Once upon a time: Who was the most influential person in your life?

For many, chances are it was a Sister who was a teacher during the formative school years

I am forever amazed to find so many people who do not answer the question, “Who has been the most influential person in your life so far?” with either “Jesus, my Lord,” “the Blessed Mother,” “my own mother or father,” “my spouse,” “my child,” “my first boss,” “St. Joseph,” “my patron saint” or some figure from the world of athletics, the fine arts, from the movies, or some pastor, other priest, or deacon, but who will say “Sister Mary, who taught me in the …th grade.”

And the person answering the question says sister’s name with an awe and reverence that is very sincere. I think one of the disastrous effects of the decline in vocations to the priesthood, the brotherhood and sisterhood from 1965 until around 2000 not only has been the loss of masterful instruction in the classroom but also in the area of spiritual preparation for life. The loss of sisters in the classroom or hospital room or in the parish at large has impacted rather negatively on the present generation (X or Y or baby boomers, etc).

My parents were absolutely wonderful; they laid down their lives for my sister, my brother, and me. My godparents played a wonderful role in my formation. From the pastor who baptized me in late 1935, Monsignor Francis Dominic Grady, until now there have been great priests who have served as role models of the highest caliber and who, by their goodness, kindness, knowledge, faith, and wholesome sense of humor, have been true pillars upon which I can lay my own love of God, the faith, my love for people, and the Church.

And I must agree with those who admit being “influenced the most” by a woman religious somewhere along the way. The renewal of religious life even in a tiny diocese like ours bodes very well as we complete our first quarter century as a unique local church and anticipate beautiful things during the next 25 years.

While it could be any group of sisters, Dominicans, Franciscans, BVMs, Sisters of Mercy, etc., who have served as the backbone of our high school faculties over the years since our mother diocese was formed in 1837, I would like to pay tribute to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of the Union who served at Knoxville Catholic High School during my days as a student, 1949-53.

The transition from elementary school to secondary school can be quite traumatic, especially if it means a transfer of campus. Old St. Mary’s School at 414 W. Vine Ave. was less than a mile from home and an easy walk. KCHS was over twice that but easily accessible by city streetcars or buses. I had visited the 1610 E. Magnolia Ave. campus in first or second grades (for the dedication of the gymnasium/auditorium and the state-of-the-art chemistry lab and its real lab tables!) in 1942 and again in spring 1949 as we went to pre-register for ninth grade.

But the day-to-day challenge of high school began for me the day after Labor Day in 1949. Our homeroom teacher was Sister Mary Borgia, who also taught religion and English. Strict discipline prevailed—and strict justice, too. Sister would not raise my 92.5 average in English to the 93 required for an A-. To this day when we teach the alphabet to the younger members of our family it begins like this: A is for Almighty God who made us and sustains our life; B is for Borgia….

Other sisters we had that year were Sister Mary Alphonsa for Latin I (she taught my aunt at Holy Ghost in the 1920s and still was sharp as a tack). Sister Mary Canisius taught Ancient and Medieval history. A brilliant lady and the pastor’s own sister, she was to do the honors in sophomore modern history the next year. Sister Mary Loyola, also the principal, presided at the Algebra I desk. These sisters for the most part were in early middle age. They had mastered their subject matter and were still young and vigorous enough to wear down even the toughest teenager no matter how long the school day lasted. The high school sisters resided at the 414 W. Vine convent with the grade school sisters. Imagine the brain trust (and spiritual, too) as these master educators gathered around the community room table on the second floor to prepare/review the next day’s material.

Sister Mary Joel came to Knoxville in 1950 for her first term at the school. She was from Cincinnati, a German, and even more strict than any other sister I had met. She was our homeroom teacher and taught religion II and algebra II with utter precision. I had been out sick for a day or so and Sister offered an “oral” make up test. I correctly figured out that “oral” had something to do with one’s mouth. By the time it was over I also realized that it also had something to do with the placement of a foot. Another wonderful teacher new to KCHS that year was the principal, Sister Marie Emmanuel White. She taught Latin II and English II. Years later the rector of St. Ambrose University Seminary College told me that Sister Emmanuel was the most brilliant lady whom he had ever encountered, quite a statement from Rev. Father Ed O’Connor. For our junior year we enjoyed Sister Alphonsa for homeroom, religion (the power of the green scapular), chemistry, and moderator of the junior-senior prom.

Within the pages of her wee black book were the names of all juniors and seniors. If one did not wish a date from sister’s list of pairings, it really behooved one to come at the beginning of the school year with one’s date for the prom firmly scheduled. Sister Mary Joel taught plane geometry, Sister Marie Serena taught Spanish I, and Sister Marie Emmanuel taught English III. By 1952, the Korean conflict was well along and the question of what seniors would do after graduation included prospects as members of the armed forces.

A dynamic young priest, Father Philip F. Thoni taught senior religion and sociology, coached basketball and was the physical education teacher for the entire school’s approximately 55 boys. Sister Mary Joel led the solid geometry/trigonometry class (I never quite caught on to interpolations); Sister Marie Serena taught English IV; and Sister Mary Alphonsa taught physics.

Another sister who taught at KCHS 1949-53 was Sister Mary Felicia. Among other subjects, she taught art but those of us who took extra science courses did not have the pleasure.

So whether it’s popes or parents, siblings or other friends, I must say that I have been profoundly influenced by the Sisters of Mercy. May they grow and glow forever.


Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.

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