Sister Mary Thomasina John, PCJ, said that although she had wanted to enter the religious life for years, she didn’t do so until she was 25 years old.
She said that in earlier years, she was too shy to reveal her innermost feelings to anyone, even her parents. But she did pray daily to God for guidance and to the Blessed Mother and St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, to help answer her prayers.
“In good time, God does hear and know your longing and heart’s desire and leads you right into it,” she said.
It seems hard to believe that she ever was shy when listening to her enthusiastically talk about her nearly 60 years as a member of the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus, the last 40 of which have been spent in Columbus, mostly at Our Lady of Bethlehem School, where she taught kindergarten from 1972 until 1995. She continued to remain connected with the school until 2007, working with children on May crownings, Mass attendance, Holy Communion preparation, praying, and singing of hymns.
“I’ve taught students in the elementary years through grade six, pre-kindergarten, and kindergarten and enjoyed them all. Second- and third-graders were some of my favorites because of first Communion preparation, but it was really delightful to teach 4- and 5-year-olds about the life and love of Christ.
Children that age take an interest in and are fascinated by everything,” said Sister Mary Thomasina, 85, who has lived since 1999 at the Columbus Motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
“I can’t begin to express how very much I have missed teaching and being with the children. However, you can’t be going at full speed all of your life, so I’ve slowed down quite a lot since 2007,” she said.
“I still attend occasional events at Our Lady of Bethlehem, like the open house they had in April. It was great to see that they’ve started to renovate some of the convent area for a new program for infants and toddlers.”
“Many parents of former students were at the open house, and even my former pupils themselves were there, now married with children of their own attending Our Lady of Bethlehem school.”
Sister Mary Thomasina said she always had to face a few discipline problems in her classrooms, but found an effective solution for them. “Even when my back was turned, I could usually tell where a problem was coming from, so what I would do is just turn around and stare at the student,” she said.
“Whether I was sitting down or at a chalkboard, I would just give the student a look. “Some may have tried to stare me down, but it didn’t work. After a while, I’d say ‘Are you ready to listen?’ and that was it. An alternate method I'd use would be to have someone come up and just sit next to me. That caused plenty of embarrassment, and no one wanted to come up a second time. You hear all these stories about sisters having to tap kids on the knuckles and so forth, but I never had to do that.”
Sister Mary Thomasina came to Our Lady of Bethlehem 40 years ago as a teacher and as superior of the convent that was there at the time, remaining as superior until 1978.
“Looking back now, I don’t know how I managed both jobs at the same time, but I did,” she said.
“The outside of the convent always seemed to need painting, so I’d climb up ladders and paint. You had to be a jack of all trades. People used to call me ‘the painting sister,’ but eventually I was smart enough to get aluminum siding. So much for my painting career.”
Sister Mary Thomasina and a sister of hers who lives in their hometown of Wheeling, W.Va., are the surviving members of a family of seven children who grew up practicing the Maronite rite of the Catholic Church. Sister Mary Thomasina became a Roman Catholic after she entered religious life in 1952 because at the time, that was a requirement of the Catholic Church. That rule has since been changed.
She made her first profession of vows in 1955 and her final profession in 1958. She taught in West Virginia and Illinois before coming to Columbus permanently, but also spent time in the city from 1963-65 as a teacher at St. Timothy School. She joined the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus because members of that order had taught her in Wheeling. The order was founded in Aachen, Germany, in 1844. Seven of its sisters came to the United States in 1923 to serve in West Virginia at the request of Wheeling Bishop John Swint.
The order eventually expanded into Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, and at one time had enough sisters in the Diocese of Columbus to form Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent, which was founded on Nov. 23, 1956, at the site where the school of the same name is located.
The order, which will soon move its motherhouse from the Netherlands back to Aachen, has more than 500 members in 12 nations of Europe, South America, and southeast and central Asia, and has experienced particular growth in Indonesia, Colombia, Latvia, and Peru.
In the United States, its numbers have dwindled to the point that it has three members remaining in this country – Sister Mary Thomasina; Sister Mary Goretti Campbell, PCJ, who lives at the Mohun Health Care Center in Columbus; and Sister Anna Veronica Mooring, PCJ, of Parkersburg, W.Va.
“There aren’t many of us left here, but we haven’t been forgotten,” Sister Mary Thomasina said. “Our superior comes here nearly every year to visit the three of us. This year was an exception because of the move to Aachen.”
Sister Mary Thomasina said she had a desire to enter religious life from the time she was in grade school.
“From first grade on, I’d stay after school to be around the sisters and do things like carry their satchels and clean the chalkboards. I’d stay until the bus came to pick them up every day and take them back to their convent in Benwood,” near Wheeling, she said.
“But I was a very reticent child. My shyness kept me from opening up to people and saying I wanted to be a sister, even to my parents.They couldn’t see me doing this, especially my dad. He didn’t think I could persevere.”
Instead, she went to work in the packing, sewing, and payroll departments of a clothing factory, staying there until a trip to the University of Notre Dame changed her life.
“My cousin Alfred was at Notre Dame, and on a visit to Michigan with other cousins, they said ‘Let’s go see Alfred,’ as Notre Dame wasn’t that far,” she said.
“So I went with them and my two sisters to Notre Dame and ran into two sisters who taught me. I recognized them and we started talking and writing back and forth. Eventually, I spent a day at their convent, and that made up my mind. I was never happy anywhere else until I met those sisters, and I don’t think I would have been happy doing anything else.”
“From the time I joined the order, I have grown in my awareness of God’s presence in my life,” Sister Mary Thomasina said. “I have trusted God to guide me through all that has been, and I will continue to trust him in all that is yet to be."
Posted with permission from the Catholic Times, official newspaper for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.