January 23, 2009

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Unsung heroes: Religious sisters continue to leave their mark on students

In her 56th year as an educator in the archdiocese, Benedictine Sister Louise Hoeing shares a moment with Holly Ackermann, left, and Amanda Sands, students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. Sister Louise is the school’s director of guidance. (Submitted photo)

In her 56th year as an educator in the archdiocese, Benedictine Sister Louise Hoeing shares a moment with Holly Ackermann, left, and Amanda Sands, students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. Sister Louise is the school’s director of guidance. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

In looking back on the 175-year history of the archdiocese, any list of the heroes of Catholic education would have to include parents, priests, religious brothers and lay teachers.

Still, if you were searching for the “unsung heroes” of Catholic education in the archdiocese’s history, that distinction belongs to one special group of people: Religious sisters.

Indeed, ever since St. Theodora Guérin left France and arrived in the Indiana wilderness in 1840 with the goal of offering a faith-based education to children of all backgrounds, the history of Catholic education in the archdiocese has clearly been marked by the efforts of the Sisters of Providence, Sisters of St. Benedict, Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of St. Joseph—to name the most prominent orders.

“The sisters have been overwhelming to the Church at large,” says Richard Powell, a 2009 recipient of a Celebrating Catholic School Values Award, who taught at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis for 42 years before retiring in 2008. “They gave the example of their lives to teach us how to live. They were always willing to help other people, no matter what. And they taught us to do the same, beyond what they did for us with the three Rs. They formed many a life.”

Even in an age now dominated by Catholic lay teachers, the remarkable legacy of religious sisters continues. And while this story will focus on the life of just one of those sisters, consider this story as a tribute to every religious sister who has devoted her life to teaching and advising Catholic children.

At 74, Benedictine Sister Louise Hoeing is in her 56th year as an educator in the archdiocese—a former teacher and principal who has long served as the director of guidance at Bishop Chatard High School.

Her life shows how Catholic education has changed in many ways through the years and yet still retains its roots.

She grew up in Indianapolis, one of seven children in her family. Her parents were married in 1931 during the Great Depression, an era when economic hard times devastated many families. And yet their commitment to the Church never wavered.

“Catholic education was very important to my parents,” she recalls as she sits in her office at Bishop Chatard. “All their children got a Catholic education.”

She remembers her childhood days at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis when Providence Sister Catherine Siena played marbles with the boys and taught all her students to stand up for their beliefs.

She recalls transferring to the newly-opened Christ the King School in Indianapolis in seventh grade, where she met Benedictine Sister Assunta Highbaugh, a woman who always demanded the best of her students.

She also remembers her freshman year of high school at the former St. Agnes Academy in Indianapolis, and the pain that she and her classmates felt when one of their favorite teachers, Sister Marie Rose, died that year of cancer.

“The way she handled herself, she was a steady influence for us,” she recalls.

The influence of those sisters stayed with her when she joined the Benedictine Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese in 1950, when she was 16.

“It was an inner longing for something more than what I was experiencing,” Sister Louise says. “I felt there was something more for me than the proms and running around.”

At 19, she began teaching at St. Ambrose School in Seymour. She started as a fifth-grade teacher before taking over the first grade.

“I had 54 students in one class,” she recalls. “I took them to the fire station two blocks away one day. Did I have another adult with me? No. They obeyed. I taught them Latin, too. They thought they were the cat’s meow.”

During that time in the 1950s, she experienced a rare moment in Catholic education in the archdiocese.

“In my first years of teaching, all the teachers were sisters,” she says. “Someone got sick and a woman by the name of Mrs. Nichter replaced her. She would have been one of the first lay teachers in the archdiocese.”

The changes came in her life, too. As a principal and teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School in Clarksville in the early 1960s, Sister Louise relished the opportunity to lead a school. She also thrived during the 10 years she served as principal of the former Our Lady of Grace Academy in Beech Grove.

“I had never been in a high school since I was in high school,” she says with a laugh. “That Class of ’66 helped me through. We still get together.”

Since 1975, she has been at Bishop Chatard, working mostly in the guidance department. She is the guidance counselor for half of each freshman class. As director of guidance, she also is a terrific source of knowledge for seniors who need help seeking college scholarships or finding a college that matches their gifts and their career plans, says Bishop Chatard president William Sahm.

“She has a great sense of humor, and she is compassionate and sensitive,” Sahm says. “She keeps track of all the deaths in the Bishop Chatard community—grand- parents, aunts, uncles. She attends every wake and many funerals. And she has a mind for detail. She keeps track of her former students—how many kids they have, grandchildren, who they are married to, what’s going on in their lives.”

Sister Louise is part of a Benedictine tradition that has been in place at Bishop Chatard since it opened in 1961. Two other Benedictine sisters, Sister Susan Marie Lindstrom and Sister Kathleen Yeadon, also teach at the school.

“We’re so different,” Sister Louise says. “I see that as a plus. Students have the opportunity to see we’re not all in the same mold.”

Still, they are connected by a bond of faithfulness to helping Catholic students grow in their faith and their education. It’s a bond with the past, a bond that hasn’t weakened even as the number of religious sisters in Catholic schools has declined dramatically in Sister Louise’s lifetime.

“They have dedicated themselves to the needs of the Church, whatever it may be,” Sister Louise says about religious sisters through the generations. “In education, they have carried the torch of continuing the faith for children.”

She pauses and says, “I hope we’ve added something.”

There’s no doubt, say admirers of religious sisters.

“Their dedication to their students has been remarkable,” Sahm says. “Just think of the amount of heart and soul they put toward their students. Equally important, they’re living symbols of commitment to Christ and their faith.” †

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