Back in the Habit - By: Clint Cooper
Monday, September 20, 2010
Posted by: Veronica Seaman
Savannah Spurlock said she can walk into one of her classes at Notre Dame High School feeling rotten and leave later on top of the world.
The reason for the mood change, she said, is Sister Thomas More Stepnowski, one of four Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia at the school.
"They’re very positive people,” said Spurlock, a senior. "They come in smiling. They love to teach. They just add a good vibe to the environment.”
The Dominicans — three teachers and one administrator — have returned to Notre Dame after an absence of 37 years. Members of the Roman Catholic teaching order, which has its headquarters in Nashville, were the first teachers at the school upon its founding in 1876.
"It’s been a very, very smooth transition for us,” said Perry Storey, principal of Notre Dame. "From what we’ve seen in parishes, in the community meetings, everyone is excited to have them as part of the community.”
The sisters said they’re as thrilled to be at the school as alumni, parents and students are to have them.
"We’re an important part of the history here,” said Sister Mary Evelyn Potts, a Chattanooga native and 1959 Notre Dame graduate who is an administrator working with the school’s mission and Catholic identity. "The school was the first foundation established outside of St. Cecelia.”
When she graduated, she said, almost all of her teachers were sisters. Gradually, fewer women joined the order just as more Catholic school officials across the country wanted the Dominican sisters as teachers. The last teachers left the Glenwood school in 1973, she said.
Consequently, all the information some current Notre Dame students had on religious sisters, said Sister Thomas More, who teaches religion, came from Hollywood.
"They were full of questions,” she said, "from the theological to what we eat for breakfast.”
Library information specialist Nancy Trice said the sisters held an information session with the staff before the start of school and invited them to ask any question. The answers, she said, revealed the four made their own pajamas, observe silence during their meals and have several pairs of shoes.
The sisters also wear a religious habit in an era when many orders have either modified their outfits or switched to wearing more secular clothing.
Sister Mary Evelyn said the order made the choice to keep their traditional Dominican religious habit around 1970. The decision, she said, was a nod to the order’s tradition and a desire to remain loyal to the teachings of the church.
In the first weeks of school, Sister Mary Evelyn said, there was a bit of apprehension from the students in approaching the sisters.
"They didn’t know what to expect,” she said. "They’d heard all those stories, stories that through the years had been exaggerated and embellished.”
Eventually, said Sister Mary Evelyn, the students realized that, "gosh, they’re just [like one of the] guys.”
"They’re also beginning to experience some of the love of the sisters,” she said.
Notre Dame junior Hayden Seay said having a Dominican sister is different than having a lay teacher, but he feels lucky to have the opportunity.
"It’s an awesome experience, honestly,” he said. "They explain things so thoroughly, so well, in ways you can understand.”
Storey said Notre Dame has tried to get the Dominican sisters to return for years. He said the growth of the order has allowed the sisters to staff some of the schools they once staffed but had to leave.
"All that time,” he said, "people, especially the older alums, were always asking when the Dominicans were coming back. We’ve [requested them], but hundreds of schools were making requests for the Dominicans being in the school. We sort of got in line to make the request.”
Storey said the Dominican sisters returned to Knoxville Catholic School several years ago, so Notre Dame continued to make the request. "In this go-around, with [Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Sticka,] we continued the request, and I guess it seemed like the right time,” he said.
He said the school would have been overjoyed to have two sisters, were originally assigned three sisters and wound up with four.
At present, the sisters live in Mr. Storey’s home, which has been for sale. He had his wife have moved to a condominium. By the end of the month, a convent will be ready for them in a renovated leased brick home near the school.
The convent, according to Sister Mary Evelyn, has two stories and a basement over approximately 4,000 square feet. When completed, it will have six bedrooms and a chapel Bishop Sticka is helping furnish. It is being completed in partnership with Memorial Hospital, Storey said.
In addition to Sisters Mary Evelyn and Thomas More, Sister Peter Verona Bodoh teaches math and Sister Anna Wray religion classes. The four say they’ve been treated well at and away from school and are often approached by strangers not used to seeing religious sisters locally.
Sister Anna Wray, one sister related, even was asked to pray with someone in the housewares department at WalMart.
"It’s gone very well,” said Sister Peter Verona, a native of Wisconsin. "It’s been the same Southern hospitality” as she felt elsewhere in the region.
Story by: Clint Cooper of the Times Free Press: firstname.lastname@example.org