My Best Teachers Were Saints: What Every Educator Can Learn from the Heroes of the Church


Discipline problems, self-doubt, tense meetings, classroom stress . . . Couldn’t every teacher use some saintly help?

Every teacher can think of at least one mentor who has served as an inspiration over the years. However, many teachers—even those with a Catholic faith—might not have considered that saints can serve as mentors. Author and teacher Susan H. Swetnam believes that saints aren’t only good teachers—they’re the best teachers.

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Discipline problems, self-doubt, tense meetings, classroom stress . . . Couldn’t every teacher use some saintly help?

Every teacher can think of at least one mentor who has served as an inspiration over the years. However, many teachers—even those with a Catholic faith—might not have considered that saints can serve as mentors. Author and teacher Susan H. Swetnam believes that saints aren’t only good teachers—they’re the best teachers.

In My Best Teachers Were Saints, Swetnam focuses on fifty-two saints—many of them teachers—who faced challenges similar to those that nearly all educators face today, from indifferent students and recalcitrant colleagues to their own limitations and feelings of isolation. With the examples of saints such as Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, and Scholastica, Swetnam eagerly shares how their words and deeds helped immensely in her own career as a teacher and how they can aid and inspire other educators as well.
Anyone involved in education—whether teaching religion or mathematics, kindergartners or graduate students—will discover within these pages a treasure trove of saintly help that is sure to prove that the best teachers are in fact saints!

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780829423297
  • Publisher: Loyola Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2007
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,389,764
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan H. Swetnam is a professor of English at Idaho State University. During her career at ISU, she has been named a Distinguished Teacher (1988), an Outstanding Researcher (1992), and a Distinguished Public Servant (1996). She is also a freelance essayist. Swetnam resides in Pocatello, Idaho.

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Read an Excerpt


The concept of mentoring—in which a seasoned practitioner consults with and oversees the work of a less experienced person—has received a great deal of attention lately in education circles. It has long been standard practice to mentor absolute beginners: every elementary and secondary school teacher can remember student teaching, and many colleges and universities designate faculty members to visit new teaching assistants’ classes and to hold advisory conferences. Today, many institutions have expanded mentoring, assigning experienced teachers to work with new faculty members in their first years of employment. Additionally, mentors can be designated to work with those whose evaluations suggest the need for improvement. Formal and informal brown-bag lunches, in-­service meetings, and after-hours sessions also invite teachers to draw on more experienced colleagues. We can learn a great deal from those who have been teaching for a long time, and these are lessons about the reality of interaction with students that no textbook, no educational theory class can provide. Mentors can offer stories about the times they have been frustrated or surprised; they can offer suggestions and inspirations gained from long experience; they can open new teachers’ eyes to wider perspectives.

Beyond these physically present mentors, most of us who are teachers, no matter how experienced, also rely on absent mentors through our memories of our own past best teachers. We use their methods; we model their classroom and evaluation styles. We steal their exercises and insights into particular subject matter. Sometimes we even catch ourselves sounding like them or using their gestures. “What would X do in this situation?” we ask ourselves, when we are at our wits’ end. These internal mentors can save our professional lives, and our sanity.

After one difficult day a few years ago in my own teaching career, when I had solved a problem by doing what I guessed a beloved mentor of mine would have done, I caught myself thanking her out loud as I drove home. For several months, I’d been reading my way through Butler’s Lives of the Saints daily as a sort of morning meditation, and it suddenly struck me that such psychological summoning of my mentor was a kind of veneration, a grateful invoking of someone on whom, to paraphrase the Catholic liturgy, I’d “relied for help.”

As I thought about that insight over the next few days, I realized that I’d also been drawing practical inspiration from my morning readings, that some of the literal saints recognized by the Catholic Church had been very, very helpful to me in my teaching life as well as my spiritual one. This book has grown from that recognition. Its basic premise is that reflecting on the lives of the saints as mentors has a great deal to offer all teachers. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to appreciate the rich paradigms that saints’ lives offer; one doesn’t have to believe, even, that all of the personalities chronicled actually existed. One simply has to believe in the power of stories.

Lest teachers shake their heads at this point and complain that they are expected to be saints enough already—working long hours for little pay, encumbered with extra duties, held to impossibly high standards—let me offer the reassurance that saints doesn’t mean “perfect people.” In fact, one of the most attractive things about saints’ stories has always been that many of them chronicle complicated, vexed human lives, much like ours. Some saints were anything but saintly in their early years. Others, even while leading lives regarded as holy, are reported to have been headstrong, impatient, or just plain prickly. Some got angry; some flailed around before finding their callings; some lost heart temporarily. Nor were their paths easy, with angel choruses showing them the right things to do. The stories of many saints show them facing challenges that echo teachers’ daily challenges. Like us, saints are depicted as often having to deal with recalcitrant and difficult people (including peers). Their stories record that saints faced self-doubt and dry spells in their own inspiration or became too full of themselves; they reached moments when they recognized that their once-­helpful paradigms had to change. But all of them found ways to rekindle vocation, and all persevered in doing the work they were meant to do.

