When were you born and where?
I’m the second oldest of six children. I was born on September 20, 1942. My mother and father at that time lived in Philadelphia– my mom was Irish and my dad was of German descent.
When I was about five years old, my family moved to South Jersey: Colonial manor. I loved it. I loved, loved, loved it. There were no sidewalks. When I was about nine, my mother decided to move, and I remember saying to my mother, ‘I won’t be going with you. I’m going to stay in this house. I won’t even bother the next family who comes to live here.’ Of course, needless to say, I moved.
Rumor has it that you were a poster child. Is it true?
My father worked for Abbotts Dairies; he was a commercial artist and photographer. He would design all their packaging and do all their layouts. When I was about five, they asked my father to bring up one of his kids to do a session that was going to be photographed and put on a commercial, and he chose me. My mother fixed my hair and put me in a dress. When we got to the studio, my father gave me an ice cream cone, but the lights made it melt. So my father took it away from me and I remember I started to cry. He said, “No, no, don’t cry, you’ll make your eyes red!” He made an artificial cone for the picture, and then I got the ice cream. I was on the side of all of the ice cream trucks and, also, any store that sold Abbotts ice cream had my picture on the counter.
That was the time of my life, but I was only five!
What is a fond memory from your childhood?
Westville didn’t have a Catholic school yet, so our pastor wanted to take the children and get them into the surrounding Catholic schools. He had this old Chevrolet car and he came to my mother and he said, “I have to use your two oldest girls your daughters have to help me get the kids to school.” We would pack in kids to this Chevrolet and the passenger door didn’t shut all the way, so we tied rope around the inside of the door and then [my older sister] Elaine and I took turns holding the rope so the door didn’t open. We would ride to and from school every day like that. Finally, he bought a used school bus.
I went to Gloucester Catholic and I graduated in 1960, in June, and, on September 8 of 1960, I joined the Newburgh Sisters of New York.
How did you know you had a vocation?
When I started going to Sacred Heart School, one of the sisters, Sister Mary Concillia, used to hold vocation weekends. On the weekend, Sister Mary Concillia then gave us a little book, it was prayers to the Blessed Mother, and she told every one of us, “Now every day, just make sure you take a prayer and pray it, and see what God wants you to do.” So I did. We lived right across the street from the church; I came home and I said to my mother, “I’m going to go to the church and pray.” I used to sit in front of the Blessed Mother statue and I’d hold a conversation with her. I just felt drawn. I had no idea about being a teacher, but I knew I wanted to be a Dominican.
Growing up where I did, it was such a wonderful time. Sometimes it was hard; there were six of us and my father was always trying to work harder and harder. After he and my mom were married and they had their first child, my sister Elaine, he only got twenty-four dollars and it was under the table. But we had so much fun outside playing, just all of the things that we did.
What did your parents say when you joined?
When I was a kid, I always got homesick. I could never, ever stay overnight. One of my uncles died, my dad’s brother, and his wife said to my mom, ‘Can I have one of your kids for the summer?’ She was so lonely. So my sister Elaine went for the summer, but then, once she returned home, my aunt wanted some else. So I said, “I’ll go.” And, the first night, I cried. I was about eight. Have you ever been homesick? You actually feel sick!
The first night, I’m sitting out on the steps and I’m starting to cry again and my aunt had said she would start supper. So I’m sitting there crying and I kept saying, ‘Oh Dear God, please send my daddy!’ All of a sudden, my dad pulls up. I remember I went running down to him. My father looked at me and he said, ‘Do you want to come back home?’ and I said, ‘Yes!’ and started crying again! When we got back to my aunt’s house, my father called my mother and said, ‘Okay, get Elaine ready again.’ He took me home and then brought Elaine back. And Elaine stayed for two weeks.
When I told my father I was entering the convent, he said, “I don’t think you’ll stay. You get homesick.” In one sense, part of me wanted to prove him wrong. But I never did get homesick. From the moment I stepped into the building, there was a little twinge because the day you entered you got dressed right away in the postulant outfit and then, when it was time, you left your parents. There was a twinge. But, after that, I never got homesick.
What was your first mission?
When I entered, when I was a novice, we were making this record “Joy.” We wanted to build a college in Newburgh, Mount St. Mary’s, so Mother thought of this idea as a fundraiser. And we were on the Mitch Miller show. I was one of the singing nuns!
Then the day that we filmed for Mitch Miller, when we got back to the Mount, there was a picnic for everyone. There was a buzz in the community that we were opening a novitiate in Parsippany New Jersey, and everybody was wondering who was going to go there. Mother Leo Vincent came over to me came over to me and she said, “Sister [Thomas Gerald], you are going to love Parsippany.” Well, I had just made first profession. I was just nineteen years old; I didn’t have my degree yet. I went to Parsippany with two other professed sisters, and, when we arrived, there was nothing there. There was just a hallway. So I taught in the back of the firehouse, no blackboards, sixty-two first graders. And the other sister was at the other end of the firehouse, she had second grade, and the third sister was the principal—she taught third and fourth grade on the other side of town. We lived in a rented house in a new development but the walls weren’t painted, no light bulbs, we had no bathtub. To get clean, we took sponge baths in a laundry tub in the basement.
