July 7, 2006

Retirement Supplement

The word is not part of Sister Lavonne Long’s vocabulary

By John Shaughnessy

In a flash, Sister Lavonne Long’s expression changed from radiant joy to heartbreaking agony.

The joy radiated when she talked about all the students whose lives she has tried to touch in 62 years as an educator.

The heartbreak marked her voice and filled her eyes when the 84-year-old sister recalled the agony of going against her father’s pleas for her to not join a religious order.

Those two expressions showed the spectrum of emotions for a woman who has given so much to so many people—a woman who knew she was giving up one of the closest relationships she’s ever had to lead a life of service to God and others.

“The hardest thing I’ve done in my life is hurt my father,” the Oldenburg Franciscan sister said as tears welled in her eyes. “It broke my heart to hurt my father. We were so close. I kind of think that the hurt I had to cause him, there are so many rewards the Lord has given me. I’ve had so many blessings in my life.”

She is the blessing, insist many of the people who know her, including students, teachers and alumni of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, where she has worked for 41 years.

“She’s just so widely loved,” said Marilyn Ross, Scecina’s director of admissions and marketing. “There’s an ageless aspect to her. Her love for the students, Scecina and her religious order haven’t been diminished. It’s still the core of what she is—educating these students and helping them be the best they can be.”

Nine years ago, Sister Lavonne thought about retiring. Now, the former teacher and guidance counselor still works full time at Scecina, serving primarily as a liaison between alumni and administrators.

As she leaves her apartment for work each morning, she passes a small plaque that reads, “Each new day is a gift from God.”

“When I pass it, I always add to myself, ‘Lavonne, please use it well, ’ ” she said.

She’s had that goal for more than 65 years, ever since she decided to become a sister after her freshman year at Marian College in Indianapolis. She came home to Rushville to share the news with her father, knowing how much it would devastate him.

“I was the youngest of three,” she recalled. “My father and I had a very close relationship. He was not a Catholic. He saw no need for a formal religion. He told me once, ‘What I’m supposed to do is to be good to other people.’ He didn’t think too much about religious life.

“When I told him what I was going to do, he couldn’t handle it at all. He begged me. He pleaded with me. That’s why I hurt him so deeply. He wouldn’t come to see me for seven years. The first time he came to visit, he didn’t get out of the car.”

While the separation from her father was painful, the communion with the sisters in her order was joyous—matched by her desire to serve God through helping students.

Sister Lavonne began her teaching career at Holy Name School in Beech Grove in 1945. After more than a decade of teaching at schools in Ohio, she came to Scecina in 1956 to teach English. That was her passion, but she received orders to become the principal of St. Mary Academy in Indianapolis in 1964.

“That broke my heart,” she recalled. “I had no desire to be a principal. I had no desire to lead an all-girls’ school. But I went, and I loved it.”

She cried when she left St. Mary’s in 1973, returning to Scecina as a guidance counselor so she could spend more time helping her sister take care of their ill mother. She has been at Scecina ever since. She remembers a time when 21 Franciscan sisters lived in the convent near the school. The convent has now become offices for the school. Sister Lavonne works there and lives there in a small apartment.

“Since its founding in 1953, Scecina has been animated by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg,” said Kevin Caspersen, Scecina’s president. “Sister Lavonne remains the heart and soul of the place. She brings together its history in her own wonderful personality. She really is a kind of emotional glue that brings people together.”

Her personality shined as she joked and shared stories with three Scecina students on a recent afternoon. She also bragged about how Jesse Wilson, Jessi Wright and Hannah Zimmerman were part of the school’s softball team that lost only one game this spring.

“You always see her around school,” said Jesse, a junior and a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis. “You know the school means a whole lot to her and she would do anything for it.”

Hannah and Jessi nodded in agreement.

“She’s kind of like a kid,” said Hannah, a sophomore and a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis. “She blends in when we’re at school. She comes to all our basketball games and everything she can.”

“She comes to our Masses,” said Jessi, a sophomore and a member of St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish in Indianapolis. “She always smiles and makes everyone happy.”

A sense of happiness finally touched her relationship with her father as the years passed. The father and daughter reconciled. Then Sister Lavonne’s dad asked to be baptized into the Catholic Church as he was dying.

“I don’t know what really led to it,” she said. “Just the fact that he was baptized at the last, it was an overwhelming sense of joy for me. I know that after he came around, he saw that I was happy.”

She says her father was at the heart of everything she has tried to teach every student she has met.

“I’ve always tried to stress to them that we can all be of service to others,” she said. “I think that came from my dad, who said, ‘I just have to be good to others.’ I’ve tried to do that. I hope my life has stood for my desire to become more closely united with my Lord. That’s my ultimate goal.”

In her apartment, Sister Lavonne picked up the small sign that reads, “Each new day is a gift from God.”

“When you get a gift, you either enjoy it or you share it with others. That’s what I’ve tried to do every day. I’ve had so many joys in my life.” †



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