Soledad Theel recalls every hour of her time attending Catholic school – all nine hours of it before being permanently expelled to public school oblivion.
“I really didn’t want to be there,” said Soledad, 43, of New Holstein. “Our Mother Superior was walking down the hall. I came up behind her and pulled up her habit, so I was expelled.”
Nowadays, Theel, a native of Argentina, is back in a Catholic school, with eyes on becoming a Catholic school elementary teacher once she graduates in 2016 from Marian University in Fond du Lac.
Theel received a boost in her teaching ambitions and spiritual life during the winter semester as one of six Catholic students from Marian selected to participate in a unique program, devised at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, pairing students with members of the Sisters of St. Agnes.
Marian was one of five colleges selected to be a part of the school’s “Sister Story” initiative where students are matched one-on-one with sisters, most in their 70s and 80s, to record their lives before they die, but also to develop friendships, conversation and memories.
The project is funded through a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
Hilton, an international business pioneer who died in 1979, founded Hilton Hotels, and left his fortune to the foundation to help the world’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, and in his last will and testament directed its board to support the work of women religious as he had throughout his life.
The semester-long Marian University class ends with students shooting and producing a 45-minute video of the sisters. The videos will be archived at St. Catherine.
During the semester, students talked of their relations with the sisters on a blog, www.sisterstory. org/student-blog.
“The sisters become like spiritual advisors to some of the women,” said Sr. Alice Ann Pheifer, who helps coordinate the program. “People nowadays have very little contact with sisters. Some of them have never met a sister or had a conversation with one. St. Catherine developed the Sister Story program as a way of bringing young people together with sisters with some years of experience because sisters in their 70s and 80s have lived through a unique period in Catholic church history. They lived through a boom in vocations, which is rare. They had to pioneer changes in the church following Vatican II.”
Pheifer said many sisters were reluctant to tell their stories.
“We want to get their stories before they die. It’s been compared to efforts in the United States to get the stories of World War II vets before they die,” Pheifer said.
Crystal Sales, 21, a senior at Marian majoring in early childhood education with a minor in religious education, is paired with 84-year-old Sr. Stella Marie Karls, an elementary teacher for more than 37 years in places ranging from Kewaskum and Des Plaines, Illinois, to the Bronx in New York City, Milwaukee and Fond du Lac.
“I’ve never really had an interaction with a nun before,” Sales said. “I’ve learned so much. Not only was Sr. Stella a teacher, she also grew up on a farm and so did I. I hope this project continues and students step forth to participate. It’s a positive privilege and one I will never forget.”
Sr. Stella said when she learned she would be paired with Sales, “I said, ‘Good.
“We have something to talk about – God’s little children,’” Sr. Stella said. “I haven’t been nervous or anything meeting with Crystal. I felt at home the first day I saw her. I’ve learned a lot from Crystal by our conversations.”
Theel said she is interested, through the videos, in showing people “these sisters are women.”
“They are devoted to God, but are still women. They have their needs and wants like you and I,” Theel said. “Gone are the habits. Let’s forget about clothing. Let’s think about who the sisters are.”
Theel said she is thrilled to be able to ask questions about anything to her “sister,” 83-year-old Sr. Miriam Therese Putzer.
Theel calls Sr. Miriam “my sister.”
“She is mine and all mine. She is my sister. She is my friend. She is a nun. There’s a love connection there,” Theel said. “Sister Story began as a semester project, but I tell you, my connection with Sr. Miriam is a lifetime connection.”
Theel said Sr. Miriam taught her to look at people “like you are looking at Christ.”
“I think she changed me. I learned more from her than I will ever be able to put down on paper for people to read,” Theel said. “She makes me feel better. I have no other reason to explain it.”