Then the developer sold the house so we went over to live with the Caldwell Dominicans. And their maintenance man –because we didn’t have a car—he used to drive us in his pickup truck over the Parsippany and then come and get us. That was my first mission; I was there for eight years. We finally had the school built; the pastor wanted the convent built first, then the school, then the church, then the rectory.
My biggest love was teaching. When we got into the new school in Parsippany, I enjoyed teaching in the firehouse. There was something just as soon as the children got in and you tried to teach them; it was great. There was a lot I had to learn, but it was just so wonderful! When we got into the new school, I remember I would go in on Saturdays and change bulletin boards. I loved changing bulletin boards! I would rearrange my classroom because I thought it must be boring to sit the same way every day. And, when I was home visiting my family, I used to buy coloring books at the Five and Dime and use them as master copies. There’s something about when you walk in, as soon as you step through the doors, it stirs in you again, and you want to do it again.
What was your favorite part of teaching?
Kids can be funny. The kids used to pull jokes on me and I used to tease them and say, “I never get angry, but I always get even!” One time, I had a plant in my office and it died (which I expected it to). A lot of our fathers of the children were police officers, so I asked one of them one time for crime tape. I put the plant out in the hall and I put the tape around it, and I said, “My plant has died. I want to know who did it. This is a crime scene.” Well, the kids came down the hallway and I was standing out there pretending I was crying, and they started laughing.
Another time, we were having a dance and I had to go down to the gym because I thought it was there. And here they practiced this dance to do for me! When I was leaving, I had a clown outfit that I used to dress up as a clown. I loved that. And my secretary came to me one morning telling me to go down to the gym because we had a problem. Every child in the school with their parents were lined up around the gym in clown outfits.
I remember I just started crying. They were all in clown outfits!
How did you bring Christ into school?
When I was a teacher in Iselin, NJ, all of my teachers had to do a ministry course. The big theme was “we are servant disciples.” So my teachers knew that. Also, we had a student’s father who was an artist, and he would say to me, “What can I make for you?” so he would have banners up across the hallways, like for advent or with different sayings. As soon as you walked into the school, people would say, “You can tell that God is here.” Very rarely did you hear a teacher screaming. They might get upset, but they stayed calm for the most part. Because they knew they were servant disciples. Our big thing was that, through these children and through these parents, Christ was with us. It was wonderful because it actually happened; it took a lot of work, but it happened. I knew I had good people working for me; they weren’t all Catholic but everyone of them had some kind of relationship with God, and they believed in that, so it was easy.
We used to hold a retreat in the parish (the priest would facilitate the men’s sessions and I would do the women’s); we would turn the school into a little dorm from Friday to Sunday. A lot of the teachers participated in it. We were building up community, and, out of that, we gained respect. I remember one time, one of my boys asked to see me; he was a bright boy, handsome. He came down and said, “I am requesting that we change the school policy about jewelry.” (He was in seventh grade at the time.) “I think if the girls can wear earrings, why can’t the boys?” I said, “That’s a good point. Let me think about it.” So, when I had a faculty meeting, I brought it up with the teachers. I said, “He has a point, this is the fashion,” so we discussed it and the teachers agreed. I sent a letter out to parents saying that the boys could wear earrings, but the boys had to follow the same rules as the girls. If the parents gave approval (they had to send in a form), the boys could wear the earrings. A lot of parents wrote to give approval. But do you know how many boys came to school with earrings? Two.
It wasn’t a big deal, though. It wasn’t a big explosive thing. It was starting to be a fad, so we said [the boys could wear earrings] as long as they wear the same earrings that girls do, then they wouldn’t get hurt in gym class. It helped to make things easier to respond to the kids.
What is a joyful part of being a sister?
For me, the joyful part of being a sister is living in community with so many other good women who are trying their best to really bring Christ into their environment. I love especially our older sisters. I just think they’re really funny sometimes and the history that they bring with them, I mean, what they went through in religious life in the very early years was rough. They worked hard, they didn’t have conveniences; in fact, our community used to have to leave school at lunchtime to have lunch in silence and then go back to school. That was hard for some of the sisters. And their chores were hard. They had to do scrubbing and cleaning, and it was a lot of work. I think one of the joys is that I learn more about God from so many other people. They tell me something and it’s a God moment. Everybody is just so sincere at being a good person and proclaiming the gospel. It’s always been enriching for me.
What gives you hope?
I know that God is still with us and that He’s very active among us, especially the Dominican Sisters of Hope. When we speak as a congregation, there’s such strong hope in that.
In my own life, I know God’s going to call me to something, even if He doesn’t put me back in the classroom.
Every morning, I say, “Okay, God, is today the day?” That’s one good thing, when we were growing up my mother would hear our night prayers with us. And she would say, “Tell God what happened.” So I grew up learning to have conversations with God. Even here, sometimes I say, “Okay, God, you sit here.” And I just sit in my rocking chair and we just talk.
I have faith that good things are still going to happen. And there will be losses. For myself, I don’t know what it is but I’m hopeful that, whatever it is, I will feel it in my heart and soul. That gives me hope. While we’re decreasing in numbers, I think there are many people carrying on our legacy. And I think that’s wonderful.
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