” said Benjamin, noting that many St. Agnes alumni speak fondly of sisters who taught them.
Sister Bachman -- who has taught first, second and fifth grades at schools throughout the diocese and who was known as Sister Innocentia up until the late 1960s -- said the classroom has been a blessing.
“I love teaching religion,” she said. “I just feel the children are hungry for God.”
Sister Mary Carmella Coene, 98, who has been teaching and tutoring for the past 80 years, feels the same passion for science and math.
“There’s a great blessing that comes with imparting knowledge,” said Sister Coene, whose teaching positions included teaching or tutoring at Notre Dame High School in Elmira from 1955 to the present.
Though she officially retired from teaching in 2005, Sister Coene continued to tutor students up until this spring when she was sidelined with injuries that may have been related to a fall. She’s not sure when she’ll be able to get back to tutoring but said she hopes that it will be soon.
“It’s no fun sitting in a chair all day, and the contact with the kids is wonderful,” Sister Coene said.
When she entered the Sisters of Mercy in December 1926, she said she was told she would be teaching.
“We had large classes and a large number of youngsters,” Sister Coene said. “There was a sister for every class. It was unusual to have lay people teaching.”
She estimated that the shift from religious to lay teachers became common in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For her, the classroom was the right fit.
“You have to be able to swing with the punches,” Sister Coene said. “Some days are harder than others. Some students are not inclined to work; others are inclined to do all kinds of work and are anxious to work, so you get your reward.”
Sister Coene recalled one unmotivated student who did poorly in math so he could go to summer school rather than travel with his family. Instead, Sister Coene went with him and his family on a cross-country trip in their motor home.
“I tutored him all the way to Texas,” Sister Coene said with a chuckle, noting that he subsequently passed the Regents math exam.
Sister Burns, 76, said she believes kids keep educators such as herself young. The 80 volunteers at Notre Dame Learning Center range from teens to seniors, and they have given free reading and math tutoring to more than 200 students, she said. Learning center staff observe tutors and help them draw up lesson plans.
It’s a far cry from the on-the-job training Sister Burns received in 1949 in a first-grade classroom with 73 students in a Catholic school in Baltimore, Md. Known then by her religious name, Sister Ronald, she said she learned how to teach from a fellow woman religious who taught the first grade.
“I think I owe it all back to her,” Sister Burns said.
When she started, most of her students came from two-parent homes, and parents were involved in their children’s education. A large percentage of children she helps today are being raised by their mother or grandmother, she said.
“I think today children don’t have the support and role models in education,” Sister Burns said.
She said she has been encouraged recently because she has seen parents get more involved.
“They really see the value of education, because of how many of these mothers have struggled,” Sister Burns said. “You get nowhere in life if you don’t have an education.”