May 14, 2010

'Do your best. God will do the rest': Retiring St. Jude principal’s love for children, Catholic education and football is as strong as ever

Providence Sister James Michael Kesterson wore a touch of the green and a smile that wouldn’t quit during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 in Indianapolis. The principal of St. Jude School in Indianapolis rode in a convertible during the parade. She is flanked by two students, Taylor Mattingly, left, and Nichole Smith. (Submitted photo)

Providence Sister James Michael Kesterson wore a touch of the green and a smile that wouldn’t quit during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17 in Indianapolis. The principal of St. Jude School in Indianapolis rode in a convertible during the parade. She is flanked by two students, Taylor Mattingly, left, and Nichole Smith. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

In a moment, Providence Sister James Michael Kesterson will talk about the personal impact she had on the Indianapolis Colts winning the Super Bowl in 2007—a story she tells with a twinkle in her eyes.

At 81, Sister James Michael will also share the tales of two special surprises from her remarkable career of 60 years in Catholic education. (Related: Retiring principal to be honored at Celebration Mass on May 22)

But right now, the principal of St. Jude School in Indianapolis is recalling a fact from her childhood, a time when she prided herself on being a tomboy who never shied away from playing tackle football with her three older brothers.

“I broke my right arm three times playing football with my brothers,” Sister James Michael says with a certain pride. “When I see some girls playing football today, I say, ‘Golly, too bad I’m too old.’ ”

In that memory, there’s more than a hint of the essence of Sister James Michael. Even as she plans to retire at the end of the school year, she still has the fire, the feistiness and the fearlessness—all the qualities that overflow into her passion for football.

“You don’t interrupt her if she’s watching a Colts’ game or a Notre Dame game,” says one of her best friends, Judy Livingston.

Indeed, besides her bonds of family, faith and friendship, there is only one area of Sister James Michael’s life that surpasses her passion for football.

That’s her passion for Catholic education. She has no doubt that a Catholic education makes a difference in the life of a child, and she believes that every child will succeed in some way.

“Our Catholic identity is who we are,” she says. “I emphasize to our teachers that our prayer life and the respect we show to each other will be examples for our students to share with one another. Prayer in the classroom and our own lives is so important. We can’t succeed without that.”

Stories of success and heartbreak

Those beliefs have guided her through the past 60 years, including the last 32 as the principal of St. Jude School. During that time, the school has earned two Blue Ribbon School of Excellence awards from the U. S. Department of Education.

Even more important to Sister James Michael are the success stories of her students, including the story of a former student that she once taught at the former St. Andrew the Apostle School in Indianapolis.

Several decades had passed since the former student’s grade school days when he suddenly appeared at St. Jude School wanting to surprise Sister James Michael. As the man waited in the main office, the school secretary phoned Sister James Michael in her office at the opposite end of the building. The secretary told her that Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard was there to see her. The secretary had to tell her twice before she believed it.

“He visited all the classrooms,” Sister James Michael recalls. “It’s always good to see the students you’ve taught succeed in life—and they all succeed in some manner. One of the joys of life is when they come back and tell you about their success.”

The second memorable surprise for her came this year, thanks to the eighth-grade students at St. Jude. They planned to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Indianapolis. The day before the parade, they invited Sister James Michael to a meeting. They told her that they wanted her to lead them in the parade by riding in a convertible. The next day, she wore the green and a smile that wouldn’t stop.

Yet there are also memories from those 60 years that pain and haunt her. She remembers a first-grade student who drowned while fishing with a parent. She also shares this memory: “There was a girl I thought I could help, but I couldn’t. She committed suicide.”

As she recalls those moments, her face reflects a sadness that hasn’t faded.

Another memory shows how she looked out for all her children, no matter their background.

She recalls being a teacher at a Catholic school in Illinois, in the affluent community of Evanston. After school, many of her students chose to stay with her because their parents weren’t home. Some told her that the only person they had to go home to was the maid.

“They would come over on Saturdays, too, because they knew I would be listening to the Notre Dame games,” she says. “We’d listen to the game together, and then I’d take them over to the gym to play. They came from good homes. They just needed extra attention.”

Against the odds

As a child herself—she was baptized Mildred—Sister James Michael grew up in St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis as the daughter of Florence, a baker, and James, a movie projectionist who worked at theaters.

