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BEECH GROVE—The 31 eighth-grade students kept the great surprise a secret for more than two months, knowing it would be the trip of a lifetime for their favorite teacher who was turning 50 on Dec. 7.
Ever since the eighth-grade students at Holy Name of Jesus School in Beech Grove were in the fourth grade, they have had Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne as their religion teacher—a teacher who has touched their lives with her laughter, her side hugs and her joyous way of helping them “to know, love and serve God.”
They’ve seen her fashion fondness for turtlenecks, helped her learn to text and come to know her longtime dream of wanting to visit the sacred grotto in Lourdes, France—because of the special promise that her mother, Kay (Voges) Etienne, once made there as a young woman more than 55 years ago.
Back then, Kay was single as she knelt before the statue of the Blessed Mother and said a prayer that was part promise and part offer to God.
At the time, some people told Kay that she should follow in her older sister’s footsteps and become a Benedictine sister. But Kay saw her future as a wife and mother. So at the grotto, she told God that any children she had could serve him in the priesthood or religious life.
A few years later, Kay married Paul Etienne in 1957. In the next 12 years, they welcomed six children to their family.
Sister Nicolette was the first child in the family to make the religious life her own. Three of her brothers became priests. Father Bernard Etienne and Father Zachary Etienne both serve in the Evansville Diocese, while Bishop Paul D. Etienne, once a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, leads the Diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming. Two others siblings, Rick and Angela, married and have families.
“Ever since I heard that story from my mother, I’ve always wanted to go to Lourdes and kneel down and pray in that same spot where my mother knelt down and prayed,” Sister Nicolette recalled. “It’s always been my dream.”
Wanting to make her dream come true, her eighth-grade students started in September to put in motion the secret plan they called “Operation Lourdes.”
Part of the plan included donating their allowances and money from baby-sitting and other jobs to the fund. They also enlisted the help of the school’s principal, Gina Fleming, other teachers and staff members as they started a letter-writing campaign to people whose lives have been touched by Sister Nicolette.
The response was tremendous. The secret was kept. And on the morning of Dec. 7, in a school convocation that started with Fleming praising the “incomparable goodness” of the Blessed Mother, the spotlight shifted to a celebration of the 50th birthday of Sister Nicolette.
First, the cheers came, followed by the singing of “Happy Birthday” and a video presentation in which students and staff members shared 50 reasons why Sister Nicolette is so special to the Holy Name community.
Because when she laughs, we laugh.
Because she changes your life with her wisdom.
Because she makes delicious chili.
Because she’s proud of her family and their religious faith.
Because she parties like a Catholic!
Then a few eighth-grade students rolled a suitcase toward her. Seconds later, they presented her with a sign telling her that she has two round-trip plane tickets for her journey to Lourdes in June. The last gift was an oversized check for $3,650 to help pay for expenses during the trip.
The moment left Sister Nicolette surprised, stunned and in tears.
“I don’t think there are words that could express how I feel right now,” she told the crowd in the school gymnasium that was filled with students, teachers, parents, friends, educators from other schools, and administrators in the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education. “It’s not very often that I’m moved to tears, but I am today. This is just a dream come true.”
While the surprise overwhelmed Sister Nicolette, keeping the secret thrilled the eighth-grade students. The only things that compared with the smiles they beamed after pulling off the surprise were the smiles that lit up their faces when they talked about Sister Nicolette.
“She’s such a great role model,” Zach Taylor said. “Everybody should want to be like her.”
“She makes our school lively,” said McKenzie Beeson. “She’s always happy. She brings everyone up.”
“Without Sister here, I don’t think I’d be able to grow as much in my faith,” Brad Meade said. “She’s been a huge part of my faith and why I converted to Catholicism. She’s always inspiring people to know, love and serve God.”
It’s the way a teacher can influence a student’s life, just as a parent can shape a child’s.
“I wish my mom and dad were here. They’re going to love this story,” Sister Nicolette said about her parents, who are members of St. Paul Parish in Tell City. “And to think it all started with my mom in Lourdes.”
One remarkable part of the story is that Sister Nicolette’s mother didn’t tell her daughter about her trip to Lourdes and her promise to God until Sister Nicolette was 24, right as she was leaving to enter the Benedictine community at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, which is just down the road from Holy Name School.
“She started telling me about her trip to Lourdes, and Mary appearing to Bernadette,” Sister Nicolette recalled. “She said, ‘I wasn’t going to be a nun. I wanted to get married and have kids.’ Growing up, Mom and Dad never pressured us to do anything except to be decent in our behavior and stay faithful to the Church. Their whole life has been centered around God and God’s call for them as parents.”
Her own call has led her to be a religious sister and a teacher—a teacher who prays the rosary every Thursday with her eighth-grade students, a teacher who was touched by their gesture of love for her.
“I always hope and pray that my kids learn their theology and also learn to walk the talk of their faith—to know, love and serve God,” she said. “But it’s not because of me. It’s because of parents, teachers and their pastor at Holy Name.”
She will pray for all of them, her religious community and her family when she travels to Lourdes.
“I will definitely ask for special blessings for my eighth-graders, special blessings for vocations to my Benedictine community in Beech Grove, and special blessings for my parents and my family,” she said.
“We’re such a tight-knit family, and we’ve all been blessed in so many beautiful ways. I think it all goes back to Mom’s prayer, and how awesome God and Mary are in our lives.” †