The idea of drawing on saints as human models is a very old one, for the Catholic Church has always considered saints as different in degree, not kind, from the ordinary faithful. Saints are, Jacques Douillet has written, “those who march in front and give the example.” In the very earliest years of the church, they were simply people who, after their deaths, were venerated by Christians. Saints included martyrs and other holy people whose names had been recorded (canonized) so that others would remember them. Said to be sitting in the presence of Christ, they were believed to be able to intercede directly for the faithful. At first, saints were chosen by local acclaim, their cults centered on their tombs and relics. The centralized church didn’t get involved until the Middle Ages, when the increasing power of the papacy lent prestige to a pope’s authorization of a saint. During the reign of Innocent III (1198–1216), more formal procedures for canonization were established. The process was further consolidated in 1634, when Pope Urban VIII declared that it was the pope’s responsibility alone to designate saints, although those honored previously were grandfathered in. Urban VIII systematized a process of investigation requiring written records, evidence of miracles, or other documentation. The procedure was formulated definitively in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, then reformed in 1983 by Pope John Paul II, who changed the previously trial-like inquiry (which involved a formal devil’s advocate who presented unfavorable facts about the nominee) to a more streamlined process. Under John Paul II, 484 new saints were added to the calendar, many from parts of the world that previously had been underrepresented: Asia, North and South America, Africa.

Today a holy person becomes a saint in three stages. First, the person is declared venerable, which means that the saint can be venerated in a particular place or by a particular congregation. To earn this designation, the church collects all of the person’s writings and evidence from witnesses about his or her life and miracles, and makes minute inquiries. The evidence is sent to Rome and considered by judges. If the person is found to be a martyr or to be noted for the “heroism of his virtue,” the pope designates him blessed. In order for the person to become a full-fledged saint, ongoing documentation must be provided, including evidence of further miracles. Once the pope formally canonizes the person by proclamation in Rome, the designation is ­irrevocable.

Catholic tradition continues to honors saints on their feast days, and religious art depicting them hangs in many churches. Many Catholics still associate particular saints with particular occupations, life stages, difficulties, and ailments, and they pray to those saints for specific help in appropriate circumstances. People who “hearingly and unconditionally respond[ed] to God’s call” and “led a life of ever-­increasing union and conformity with Christ,” saints are thought to be close enough to Christ to intercede for their followers. “Friends in heaven,” the New Catholic Encyclopedia calls them.

As the ­twenty-first century begins, thousands of men and women have been honored as blesseds or saints. No one knows how many saints have been venerated during the history of the church, given the lack of early records about locally recognized saints and irresolvable confusion about whether or not some early saints with the same or similar names were the same person. The latest edition of the Roman Martyrology alone, which is limited to premodern saints, includes 6,500. The earliest extant calendar of saints dates from the fourth century; by the Middle Ages, many calendars and martyrologies were available, including Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, a best seller in ­thirteenth-­century century Europe, which has continued to stay in print and interest scholars.

During the Reformation, Protestants derided veneration of the saints as idolatry and the stuff of legend. In response, the Bollandists, a group of Jesuits, began in the early seventeenth century a rigorous investigation into the lives of saints that sought to distinguish reliable information from unreliable. Their ongoing research has resulted in the publication of more than sixty volumes. A multivolume calendar of the lives of about 1,500 saints for English readers was compiled by Reverend Alban Butler and published in London between 1756 and 1759. This work, revised and brought up-to-date by Herbert J. Thurston in the early twentieth century, then again by Thurston in cooperation with Donald Atwater in 1956, was reprinted in a manageable four-­volume format in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1996 edition of this work—which blends the inspirational, the amazing, and the frankly bizarre—is my own favorite early morning read. Saints have become so popular in recent years (“They’re the new angels,” someone said to me as I prepared this book) that many works about them are currently in print. One of the most widely available is The Oxford Dictionary of the Saints, which has recently been updated (2004) to include a broader range of saints, including some of John Paul II’s canonizations.

From the myriad of extant saints, the work that follows selects a limited number whose lives and works have particular relevance for teachers, including teachers in secular elementary and middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities, as well as parochial school teachers, religious education personnel, and catechists. In the following pages, the reader will find some saints who were literally teachers, such as St. John Bosco and St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (the patron saint of teachers), and others whose challenges and achievements, though they were not educators, apply to teachers’ work.

