Long ago there were two wonderful nuns, Sister Justin and Sister Rita, who ran the religious education program at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. Everyone in the community loved and admired them for their dedication to teaching the children and their unwavering love of God. They convinced me to teach a kindergarten class on Wednesday afternoons and that little bit of volunteer work literally changed my life.
I did not feel that I was particularly good at planning and executing the lessons but Justin and Rita assured me that I was doing a very fine job. I, on the other hand, can recount with laughter all of the mistakes that I made. There came a time when Justin asked me to allow a woman to join me each week as an aide, so even though I did not know her I reasoned that a little bit of assistance might bring a bit of order to the chaos of teaching twenty wiggly five year olds about Jesus. I soon learned that my new partner was named Pat Weimer, never suspecting that she would ultimately become one of my dearest friends.
Before long Sister Justin and Sister Rita announced that they were going back home to live in the Beaumont area where they had spent their youth. All of us in the parish were devastated to learn that they would be leaving and wondered how anyone would possibly have the talent and joyful energy to replace them. When they called me and requested that I meet them at their home I assumed it would be to ask me to renew my commitment to teach the kindergartners in the coming school year. I was stunned when they urged me to accept a position as Director of Religious Education for students in preschool through grade five. It was such an unexpected development that I found myself stuttering my agreement to their offer even as I mentally began laughing at the absurdity of the idea that I should be the first layperson to ever hold that position in the parish.
Justin and Rita were masterful at selling an idea and before long they were introducing me to my intermediate and high school counterpart, Shirley Hines. I had not before met Shirley but I took an immediate liking to her and began to believe that with her at my side I might actually be capable of doing well with such an important job. She was funny and energetic but also organized and wise. I saw myself as her junior partner, someone who might learn from her and follow her example, so I tentatively began to believe that I might actually be able to do a good job for the children of the parish.
The two of us began to call ourselves Laverne and Shirley. We literally laughed ourselves through the early days of our adventure. Of course the parishioners were not so sure that two lay people would ever be able to meet the high standards that had been set by Justin and Rita. Of course they were right in that assessment but it had become apparent throughout the Catholic world that the days of having a fleet of nuns ready to take on the jobs of educating children were long gone. Lay people would have to take on those roles whether or not the members of the church community liked it.
Shirley and I were fortunate to have two lovely women who assisted us in carrying out our mission. Judy Maskel was our secretary and Girl Friday, always deftly caring for our every need. Judy Millin was our saving grace on the business end of things, keeping us within budget and managing the accounts associated with the program. The four of us built a friendship that would last for decades and that kept us sane as we carried out our day to day work.
I eventually left to begin teaching full time once both of my girls were in school. I had learned a great deal in the school of hard knocks from my foray into being a Director of Religious Education. Shirley and I had been called “agents of the devil” for daring to replace Justin and Rita. The two of us blazed a trail from which our parish never turned back. At the time we made about five thousand dollars a year even though we worked more than forty hours a week. Going into a classroom as a full time teacher would quadruple my salary instantly and allow me to be at home with my family in the evenings instead of almost living at the church. While I knew I would miss my dear friends at the church I knew it was time for me to move on just as Justin and Rita had done.
I recommended that my friend Pat take over as my replacement and she would prove to be a very worthy choice. She would spend decades refining, expanding and improving the program at the church while I made my way as a teacher and administrator in public schools. All the while Shirley, the two Judys and Pat and I continued the friendship that we had forged in those pioneering days of taking on jobs that had once been the domain of nuns. Year after year we met for lunch or at gatherings in our homes and kept the fires of friendship burning brightly.
Pat died over twelve years ago. Judy Maskel followed her to heaven later. Shirley Hines and Judy Millan and I last met just before Christmas of 2019. We laughed and felt as close as ever. Not long into the new year of 2020 Shirley had a stroke. She now lives in a rehabilitation home and because of Covid-19 we only see her in the photos that her daughter posts. There is a sadness in knowing that she is not making the jams and bread that she always brought to us. Somehow the mischievous glimmer in her eyes that always brightened our days is missing. We long for a time when we might once again be allowed to just sit with her and recall our decades of friendship that began in such an unexpected way.
It is so often that the serendipitous moments of life are the ones that change us the most. Stay open to unexpected changes. They may bring the very people that you need into your life. Miracles are not always spectacular but instead they often quietly lead us to the joy that we seek. I learned that truth long ago and I know how much better my life has been because two ladies named Justin and Rita convinced me to try something that changed me forever.