Sister Mary Anne Bednar, IHM
Hometown: Shamokin, Pa.
Education: St. Mary’s, Transfiguration and Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Shamokin; and Villanova University, St. Joseph University in Philadelphia
Current Role: High school principal and administrator at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School in Coal Township
Tell me about your childhood.
I grew up in Shamokin, just on the other side of town from Lourdes. This area is now called Coal Township, but back then all of it was known as Shamokin. I’m the second oldest of my siblings. I have an older brother and three younger siblings.
We lived right behind St. Mary’s Church, which closed a while ago. Truly, so many things we did revolved around the church and the school. You could go out our back door and walk to the top of our yard, and on one corner was the rectory, then the church and then the school. The church was part of our neighborhood. All my friends belonged to St. Mary’s and lived right there in the neighborhood, and everybody was involved in the church.
I had the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in school. Their convent was down at the end of our street, and we loved carrying their books home from school or helping them clean the convent. Our school closed when I finished sixth grade, so for seventh and eighth grade I went to Transfiguration. We also had the convent of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary nearby. They taught at St. Edward’s. They had a huge set of stairs on the front porch, and I remember going there with the neighborhood kids and performing shows on the stairs.
I went to Lourdes for high school – there was no choice where I was going, and I loved it. Every once in a while, my mom would threaten us with, “You’re not going to go to Lourdes; I’m going to send you to Shamokin instead.”
When I was at Lourdes, the IHMs were here from Mount Carmel. They would come down in the station wagons that had the rear-facing seat. There must have been 16-18 of them at the time. We also had the Felicians, the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Sisters of Mercy – the school was filled with Sisters and a few lay teachers. My sponsor in community taught me as a freshman. She was hard, but she was wonderful.
Did you recognize at the time that the communities came with different charisms and missions?
To me, I knew that they all wore a different habit. I don’t know that I understood the differences. They were all nice and caring, and some were really tough. We all knew that all of them cared for us and wanted the best for us, regardless of their community.
We are blessed here now with eight who live in our convent. Of the eight, seven will be working in some capacity at Lourdes this year.
When did you first consider religious life, and what was discernment like?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and as I got to know our Sisters more and more, I knew a religious vocation was what I wanted. I applied to our community in my senior year and was accepted toward the end of the year.
My sponsor was someone I was close to in high school. I was involved in the Prayer Group. Growing up, you know your prayers, but learning to pray really happened for me in high school. That was a big part of my discernment, spending time in the little chapel here and taking time to think and talk things through with people like Msgr. Lawrence, my sponsor and others who were here at the time. I was also put in touch with a woman who had entered our community but eventually left, and she really encouraged me in my discernment.
When did you enter your community, and what were those days like?
I entered right after high school, in September of 1973. At the time I entered, you expressed your interest, your sponsor took you to the motherhouse, you interviewed with the directress of vocations. Then you had to send your records and undergo psychological testing. I didn’t personally know any of the other girls who were entering, since most of them were from the Philadelphia area. We were 16 years old.
I remember the day I left home. I was dressed in my black skirt, a black blouse, black stockings and a cape, and we were given a veil when we arrived. My sister who was two years younger, was like, “What the heck are you wearing?” My parents took me down to the motherhouse and my sponsor went with us. I remember thinking, “What did I get myself into? I don’t know anybody.” I looked around when I got there, and I saw ones who were crying, and I was thinking, “What’s going on that they’re crying?”
It was a bit of a shock to the system. Our directress was very good, but tough. They told you when to do everything, and how to do everything. We all got a degree in Theology and studied in our major – I was a math major. I went on for my masters in math at Villanova and then studied administration at St. Joe’s.
I was happy from the time I entered. Did I have times of doubt? Of course I did, as anyone would, but I know this is where I am meant to be.
When did you profess final vows, and what do you remember about that day?
