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One of the blessings I received growing up in the 1960s and 70s was being taught by nuns in the Catholic school system when nuns were teachers and principals. They were loving and caring teachers who had a positive influence on hundreds of thousands of students across Canada. Unfortunately, my generation is the last one to live such an experience.
I attended the first French Canadian school in Hamilton, Ontario, École Notre-Dame, from kindergarten in 1964 until my graduation from grade eight in 1973. During those years I had the honour and privilege to have several nuns as teachers, two as principals. The Sisters of Charity from Ottawa, also known as the Grey Nuns, started teaching 38 French-Canadian students in Hamilton in 1952 as a small part of a French program within an anglophone school. In 1963 École Notre-Dame opened its doors with 360 students, followed by 425 students the following year, my kindergarten year.
I’d like to share two special stories of two nuns who helped shaped my life. The first story is of Sister Louise Laplante, my grade one teacher and our instructor for our First Communion in grade two, the second of Sister Claude Gagon, the principal for last five grades at Notre-Dame. Both of these women had a tremendous impact on my life.
Sister Louise embodied everything one might imagine or hope for in a nun. She was a kind gentle soul dedicated to following Jesus and teaching her students school fundamentals as a first-grade teacher, but also, and likely more important to her, teaching what it meant to know and follow Jesus.
I did my First Communion in grade two. Sister Louise my teacher from grade one walked us through the typical Catholic Catechism in preparation for our communion. I don’t recall the details of the catechism, but I do recall struggling with the whole eating the communion wafer thing, with eating Jesus. It made me scared. I don’t recall how it came about, but I found myself at the back of the class with her while the others students wrote lines in their Hilroy Exercise school books. She spoke gently to me about not needing to be afraid of communion, that Jesus was my friend, that he wanted to be inside my heart; one way for him to get there was for us to eat the wafer and let him in. She asked if I was afraid of her. With confidence, I said no. She said I had even less to be afraid of from Jesus. There are very few things I recall my teachers saying to me from my elementary school days, but I remember that conversation vividly. I recall her gentleness and reassurance that Jesus was my friend and that he would always be there for me, that I need not ever be afraid.
On my First Communion Sunday I entered the church without fear. I was at peace. I remember how proud I was to be able to accept Jesus into my heart. I never had Sister Louise as a teacher again after grade one, other than the First Communion prep in grade two. Many teachers moved up and down grades, but she stayed as a grade one teacher. She may have become the librarian in later years, I’m not sure. Though, I do remember maintaining a special relationship with her, right up to my graduation year. I was a know-it-all fourteen-year-old boy, yet filled with a tremendous amount of love and respect for Sister Louise when I finally stepped away from that part of my life. She instilled an intimate connection with Jesus. For that, I’m grateful.
Leaving Notre-Dame, brings me to my second story. Sister Claude Gagnon was the principal for most of my time at Notre-Dame. I didn’t have many personal interactions with her beyond a few disciplinary visits to her office. Our family attended church every Sunday where I saw her with the other nuns in our parish. I always loved church. Perhaps she picked up on that over the years. It may have given me a special place in her heart.
My story about Sister Claude takes place two years after grade eight. Most of my fellow grade eight graduating classmates chose to go to the local anglophone high school that offered a French program for francophone students, not the type of beginners French the anglophone students took. It wasn’t until a few years later that Hamilton would get its first French high school.
My first year of high school was a disaster. The two anglophone friends I had chosen to go to high school with ended up moving away. I was left in a large school without any friends. I ended up being regularly bullied by a muscle-bound failing student who was jealous of my so called “pretty boy” looks, his words when he’d push me into a locker or try to beat on me. Because of this bullying, I ended up skipping school on a regular basis. I figured out the system. I’d show up for first class, then leave. I needed to get away from the school grounds. By the time I was caught skipping I had missed over 60% of my classes, and 80% of my chemistry class where my bully friend would be sure to sit next to me. Even though I missed most of my classes, I still ended up getting 75% as my final chemistry mark. However, because I had missed over 70% of my chemistry classes the principal said I had to receive a failing mark. As a secondary way of getting me back on track the wise high school principal suggested I transfer to another high school for grade ten. I did.
I went to my new anglophone high school. Because of my French-Canadian background, they let me take grade ten French even though I had not taken grade nine French. It was a rudimentary class for me, I passed with 98%.
About a month into my summer vacation, I received a call from my principal. He asked me to come to the school office. He told me how Sister Claude had intervened to have them grant me a credit for the grade nine course I never took, given I did so well in the grade ten course. Apparently, a student’s grades are sent back to their feeder school. Sister Claude saw what I accomplished and advocated for me. She was able to build a strong case because I had turned around my school record. I didn’t skip a single class in grade ten and I had an 85% average. She wanted to make up for the lost credit from my grade nine chemistry class.
I was deeply moved by her taking this initiative. To this day I regret not calling her to thank her. She moved on from our parish that summer. I wasn’t even able to see her at church anymore. Her faith in me encouraged me throughout the rest of my time in high school. She believed in me. Even well into university I would often think about what she did for me. I didn’t want to let her down.
Sister Louise and Sister Claude had a major impact on my life, on a spiritual level and on an academic level. I’ll never forget what they did for me. I’m certain there are many other such stories out there. The nuns that served us as teachers and principals cared for us in ways that far too often go unacknowledged.
I thank them and all the other nuns who serve so humbly and joyfully.
Pictures above are of my grade 1 class, my First communion, and my grade 10 picture