This book introduces fifty-two saints—one for each week of the year—in the order of the dates of their feast days. These feasts were traditionally assigned to the day of the saint’s death, but some feasts have been given alternate dates on the church calendar in modern times, and some saints have more than one feast day. While most of the saints in this book are discussed on their current feast days, attentive readers will note that others appear on their former or alternate feast days. My rationale for these decisions was to include as many of the most compelling saints for teachers as possible. These fifty-two represent a broad range of periods, nationalities, and types of saints (legendary, historical, martyrs, virgins, religious leaders). Each entry includes two components: a biographical sketch of the saint’s life, and a reflective essay suggesting how that saint’s career might apply to teachers. As readers work through this compilation, they will doubtless think of other things that might be said about these saints, and those familiar with saints may find themselves wondering why their favorites haven’t been included. The answer is, simply, that a book like this cannot be comprehensive, either on the level of each individual entry or on the level of the catalog as a whole. If readers begin to muse about saints for themselves, though, this book has served its purpose.
To help readers learn more about the saints whom they find particularly interesting, I’ve included bibliographies of suggested readings. These are not intended as comprehensive scholarly bibliographies but as lists of works that I found particularly helpful and/or provocative as I investigated each saint. I’ve also included page references for the 2004 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints and for the 1996 edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, since these should be easy for readers to access. My own research for this book was conducted in the spring and summer of 2005 in the libraries of Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington; The Catholic University of America and Georgetown University, Washington, DC; and Loyola University and DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois. I am grateful to the Idaho State University Office of Research for funds supporting this work. I am also grateful to the Loyola Press staff, especially Jim and Barbara Campbell Jeanette Graham, and Vinita Wright for their faith in this book and their assistance in its preparation.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve taught high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students; I’ve worked in public humanities programming and in workshops for children and for creative writers. I find it shocking, really—as must all longtime teachers—to imagine how many human beings have sat in my various kinds of classes. In so many ways, though, the most satisfying kind of teaching for me has always been working with teachers. In pedagogy classes, in-­services, and summer institutes, we form what I believe are the most important of communities, united in the most noble of purposes. We learn from each other in these settings, and from all the mentors who are sitting beside us in spirit in these rooms. By contrast, in the everyday classroom it’s easy to feel isolated, alone with problems no one else has ever faced, devoid of inspiration and of help. I hope that this book, as it invites teachers to move through a year in the company of others, will help to counter such loneliness. We must remember that we are not alone as we seek to inspire and instruct others, and to be examples ourselves. For, as saints’ lives illustrate, men and women whose lives are celebrated as holy—mentors of the best kind—have walked these paths before.




The Healing Power of Meaningful Work

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

1774–1821 ~ USA ~ Feast: January 4

Elizabeth Ann Seton was America’s first ­native-born saint, founder of the Sisters of Charity. She was born into colonial New York aristocracy in 1774, daughter of Richard Bayley, a physician who served as first health officer of the city of New York. Elizabeth’s mother died three years after her birth, and her father married a woman who did not take warmly to Elizabeth. Because the marriage was stormy, Elizabeth lived for a time with her uncle in New Rochelle, New York, taking comfort in contemplation of nature and in her devout Episcopalian faith. At twenty, the vivacious, beautiful Elizabeth married William Magee Seton, the son of another prominent New York family. The couple lived in fashionable Wall Street, with Alexander Hamilton as a neighbor. Elizabeth Seton was active in charitable works, and she bore five children.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, difficulties began to come to the Setons. When William’s father died, Elizabeth became mother to that family’s children as well as her own. Then William began to manifest symptoms of the tuberculosis that had afflicted other members of his family. During the financial downturn of 1800, the Setons declared bankruptcy and moved to a smaller house. Elizabeth is reported to have been calm during these changes; besides providing love and stability for her family, she also helped her father tend victims of a yellow fever epidemic, during which Dr. Bayley himself died. In 1803, William’s condition worsened, and the couple went to Italy for a change of climate. When they arrived, however, they were quarantined in cold, damp conditions because William was already ill. William began to hemorrhage, and he died two weeks later. Elizabeth Seton was left a widow at age ­twenty-nine in a strange country. William’s business associates Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi befriended her, and she began discussing religion and attending church with them. By the time she sailed for home a year later, she was emotionally and spiritually committed to Catholicism.

When Seton returned to New York, however, she encountered great opposition to her new faith. Her minister had warned her before the voyage against the seductions of “the splendid and sumptuous worship of Italy,” and he and her friends and relatives were shocked when she returned attracted to Catholicism, “an immigrant religion, whose congregation was composed of the city’s lowest elements.” Full of  “tears and sighs,” Seton tried to pray at her old Episcopal church but found herself drawn to a nearby Catholic Church instead. Deciding finally that her conversion was “[God’s] affair now,” she formally became Catholic on March 14, 1805. Friends began calling her “poor deluded Mrs. Seton”; their criticism became harsher when two of Elizabeth’s ­sisters-in-law, Cecilia and Harriet Seton, converted to Catholicism. Elizabeth rebelled against pity and censure (writing tartly that she was being treated as a child who did not know what was good for her) and turned her efforts to attempting to found a Catholic school in New York.