After school, she walked to the theater where her father ran the movie, sat in the projection booth with him and did her homework between watching parts of the film.

Few people from her childhood would have predicted how most of the story lines of her life would have unfolded.

Of course, everyone figured she would become a football fan, considering that was her family’s tradition to spend autumn Saturday afternoons by the radio cheering for Notre Dame. And her passion for the Colts flowed naturally from there, which leads to her story of how she had a personal impact on the team winning the Super Bowl in 2007.

To set the scene, the Colts had lost three of their previous four games before the team prepared to face the Miami Dolphins at home in the last game of the regular season. That’s when Sister James Michael intervened. Knowing she was a passionate fan, the Colts’ organization asked her to come on the field to “throw out” the football before that game.

“They won that game and went on to win the Super Bowl,” she says with a twinkle in her eyes that leaves little doubt that she had a part in the team’s late-season surge.

If being a football fan seemed a destined part of her life, becoming a religious sister and an educator didn’t. After she graduated from high school in 1946, she worked two jobs—at an insurance company and at the Southern Circle Drive-In, where she served tenderloins and hamburgers as a car-hop. She also dated several young men.

“They were nice guys, but something was missing in my life,” she recalls. “I went to church and asked God to show me which way to go in my life. On my birthday—Nov. 21, 1948—I got up and told my mother, ‘I want to become a Sister of Providence.’ She said, ‘You have to ask your dad.’ He said, ‘If that’s what you want, go for it.’ ”

At a send-off party for her, several relatives told her they weren’t going to say goodbye because they figured she would return in a week.

“And the fellow I dated, he never went out with anyone for a long time because he thought I was coming home,” she says. “But I had prayed, and I knew it was God’s choice for me.”

Following the Spirit

More than 60 years later, she has never stopped relying on God’s guidance. In the window behind her desk hangs an image of the Holy Spirit.

“The Holy Spirit enlightens us and directs us in the path we’ve taken,” says Sister James Michael, who also served as principal of Our Lady of the Greenwood School in Greenwood from 1968 to 1978. “Every day, I need the Holy Spirit to guide me.”

On a shelf in her office—which is notably marked with Notre Dame items, including a framed football jersey—there is a small statue of St. Theodora Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Next to the statue is a small, framed saying from St. Theodora: “Do your best. God will do the rest.”

Those words mark Sister James Michael’s approach to life and her legacy to Catholic education, say her friends and colleagues.

“Her commitment and dedication to the Sisters of Providence and Catholic education is matched by no other,” says Annette “Mickey” Lentz, a longtime friend who is also the chancellor and the executive director of Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese. “I would view her as a modern day St. Theodora. Nothing is beyond her reach. She has wisdom, integrity, and a real passion for education and youth.”

Joe Kelly has seen that passion first-hand as the dean of students and the junior high religion teacher at St. Jude School.

“She’s very energetic, and she guides with prayer,” he says. “She’s not quick to judge a situation. She reflects and prays before major decisions are made. It’s a great example for students, teachers and parents.”

Her friend, Judy Livingston, has often called on Sister James Michael to pray for her in times of need.

“She must have a direct line to heaven,” Livingston says. “Whenever I ask her to pray, it goes well. People come to her that might be troubled or overwhelmed. She’s very insightful. When you sit down and share something with her, she can put it in a new light for you.”

Now, Sister James Michael has to shine a new light on her future. She loves to cook and travel. And as someone who enjoys bingo and other games of chance, she already knows the odds are high that she will miss being back in school as a principal this summer. So she plans to take a 15-day trip to Alaska for a change of scenery in July.

Then again, she also plans to be a substitute teacher in the Indianapolis South Deanery schools when the 2010-11 school year begins.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to leave it,” she says. “My favorite moments have always been when I get to go into the classroom with the kids. I try to give them the example of the life I lead. I like to have fun with them and tease them once in a while. I like the stories they tell you and the things they share with you—a picture of their dog, a good paper, or a cupcake or a cookie on their birthday. I just like being with kids.”

Then she adds a comment that defines her approach as an educator, as a religious sister, as a person of faith.

“I just take each day as it comes,” she says. “Whatever God deals out to me, that’s what I take. You can always find something good.” †

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