Sisterly LoveApril 5, 2014
Story by Joe Jasinksi
Photos by Carolyn Van Houten
It’s the only thing you hear, really — the air blowing through vents below the windows.
The overcast sun lamely peers inside Sister Louise Laroche’s classroom. Things are quiet. A dozen eighth-graders lie on blankets and towels scattered across the floor. It’s a little after lunch, and students like Hannah Welp have been waiting for this meditation time all day. They chattered about it during music class earlier and now they were finally doing the prayer Sister Louise uses that’s “just so calming and it’s just so ...” Welp explains after class, pausing. “It’s like a rush of energy.”
Not your typical, palpable energy. Tranquil energy. Energy disguised as a bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds resting motionless on covered tile. And Sister Louise is finding the energy, too. She sits in a chair, her back straight, palms resting openly on her thighs, eyes closed. A sign on the far wall reads “Bring Heaven Here On Earth.” Things are still quiet, and then the CD begins. Prayer begins.
“Protect me from all that is negative and harmful,” the orator says. “Help me to radiate Your light in the world.”
The half-hour guided meditation is a favorite of the pupils and Laroche, a New Hampshire native who came to Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand in 1987. She began teaching at Holy Family School in Jasper the same year and was, for multiple years, the only sister still working at the school. She represents a facet of education that has nearly vanished.
She relishes the idea of young people enjoying that time of prayer, given how central it is to her life as a Benedictine. Prayer, along with work, stands as a pillar in the sisterly order. But what really drew her from an administrative position at a Christian Academy in Martin, Ky., back in ’87 was a sense of community. She felt it with the Sisters of St. Benedict, and she sees it continually at Holy Family. That’s why her position at the school, where Laroche teaches religion to every student in kindergarten through eighth grade, just seems so fitting, so perfect.
Her journey from New England to southern Indiana ushered her through in a range of teaching episodes. She taught for a few years at a Catholic elementary school in her hometown of Berlin, N.H. After a couple months backpacking through Europe, she returned home to teach for seven years at the public middle school before spending 1983 at a Christian academy in eastern Appalachia, where she entered the Sisters of St. Benedict and began her postulancy. From there, she devoted three years to the Catholic school in Kentucky before deciding Ferdinand felt like home.
When Holy Family honored the Sisters of St. Benedict as this year’s recipient of a distinguished family award during a Catholic Schools Week Mass in January, Laroche felt blessed. Her students filled the pews of the Holy Family Church. They’ve become a family to her. More than a dozen of the 21 Benedictine sisters who have worked or taught at Holy Family since 1973 sat in the rows just before the steps leading to the altar. They, too, have become Laroche’s family. That morning, the groups united.
“I have two families here today,” Laroche says.
When Sister Marilyn Schroering asked Laroche in 1987 if she’d teach grades five through eight, she figured, “Sure, I can do anything for a year,” Laroche, 63, recalls. “And I’ve been here for 25 years.”
Her imprint on the Holy Family community is vast. Sister Louise now teaches 14 students whose parents she also instructed. Her influence isn’t confined to the classroom. Finding aspects of the school she hasn’t touched in some way becomes the challenge.
Laroche is involved with a committee that helps raise money for Holy Family’s sister parish in Haiti. When the parish sends correspondence written in French, Sister Louise takes on the role of translator. And when the school puts on its Penny Blitz fundraiser for the Haiti parish — a chaotic hallway storming in which crazed students dump gobs of loose change in other classrooms’ buckets while simultaneously hoping for limited buildup in their own — Laroche is a ringleader for ruckus.
Like in January when Laroche, dressed in a black habit for Catholic Schools Week, conspired with kids in a neighboring classroom to swarm the bin of a fellow teacher on the other end of the hall.
“You know who you’re going to blitz, right?” Sister Louise asked two girls standing outside her classroom.
“Miller?” the two proposed, referring to middle school math teacher Denise Miller.
“That’s right,” Laroche confirmed with a grin. “Miller.”
Soon enough, another band of elementary school kids came marching down the hall chanting “Miller! Miller!” They looked hungry to unload coins. Laroche walked among the munchkins hoisting a container of jingling coins. She dumped the change in her coworker’s jar. The children cheered wildly.
The kids love every second. So does Sister Louise.
She connects with the students. All of them. She’s one of only four teachers in the school who has all 150 in class. When Holy Family principal Sally Sternberg arrived in 2010 and proposed to Sister Louise that she become the religion teacher for every grade in the school, Laroche was a bit apprehensive. She’d never taught any grade younger than third since becoming a teacher in 1973, and had never taught solely religion. Sternberg rationalized that there was simply no one more qualified. Once Laroche accepted the challenge, “she just took off,” Sternberg recalls. “She soared above and beyond anything possible that I could have imagined.”
What’s amazed Sternberg has been Laroche’s capacity to adapt, even after three-plus decades in the profession. One period, she’s simplifying the baptismal sacrament into tidbits a 6-year old can grasp. Ten minutes later, she expands the subject matter to the theology of the human body, connecting with 14-year-olds dealing daily with the unease and pressures of middle school life.