After anti-Catholic prejudice repeatedly blocked her efforts, Seton was invited to Baltimore by Father Louis William Dubourg. In 1808 she and three of her daughters opened a school there; soon, other women joined them. A year later, a former sea captain purchased land near Emmitsburg (the home of Mt. St. Mary’s College) for a convent. Seton and her newly organized Sisters of St. Joseph (later American Sisters of Charity) took up their work first in a small stone house, then in The White House, a larger building that allowed them to run a substantial school, the first staffed by nuns in the United States. Both boarders and day pupils began to arrive in 1810; the school grew to include as many needy girls and paying pupils as it could hold. Seton dreamed of religious education for all children, and the order expanded to establish the first Catholic orphanage in the country in Philadelphia in 1814 and an orphanage in New York in 1817.

Though her order prospered, Seton suffered many trials: one daughter’s death from tuberculosis and another’s from a tumor; the deaths of her beloved ­sisters-in-law, who joined Seton’s order; the death of nineteen members of her household over ten years, mostly from tuberculosis. Still, new candidates kept coming, and Elizabeth Seton embraced her role as “mother,” leading her order, inspiring her students, and advising young people until her own death of tuberculosis in 1821. Her surviving daughter, Catherine, became a Sister of Charity in 1846 and spent more than forty years ministering to prisoners in New York.

Today, Sisters of Charity across the United States and Canada devote themselves to teaching and serving the poor. When Elizabeth Ann Seton was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975, one thousand members of her order were present. She is popularly considered a patron of Catholic schools.


Accepting a Life of Service

Although teachers can draw inspiration from saints who were not educators by profession, it seems appropriate to begin this book with a saint who found her calling squarely—one might say exemplarily—in education. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a natural teacher, with “a passion for babies.” She eagerly embraced teaching after her widowhood, though she could have lived on the charity of her friends. Alongside her duties as mother superior, she visited classrooms regularly and taught religion and perhaps music and French. She also instructed through copious correspondence with former pupils, parents, and friends. All of her work was distinguished by loving attention. One visitor to the school commented on her “manner of looking upon twenty people in a room with a look of affection and interest, showing an interest for all and a concern in all their concerns.”

As a mother herself, though, Seton knew that discipline was essential to learning, and her school was orderly. Days were strictly organized, with time for worship, adoration, study, and recreation interwoven with class periods. Teachers kept watch over their students’ behavior and sent Mother Seton weekly reports; if a student acquired a “bad point,” she had to balance it with two “good points” by month’s end. Discipline was enforced during both school and recreation; girls who went walking always traveled in groups, attended by a nun in front and a nun behind. Secure in the orderly days under Seton’s “maternal tenderness,” students found their time at the school very happy. “St. Joseph’s the blest abode of innocence and virtue how I Long to see it,” one former pupil wrote.

Elizabeth Seton was such a natural educator that some who encountered her at St. Joseph’s must have assumed that she’d always lived a humble life of service to others. This wasn’t true, however. Though Seton had always been altruistic and thoughtful, as a young woman she had been a belle moving at the top of New York society, the wife of a man who doted on her, a wealthy woman with beautiful children. Everyone must have envied her. Then, one by one, her comforts disappeared: first the money, then her beloved father and ­father-in-law, then, in the greatest blow of all, her husband. It is difficult to imagine how disoriented, how vulnerable she must have felt. Even after she became a Sister of St. Joseph, the blows multiplied, her children and her beloved friends dying until only her two sons and one daughter remained, all living physically distant from her. That she did feel sometimes like Job, despite her joy in faith, is suggested in one of her letters: “Here I go, like iron or rock, day after day, as he pleases and how he pleases; but to be sure, when my time comes, I shall be very glad.”

As Elizabeth Seton’s children and friends were stripped away, she was left with her work to give her life meaning, and she performed it with ever-­increasing vigor, arranging for expansion missions, formalizing the order’s charter, and redoubling her correspondence. Even in her last years, a biographer has written, “a host of events . . . enlisted the attention of Elizabeth Seton, aroused her sympathies, or required her energy.” This focus on work in the absence of family might strike us today as somewhat pathetic, even as we grant the nobility of her particular calling. She must have been so lonely, we might assume, as her duties became her life. Pop psychology might even suggest that she was using work to avoid dealing with her pain. Workaholic is a term of derision today; men and women too devoted to their professions are presented in the media as objects of pity, unfulfilled and wrongheaded betrayers of human bonds. Self-help books chime in here, suggesting that it is dangerous to put too much weight on what we do for a living, rather than “who we are.”

Those arguments would have made little sense to Elizabeth Seton. The details of her biography and her letters confirm that for Mother Seton, work was a joy, not a chore. Rather than a ­second-rate compensation for real life, it was real life. Yes, her life now was in a different key than during her marriage, but it was no less fulfilling. For she was performing work that God meant her to do. And as she poured herself out for others, she actually felt her human bonds growing. “I am a Mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions—not equally amiable or congenial—but bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all, to give an example of cheerfulness, peace, [and] resignation,” she explained to a friend. She took comfort that her example was contagious, describing the tranquility of the school and grounds, “the solitude of our mountains . . . skipping children over the woods which in spring are covered with wild flowers . . . all . . . quiet . . . each helping the other with a look of good will which must indeed be seen to be believed.”

