As a much younger School Sister of St. Francis (SSSF), I was appointed to teach in Nebraska at Pope John XXIII Central Catholic High School. It was a rural, 250-student school at the edge of the Sand Hills region, three hours northwest of Omaha. For a newly minted teacher, it was a wonderful experience since I lived and worked with nine Sisters who enjoyed the challenge of working with energetic teenagers who were used to the independence and interdependence of hard-scrabble farms and ranches.
These were the days when most Catholic schools were primarily staffed by nuns, though there were a few “lay” faculty at Pope John. I have great memories of working together with these educators and the many things they taught me, including how to be a Nebraskan. Despite our camaraderie, several lay faculty expressed a concern about not quite feeling part of the team. After all, we Sisters shared a house (a very big one), many meals, prayer time, and even found time for fun. We brought these experiences and conversations to school each day, so it’s no wonder our counterparts sometimes felt like outsiders.
Not long after working at Pope John and going to graduate school, I came to Alverno College. It was 1976 and although there were at least 50 School Sisters working at the College, there was also a growing number of faculty and staff who did not come from the SSSF ranks. Because of this new dynamic, the Sisters who preceded me worked very hard to build a culture of collaboration and inclusiveness. It also helped that the College had just gone through a transformative time with a new president and the invention of a very exciting new curriculum. Much was needed to be done as each new and sometimes unexpected curricular implication arose. We worked together to make the academic and entire college experience work well for every student. In my early years at Alverno, there was a palpable sense that all of us owned the College’s mission and work.
And that sense continues to today but not without effort. A collaborative, mission-driven culture needs to be sustained and intentionally created and recreated through many actions large and small. Calling each other by our first names, for instance, helps us cross status boundaries. Engaging each other in rethinking our goals and educational vision in Institutes, Friday afternoon workshops and ability department meetings helps us grow as keepers and developers of the College’s mission. A powerful cohesiveness results from a constant attention to students and their learning.
Sometimes I am asked if the culture and mission of the College will change when there are no School Sisters left on the faculty or staff. I am confident that there will be a difference. People – not just goals and mission statements, structures and practices – carry cultures forward. But I also know that, in the nearly four decades that I have worked at the College, we have built a community that keeps – at its heart – the best of the SSSF heritage: hospitality, commitment to foundational values and principles, faith in each student’s potential, and faith in the future. I believe we will continue to be a wonderfully collaborative, educational community.
We are in good hands today. We will be in good hands in the future.