It’s a truly symbiotic relationship she nurtures. Laroche, who earned her master’s degree in theology from the Saint Meinrad Archabbey in 2007, continually emphasizes she is simply a moderator for learning. The idea of simply instructing students irks her. Students often prepare the daily lessons and Sister Louise guides the conversation only when needed. The desks in her classroom are arranged in a circle for a reason. As she tells her students, if someone walks into her classroom, she wants the person to ponder “Who’s the teacher?”
She’s present in many frames — along with the Haiti Penny Blitz that raised $2,577.44, Laroche assists with the Builders Club, students volunteering at the Jasper Arts Center and in many roles at the monastery in Ferdinand. Yet many of Sister Louise’s acts are hardly as illuminated.
At a Friday morning Mass in mid-March, Sister Louise sat with Ethan Engelberth, a second-grader whose regular middle school Mass buddy typically sings in the choir during the services.
“I’ve kind of adopted him as my Mass buddy,” Laroche says of the animated boy. When Laroche was recovering from broken bones in her wrists last fall, Ethan held the Mass book so she could rest her ailing hands. At that Friday Mass, each held one side of the book and Ethan’s face hovered just above its pages. When Father John Boeglin, Holy Family’s pastor, announced it was National Catholic Sisters Week, Ethan patted Sister Louise on the back. Later, when Laroche returned from serving as a Eucharistic minister, Ethan again stretched his arm around his pal.
Nothing extravagant. Love in simplicity.
About a month earlier, Laroche met with five girls and five boys in a quiet room adjacent to the Holy Family cafeteria kitchen during the sixth-graders’ lunch hour. At their request, Sister Louise agreed to meet with them every few weeks so typical problems and difficulties of adolescent life never boil over. That day, things got pretty emotional as the students talked about personal and interpersonal issues they had been experiencing. Talk revolved around a kid feeling left out during games at recess. She told her friends how much it hurt her not to be included and they listened and discussed ways to fix the situation. Tears were shed. And that’s fine, Laroche feels. Communication is what’s important, and the students feel comfortable doing so with her.
“She wants to know what’s going on in our lives and also what’s going on in her life, that we can all put it together,” Welp says.
After some discussion with the sixth-graders, Sister Louise suggested a lighter topic and talk shifted to the Olympics. She described the time she haphazardly walked into the Olympic Village in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1976 and drank hot chocolate with a few American and Canadian athletes. A few kids giggled. They seemed fascinated as the tension of earlier topics morphed into serenity.
Laroche then taught them how to say, “Hey, sister,” in French.
“Salut ma soeur,” she said.
“Ma soeurrrrrr,” a girl dramatized. More giggles.
It’s the constant calm Laroche can bring. If someone needs help, Sister Louise yearns to provide it.
Yet even she wasn’t sure she’d be capable of fulfilling her family’s needs in 2008, when she moved home to upstate New Hampshire following the school year to be with her sickly parents and brother. Her mother died in July of that year and her father underwent open-heart surgery four months later. Meanwhile, her brother endured his third treatment of chemotherapy for Hepatitis C. Laroche stayed in her hometown of Berlin, N.H., for two years before returning to her post at Holy Family.
Despite the loss, the sleepless nights and countless trips to the hospital, Sister Louise found comfort. In the time she got to spend with her father. In her “my time” at 10 o’clock each night. She still prayed the Liturgy of the Hours each day, and she and her father prayed for the medical staff during each drive to an appointment. She found comfort in being with her brother, consoling her dad after losing his wife of 59 years and the weekly phone calls and letters from fellow sisters in Ferdinand. The times a few came to visit. All those things, she cherished.
“You talk about hardship, but there’s so many blessings,” Laroche says. “You look at the blessings every day. Although it’s tough, it was a blessed time. And I felt very grateful to be able to help my family at a time that they were so vulnerable.”
Laroche tries to share who she is as a Benedictine on a daily basis at Holy Family. When she began at the school, she taught alongside six other sisters. Now, Sister Susan Ann Necas, who began as Holy Family’s music teacher this year and attributes her smooth transition into Holy Family mostly to the help given by Sister Louise, is the only other sister. Precious Blood, the only other Catholic school in the area, has no sisters on its staff. Much of that correlates with the aging of the monastic community. The Ferdinand monastery consisted of 269 sisters in 1987. Today, there are 157.
Laroche, who moved to Jasper in early February along with four other Ferdinand sisters, has no plans to retire, an eventuality Sternberg hates to even think about. “That day,” she says, “would be a very hard day for everyone.
“If we could, we would keep her forever.”
“When you open your eyes, you will be at peace,” the CD narrator continues.
One by one, the boys and girls inside Sister Louise’s classroom rise from the floor. They smile.
They discuss how the exercise relaxed tension, how they could forget their problems during their time with God. A few admit they fell asleep. Sister Louise nods. It’s OK. It’s meditation, nonetheless.
The bell rings. The students depart the classroom. Sister Louise is at peace.
Contact Joe Jasinski at email@example.com.
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