Left adrift, Elizabeth Seton did not surrender to self-pity. She didn’t rely on others to care for her. Instead, she listened to the call to vocation, and she reinvented herself, taking up a life of service that must have made her former existence, though still beloved, look small. Of all the possibilities, she chose teaching as the best way to live out her new faith, and teaching made her life significant beyond the family circle.

And so, she is a central mentor for educators, reminding us of how potentially fulfilling the calling we have chosen can become. Our spouses, our families, our friends—of course they also define us. Of course we shouldn’t spend all evenings, all weekends, working. But there’s no shame in admitting that we are to a large extent defined by what we do for a living, when that job is teaching. For we labor in the same vineyard as Elizabeth Seton, and our work ensures that we, too, will matter, despite what our lives beyond the classroom might bring.


For Further Reading Joseph I. Dirvin, Mrs. Seton, Foundress of the American Sisters of Charity (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1962).
Boniface Hanley, “Elizabeth Ann Seton,” in With Minds of Their Own: Eight Women Who Made a Difference (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1991), 67–96.
Betty Ann McNeill, D.C., “Biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton.”
Annabelle M. Melville, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, 1774–1821 (New York: Scribner, 1951).
David Hugh Farmer, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 473–74.



In Praise of “Lowly” Colleagues

Blessed Andre Bessette

1845–1937 ~ Canada ~ Feast: January 6

Blessed Andre Bessette was born Alfred Bessette in 1845 in a small French-Canadian village near Montreal. One of ten children, he lost both his father (in a logging accident) and his mother (to tuberculosis) when he was young. Without the money required to enter an apprenticeship, Bessette cheerfully supported himself by whatever work offered itself: he was alternately a shoemaker, a baker, a farmhand, a blacksmith, a day laborer, a mill and factory worker. When he was in his late teens and early twenties, he crossed the border to work in the United States. Early on, he developed a particular devotion to St. Joseph and attempted “as much as possible to imitate the toilsome and prayerful life of his patron saint.”

When he was ­twenty-three, Bessette returned to Canada to live with relatives, impressing a local priest with his devotion to God and St. Joseph. Although the young man could not read and write and he suffered from chronic stomach problems, the priest listened when he said that he felt a religious calling and told him that his lack of education did not matter. Some brothers, the priest said, served as lay brothers, devoting themselves to manual labor in imitation of St. Joseph. In 1870, when Bessette was ­twenty-five, this priest sent him to the Congregation of the Holy Cross with a note saying that he was “sending . . . a saint.” At first the Brothers were dubious, and even began action to dismiss Bessette due to his health problems and illiteracy.

Bessette succeeded in becoming Brother Andre, however, and went to serve in the order’s Notre Dame College in Montreal, a school for boys. There he was assigned a multitude of practical duties. He kept the linens, served in the infirmary, worked as a janitor, was responsible for ringing the bells, worked in the garden, delivered the mail, and ran errands. Principally, though, he was the porter/doorkeeper (he joked that “at the end of my novitiate, my superiors showed me the door, and I stayed there for forty years—without leaving”). Always on call, he was responsible for greeting visitors, taking messages to those within, and standing watch. He lived in a tiny room adjacent to the door, sleeping by choice on a plank bed only sixteen inches wide, and when he went to the chapel for his frequent prayers, he always stood where he could hear the doorbell.

Brother Andre thus lived a humble, useful life, widely beloved by both the boys and his brothers in the order. After a few years, though, he began to attract notice for a more startling gift: healing. Brother Andre began anointing the sick with St. Joseph’s oil (oil that had been consecrated before a statue of St. Joseph) and telling them to hold a St. Joseph’s medal and pray; miraculous cures were reported. Soon, so many sick people were coming to the convent looking for Brother Andre that his superiors began complaining that the work of the college was being disrupted and the boys put in danger of contagion. “This is not a hospital! Keep the sick people away!” one said.
Brother Andre moved his ministry across the street to a bus shelter. Though he faced accusations of quackery, the Archbishop of Montreal allowed his ministry to continue, remarking that if the work were human and flawed, it “would collapse of itself. If it is of God, it will last.” Last it did, for Brother Andre was soon seeing hundreds of people every day. He insisted that the cures came not from him but from God, that St. Joseph “was using him in the same way that an electrical ­generator makes use of a wire.” Always humble, he liked to say that he was only St. Joseph’s “little dog.” Petitioners’ prayers and unconditional faith in St. Joseph were what cured them, he insisted. Even though Andre could not cure everyone (he remarked that some people did not have enough faith, while others were not meant to be cured on earth), he became a byword for healing. One estimate suggests that he helped ten thousand people over ­twenty-seven years.

