By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — As a couple dozen first-graders at St. James School in Elizabethtown, Ky., danced around a smiling Sister Maria Clemens Wolf, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, none seemed to be giving much thought to her white habit and black veil.
Sister Wolf, a first-grade teacher and coordinator of children’s religious education, arrived at St. James in late July along with Sister Marie Hannah Seiler, who serves as the school’s principal, and Sister Augusta Nickel, who is director of formation and education at the parish.
This is the Nashville-based community’s first mission in the Archdiocese of Louisville and the state of Kentucky.
While lay teachers have been the norm in recent years at Catholic schools in this archdiocese, there were 20 members of religious communities serving as educators in Catholic elementary and high schools here last school year, according to Leisa Schulz, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. St. James was led for the last 25 years by Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph Michael Marie Friedman.
The sisters said during an interview at the school that in a few short weeks, they’ve witnessed what a “wonderful” foundation St. James students and parishioners have received.
“We’ve come to build on that,” said Sister Seiler.
The charism of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia is teaching and preaching and all have served as educators.
Sister Seiler, a native of Texas, is only the third principal of St. James in its 53-year history, said assistant principal Jimmie Dee Kelley.
Coming to serve in Kentucky feels like a “homecoming,” said Sister Seiler, referring to the fact that Kentucky is the place where the Dominican order started in the United States.
In the few short weeks since arriving at St. James, Sister Seiler said she’s seen a “rich respect for religious life” in the faith community.
Sister Seiler entered religious life in 1999. She has a degree in interdisciplinary studies and a license in elementary education as well as a master’s degree in education leadership. She has taught first- through eighth-grade students in Minnesota, Virginia, Missouri and Tennessee. She also served as a principal in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Sister Seiler said she sees her role at St. James as that of a “servant.” She said she hopes to be a “support to families, teachers, students and the church.”
Sister Nickel, a native of Denver, Colo., who made her final profession of vows in 2013, has a degree in interdisciplinary studies and a license in elementary education. She taught fifth-grade at schools in Georgia and Tennessee.
Sister Nickel, who loves the outdoors and horses, said she is “delighted” to be serving in the “bluegrass” state. She hopes to carry a sense of unity she experienced in her religious community into her service at St. James, she said. She described the experience of that community life as the “fullness of the body of Christ” and said she’d like to share that with the people of St. James.
In her role as director of formation and education in the parish, Sister Nickel has created a Family Faith Formation program, which she described as a “grassroots initiative” aimed at forming children and helping parents to continue their education in the faith.
The program also provides the guidance and support parents need to help form their children at home, she said. The program meets every Wednesday at the parish and includes Mass, dinners, opportunity for service and catechism classes. The Family Faith Formation program is open to everyone in the parish, including kids who do not attend the parish school.
Sister Wolf, who hails from South Dakota and entered religious life in 2000, holds a degree in elementary and special education. She worked as a teacher in a home for abused children before entering religious life. As a Dominican Sister, she has taught pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia and Illinois.
Upon looking at the academic accomplishments of St. James School, Sister Wolf said she asked herself, “What can we bring to the school?” The answer she said is their “dedication to God.” Sister Wolf said teaching first-graders is “delightful” and a “perfect fit” for her.
Some of the children who aren’t her students look at her “in awe,” she said laughing. But the children in her first-grade class don’t seem to give much thought to her white habit and black veil. The students, however, are adjusting to calling her Sister Maria Clemens — many refer to her as “Mrs. Clemens” or “Mrs. Sister,” she said.
Her vision for service at St. James includes providing struggling students with a good academic foundation, getting to know the families, teaching virtue to the students and helping them establish a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In a few weeks, Sister Wolf said she plans to introduce her first-grade class to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd — a religious education program that uses the Montessori method to teach young children about the Catholic faith.
This allows the children, she said, to “encounter the person of Jesus, to see him as their Good Shepherd who always takes care of all their needs and will lay down his life for them.”
For young children, she noted, “this is the greatest example of love.”
She will be teaching the Cathechesis of the Good Shepherd to the children in her first-grade classroom as well as to children in the parish’s Family Faith Formation program.
Father Martin Linebach, pastor of St. James Church, said the sisters are a “wonderful” addition to the faith community. He said that their “approach to ministry, teaching and education is shaped by a sense of joy and kindness that’s inspiring.”
“It’s been a real joy to observe their relationship with the children already,” said Father Linebach. “They treat the children as precious gifts and surround them with love and care, calling them to a higher purpose.”