It was June 19, and I just knew in my heart of hearts that it was the right thing, that this was where I belonged. During final profession, you prostrate before the altar during the Litany of the Saints. One of the women in my class said to me, “You had a look like this was right,” and I said, “It is!”
Where have you served?
I did my student-teaching at St. Gabriel in south Philly. We got picked up at the motherhouse, just two or three years out of high school, from Shamokin. It was quite an introduction to the city, but I loved it.
After my profession, I went to St. Joan of Arc in Philadelphia for three years. The kids were very poor and had hard lives. At the end of my second year, I was beginning to have some doubts. I had to renew my vows, and I nearly choked. But something said, “Yes, this is the right thing.”
I was at St. Cecilia in Fox Chase, and then went to St. Aloysius Academy. We had boarders there. It’s on one of the old St. Katharine Drexel estates. The students who boarded were mostly from Mexico, and were 10-12 years old, and some local kids who needed a secure and structured place. Somebody had to be with them all the time. We were given a list of charges, and we were like dorm mothers. We had to get them up, get them to breakfast, sign their homework, make sure they made their beds. It was a great experience.
Then I went on to teach math at West Catholic, then as the Studies Director of Cardinal Brennan. I was at Cardinal Brennan for about a month before I became principal, due to the death of one of the school’s priests from an accident. I was principal there for six years.
I was also at Immaculate Heart in Girardville, then back to West Catholic as disciplinarian. It was a tough job, but I loved it. You got to know the kids in a different way than in the classroom because you were dealing with all the things they were experiencing at home. You knew you were making a difference for them. From there, I went to Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, and was principal there for 15 years. I’ve loved every place that I’ve been.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I like to read, whether that’s professional reading or for enjoyment. I also like to walk. Our convent is at Holy Angels in Kulpmont, so I go out every morning. There’s a beautiful field and track behind the convent, and I walk about three miles every day.
Tell me about coming back to be principal of your high school.
I am getting ready to start my fourth year here. I never expected that I’d be serving here, but several years ago, Father Quinlan (then Secretary for Education) told me there was an opening, so I applied.
It’s nice running into people that you have a history with. Bill Gilger and I were neighbors when we were kids, and he’s teaching here now. His son is teaching here too, and his daughter was here last year. I’ll get calls from people who say they remember me when we were in school together. It’s been great to be here.
My office used to be Leo Muhall’s office. He was the disciplinarian here, and I still shiver sometimes coming down the hallway into the office. He was a thoroughly good guy, but tough. I had to come into his office once. My brother was driving us and we were late for school, so we had to see Mr. Mulhall for a late pass. When I first came back, I went to Leo’s house for a visit. He remembered every person and everything about this school. We had a wonderful day of reminiscing, and I thought, “Why was I ever afraid of him?” He was one of the good guys.
You mentioned teachers and Sisters who were tough. What is your approach with students?
I hope the students see someone who really loves the school and wants the school and its students to be the best they can be. From the little kids to the big kids, it’s about making them feel at home here. We want them to understand that we are a family. Every day, we pray for faith, family and excellence.
When dealing with issues, you have to get past what was done and get to the “why.” Nine times out of ten, it’s because of some frustration on the students’ part. It’s important to talk that through calmly, and make sure they understand you care about them as a person.
I think kids deal with a whole lot more than we ever did growing up. I went home to my mom and my dad. That’s not the reality for many kids today.
What’s on the horizon for Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School?
We started strategic planning, so that’s exciting for us. We have a good group of people looking at what we need for the future and what we need to do now to ensure that happens.
We’re PreK-12. Sister Maureen Donati, the elementary principal, and I have worked to make people see Lourdes as one school. We’re one community. There are so many benefits to being in the same building. High school students studying early childhood development can go into the elementary classrooms and have hands-on experiences.
With enrollment, we’re going to have an increase of ten in the high school, so we’ll be in that 155 range. At the elementary level, are numbers are good too.
(Interview by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)