Brother Andre’s reputation spread, and his time became completely absorbed by sick people, some of whom had to wait in line for several days to see him. In the midst of these labors, he took up the second of his great tasks, insisting that a shrine to St. Joseph be erected on Mont Royal above the monastery. A lay friend bought land in the place that Brother Andre reported St. Joseph had chosen for his oratory, and the archbishop approved the project in 1904, stipulating only that the order not go into debt for the construction. Andre spent 1908 to 1909 erecting a small wooden shelter, funded by small donations and the money that he made cutting boys’ hair. Over time the shelter was roofed and enlarged, and a road was built up the mountain. A crypt was constructed in 1915; a basilica begun in 1924. Though the grand church was not finished until thirty years after Brother Andre’s death, he always expressed confidence in its completion. At one point, Andre took a statue of St. Joseph to the unroofed, unfinished basilica, proclaiming his trust that St. Joseph would “see to” his own enclosure if he desired it.

In old age, Brother Andre became irascible with hypochondriacs and people with minor illnesses who sought his aid frivolously, but he wept in regret for those episodes and asked his fellow monks to pray for his conversion. When he died in January 1937, his body was displayed in his shrine, and three hundred thousand people came to honor him. Pilgrims still seek cures there, in the “Lourdes of Canada,” honoring this humble servant of God and St. Joseph.


Respecting One Another’s Gifts

Support staff, they are commonly called, and every organization that includes teachers also includes them. They are school and parish secretaries, janitors, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.

As teachers, we may be tempted to consider ourselves somewhat above them. Our institution’s mission, after all—the work of imparting knowledge and skills, perhaps of fostering faith—depends on us. We have talent and a calling; we’ve received extended education; we possess specialized skills. If a secretary or a bus driver quits, we might miss the person, but that spot is not difficult to fill. We, on the other hand, are unique.

At Notre Dame College, Brother Andre served as support staff but, as his story makes clear, he was hardly replaceable. While he cheerfully performed the most mundane tasks—sweeping the floors, greeting visitors, taking messages, cutting hair—he was also perfecting his devotion to St. Joseph, a devotion that before long bore abundant fruit. The joke on the teaching brothers and on the superiors was that illiterate Brother Andre turned out to be the most inspirational teacher of all. His cures taught faith and revealed God’s power; his insistence that a basilica would arise someday taught patience and the effectiveness of prayer. This humble man was the holiest of all, and he inspired hundreds of thousands of people.

How life would change if we’d remember Brother Andre when we encounter the workers who keep our organizations going! Rather than snapping at a secretary when she doesn’t get our copying done on time, we’d remember the multitude of little responsibilities that she faces every day. We’d imagine her life when she’s not at work: her spirituality, and the good that she does. We’d think of her as a person rather than a tool, and we’d be kind.

Now and then, we can even see such behavior modeled. I used to work with a man, a respected full professor, who sometimes put out the mail when the secretaries were overwhelmed, sometimes made the office coffee, while those below him in the teaching hierarchy thought such jobs beneath their dignity. If someone complimented him on this work, he would shrug and say that these things needed to be done. We were all workers here. That’s what Brother Andre’s cooperative, humble spirit looks like, I think.

And, while the Brother Andres around us might not be working miracle cures or building basilicas, there might very well be holy teachers among them. One of my parish friends, a young mother, tells me that the bus driver who transports her five-year-old to parochial kindergarten is the most influential person in the child’s life right now. Her son is the last to be dropped off, and the driver and the child have time to talk. Sometimes, she says, as when the boy has had an argument with a playmate and is feeling sad, the bus driver takes a longer way home so that he can hear the child out. The boy repeats what the bus driver says at dinner, and the advice is always good and dependable. So is the friendship between them.

We teachers would do well to build a daily habit of respect for those who perform the humble work of our organization. Like Brother Andre, they may be treated as someone’s “little dog,” but, as someone remarked of him, they may be even now barking “so loud that the whole world will hear,” even if we cannot. We are all workers here, all entitled to dignity. Who can guess what we might build together if we remembered that?


For Further Reading Real Boudreau, Brother André, CSC, The Apostle of Saint Joseph (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938).
C. Bernard Ruffin, The Life of Brother André: The Miracle Worker of St. Joseph (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1988).



Teachers as Foster Parents

St. Ita of Killeedy

Died c. 570 ~ Ireland ~ Feast: January 15

Ita (birth name Deirdre) was a chieftain’s daughter in sixth-­century Ireland who declined to marry, devoting herself instead to the education of young boys. In her convent school, she won renown as “the second Brigid.” Ita adored children; it is reported that the infant Jesus appeared to her in visions, and that she composed Gaelic lullabies for him. These are unabashedly maternal: “Jesukin,” one of the most famous says, is “Next to my heart thro’ every night,” a “nursling . . . on my breast.”

