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Sunday, October 05, 2014

One Degree From Don Shula

It was 1978 and I was in sixth grade and in my eyes, my science teacher was as cool as a rock star. In truth, she was a humble nun. Sister Virginia Kenefick had been my science teacher since I began attending at St. Peter's Elementary School in Utica, NY. She was stern and strict. Just what my mother was hoping for when she sent me there two years earlier.

Sister Virginia could never remember my name and frequently called me "Eddie" because I was best friends with Billy Carroll whose real name was Edward and we kind of looked alike. And she loved the Dolphins, and me, and all the kids. And we all knew it.

Early in Sister's career she went to school somewhere near Baltimore. There was a faithful member of the Baltimore Colts staff that attended mass regularly and became a friend of Sister's. Eventually that staff member got a new job as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. His name was Don Shula and his storied, Hall of Fame career went on to be legendary. Having a science teacher who was friends with an NFL head coach was possibly one of the coolest things ever to 11 year old me.

Every year the Buffalo Bills played the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium in Buffalo and it became must see TV for St. Peter's boys. Why? Don Shula always sent tickets for Sister Virginia to come to the game and walk the sidelines. We watched every minute of the game looking for a glimpse of our short, robust nun amongst the giant football players.

Back to 1978. One day in science class she was presented with a huge bouquet of roses and a box. They were a gift from Coach Shula in honor of Sister Virginia's 25th year of serving God as a nun. Inside the box was a football autographed by all the Miami Dolphins! Certainly this was the most memorable day of my St. Peter's career.

I saw Sister Virginia last year for the first time since I left St. Peter's in 1979. I had gone to the Franciscan Motherhouse on Court St. to pick up some cards with St. Marianne on them and to Nun Better Chocolates for the obvious. While I was there I made the acquaintance of a couple of beautiful nuns who took me on a tour of the museum for St. Marianne and the Motherhouse.

I shared some of my own story and ancestry. St. Joseph's-St. Patrick's has been my family's parish since the 1850's when my great-great grandfather, John Schreck and his brothers, Franz, Bartholomew and Peter emigrated from Bavaria and settled into the German community of West Utica. They lived within blocks of the church and were neighbors of and parishioners with the family of Peter Cope and their daughter, Barbara, who would become St. Marianne. I always affectionately call Mother Marianne an old friend of the family. She has become an inspiration for my ministry, but I'll save that sermon for another day.

As I was walking and talking with the nuns, I mentioned my cousin who is part of the community, Sister Mary Louise Williams. She descends from my great-great grandfather's brother Franz. The nuns told me of another cousin I have there who I have yet to meet and we then met another sister who was from St. Joe's - St. Pat's.

I spoke of my time served at St. Peter's and some of the nuns I remembered. When I mentioned Sister Virginia, my new friend immediately stopped and said, "Do you want to go up and see her?" "Absolutely." I was stunned and in truth, a little scared. I was expecting that she would tell me to stand up straight, stop scuffing my feet and make sure I didn't have any chewing gum in my mouth.

Secretly I was hoping she would call me Eddy but she couldn't call me anything at all. She had had a stroke and couldn't speak. Sister sat in an easy chair watching TV with several other of the community who had suffered with a variety of debilitating illnesses. She grinned broadly at having a visitor. She was just as I remembered her.

Even though I don't think she could recall me specifically, it was obvious she was thrilled that I remembered her and came to visit. I told her about my family and my ministry as an Anglican priest, and deep within my heart I had hoped she was proud of me even though I wasn't Catholic anymore. I have always known that my calling into ministry was strongly influenced by my youth and the godly impact of the community of St. Peter's, especially Sister Virginia, Sister Honora, Sister Christine, Fr. Felix Colosimo and others.

Before I left I teased Sister a little, "Well Sister, you can't yell at me for misbehaving now can you?". She laughed. I hugged and kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her. That was the last time I saw her.

Sister Virginia passed away last week on October 1st. I thank God for her life and look forward to the day when I will be reunited with her and all the saints who have gone before me.