While Ita was still a very young nun, the monk Erc brought her the royal infant who became St. Brendan the Navigator, whom Erc (“like one of the Magi”) had claimed from his parents. For five years, Ita nurtured and taught Brendan; then the child went off to monastic study. Brendan became famous for founding monasteries, for his missionary voyages, and for the book narrating them, which became “the primary travelogue of the middle ages.” Brendan’s career as a navigator began badly, however, for he set out in a very small ship that kept getting blown in a circle, and he was forced to abandon his voyage. Back home, he stagnated for five years, “his soul . . . restless and his quest unfulfilled,” until he consulted the practical Ita. “God gave you common sense and intelligence,” she is reported to have told him. “Cooperate with Him, and get a bigger ship with a serviceable rudder!”

Brendan took her advice, and, on his next voyage—in a large oak ship, with a crew of sixty—he traveled far. Some evidence suggests that he reached Newfoundland and Florida. One legend even equates him with the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl. He returned to become a bishop, to found additional monasteries and a university, to serve as a judge and a navigational consultant; he may have taken another voyage to the Mediterranean and Palestine. As Brendan’s adventuresome life evolved, Ita remained quietly in her convent school for decades, “prudent in word and work, sweet and winning in her address, but constant of mind and firm of purpose.” Brendan returned often, we are told, to seek her advice, and he is her most famous student, but Ita is called “foster mother of the saints of Erin” not simply for him, but also for other boys whom she mentored long after he had left her care.

After helping bring up generations of boys, Ita died in 570. She is commemorated in an Irish church that bears her name, and also at St. Brendan’s church, where a stained-glass window shows her gently watching over the toddler Brendan and an angel, who play together at her feet.


Nurturing, Then Letting Go

Sweet Ita, denying herself literal motherhood to mother the sons of strangers! Gentle Ita, who “loved much fosterage,” seeing her “Jesukin” in the upturned baby faces around her! All of us teachers who get attached to our charges can claim kinship with her. It is so difficult to let them go, after a class, a year, several years, these students whom we come to believe are ours. They’re mostly merry as they leave us, voyaging out to some new country of their own. We would be sorry if they were not excited and ready for new adventures; if they instead clung to us, that would mean that we had failed.

Still, our hearts miss them, and it is always a joyful day when an e-mail or card arrives, or former students show up at our door, remembering us as we remember them. We’re always proud of our students when they tell us about the grand things that they’re doing, but it’s especially gratifying when they return to ask our advice or tell us that they’ve successfully invoked our voice in a crisis. Such moments remind us of the worth of what we do, and it’s wonderful when we have a student like Brendan to reassure us again and again, in person, that our tutelage continues to matter.

Even if we have former students who periodically stay in touch, however, most of our lives will consist of long stretches when we never hear from students with whom we were close. It’s tempting to feel a little stodgy and neglected, then, as we remain in our classrooms, year after year, ministering to successive generations whom we cannot help but love, though they will leave us, too. It’s tempting to wonder if we’ve worked in vain. Like all parents, we stay behind as our children make their own independent lives, and it often seems that our hearts yearn toward them more than theirs to us.

Ita must have felt that yearning, too, quiet in her convent walls, as she turned to a new crop of “Jesukins,” knowing that in time she would have to open her hands and let them go, too. But she did it, again and again, drawing on an infinite well of love, spending herself as Christ was spent. What could have comforted her but the knowledge that she had loved her boys, taught them, nurtured them as well as she possibly could, that each generation was as important as the last, that her vocation was to be God’s instrument?
She has so much to teach us, gentle Ita, performing work that stretched the boundaries of the wider world, while remaining inside her convent walls.


For Further Reading Mary Ryan D’Arcy, The Saints of Ireland: A Chronological Account of the Lives and Works of Ireland’s Saints and Missionaries at Home and Abroad (St. Paul, MN: The Irish American Cultural Institute, 1974).
George Aloysius Little, Brendan the Navigator, An Interpretation by Dr. George A. Little (Dublin: H. M. Gill and Son, 1945).
Vincent J. O’Malley, “Ita of Killeedy and Brendan the Navigator,” in Saintly Companions: A Cross-­reference of Sainted Relationships (New York: Alba House, 1995), 167–69.
Robert T. Reilly, Irish Saints (New York: Vision Books, 1964).
Paul Burns, ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 1:96–97.
Oxford, 265–66.



The Value of Challenging Our Students

St. Francis de Sales

1567–1622 ~ France ~ Feast: January 24

Devout, articulate, hardworking, and intellectually brilliant, St. Francis de Sales was an evangelical bishop and a renowned spiritual advisor. Francis was born to an aristocratic family, the son of a diplomat, in Savoy in 1567. He studied at the University College of Clermont in Paris (where family connections exposed him to the highest levels of French society), then earned a law degree from the University of Padua. Though his father wanted him to marry well and advance his family, Francis was determined to follow his strong sense of vocation, and he became a priest in 1593. “He took up his duties with an ardour which never abated,” Butler reports, preaching in an accessible style and ministering to the poor.

A year later, Francis de Sales undertook a mission to reconvert Protestants in Chablais near Lake Geneva, traveling only with his cousin. At first, the work went slowly and was physically demanding and dangerous; he was attacked by wolves and by assassins. Slowly, though, de Sales began making inroads by writing tracts, which he slipped under doors, and by befriending children. When his bishop visited the area a few years later, many people had returned to Catholicism. Deeply impressed, the prelate chose Francis as his successor, and he became Bishop of Geneva in 1602. He was distinguished by the economy of his household, his charity, his preaching, and his zeal.

Francis de Sales corresponded extensively with those who sought his spiritual direction. His advice was noted both for its kindness and for its firmness. His most famous disciple was the young widow St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Sales met Chantal in Dijon in 1604; she immediately recognized him, it is said, having seen him in a vision. Chantal had already decided to devote herself to a life of chastity and good works, but she still dressed stylishly. The story goes that one night soon after they met, Sales turned to her and asked if she had really determined to stay unmarried. “Yes,” she said, surprised at the question. “Then why don’t you lower your colors?” he asked. Chastened, Chantal recognized that she was sending a mixed message, and she immediately reformed her appearance as a sign of her absolute commitment to her new vocation. The two became close, lifelong friends and correspondents, and in 1610 they founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary, supervised by de Chantal under Sales’ direction, establishing ­eighty-six convents.

In addition to hundreds of letters, Francis de Sales produced several books. The best known are Treatise of the Love of God, which instructs readers to “love without measure,” as God loves, and Introduction to a Devout Life, a manual of spiritual guidance, which de Sales assembled from notes that he had written to a cousin who placed herself under his spiritual direction.

Francis de Sales died young, at fifty-six in 1622, after having preached extensively in France during the winter of 1662 at the request of Louis XIII. He was beatified just forty years later, then canonized in 1665 and declared a doctor of the church in 1877. He is the patron saint of writers and journalists.


Putting Students on the Spot, with Love

“I don’t like to put my students on the spot,” said the young teacher whom I was observing. I had just told him, as gently as possible, that I thought he should ask his students more challenging questions and probe their vague remarks in discussion. He was handing them conclusions, protecting them from difficult thinking. “Why not allow them to take risks?” I asked.

He wasn’t buying my advice. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask students to go out on a limb,” he said, drawing himself up with some pride. “I’m not that kind of teacher. I believe in empowering students, not intimidating them.”

Then I couldn’t help but smile, remembering the two best—yes, “empowering,” even—moments in my own school career. Both had involved teachers whom I loved, teachers who with all gentleness had deliberately put me way out on limbs. The first happened in an undergraduate sophomore literature survey. We had just read John Milton’s ­seventeenth-­century pastoral elegy “Lycidas,” and the class was floundering. No wonder: pastoral elegies follow dense and difficult poetic conventions of form, content, and sequence of topics. “Why would a poet choose such a stylized genre to write about something as personal as a close friend’s death?” one of my classmates had asked.
My teacher did not answer that question. Instead, she turned to me, in that room of forty students. “Susan,” she said, not aggressively, but in a tone that allowed no demur. “What do you think of this poem? Do you think it’s a good poem?”

I took a very deep breath, consulted my instinct, and decided to trust it. “Yes,” I said, “it is a very good poem.” And then I heard myself talking about why strict form could be helpful: it gave the poet a framework useful in chaotic states like grief; it linked the poem to other poems written in other periods in that same form, and thus universalized its message. I was eighteen then, and I didn’t use quite those words, but I said things like that . . . things that I hadn’t known that I knew until I heard them coming out of my mouth. My teacher nodded and for a millisecond looked directly into my eyes with a quiet smile, then turned back to the rest of the class . . . then discussion started. I didn’t say much else for the rest of that hour, however, for I was sitting transfixed, radiant with my teacher’s approval. My life changed that morning.

Something similar happened when I was a graduate student, in a seminar on the ­eighteenth-­century novel. There were only ten of us around the table that night, discussing a famous critic’s book about the writers we’d been reading that semester. The critic’s bias was clear, I had thought as I prepared for class; he praised those novelists whose fiction supported his thesis and argued that others were lesser writers. My favorite writer of the class, Henry Fielding, was the one this critic liked least, and I was bristling after reading the assignment. I came to class ready to speak up.

My chance came so quickly that it dazzled me, with the first real question of the evening. “Okay, Susan,” my teacher said, “what do you think of the discussion of Fielding in the reading for tonight?” For a moment, bold as I had mentally been in defending Fielding in the privacy of my mind, I doubted myself. The author of this study was one of the most famous literary critics of the ­eighteenth-­century novel, after all. Our teacher—a very famous scholar himself, and a man whom I adored—had chosen this book for us to read—it was the only secondary source he had required us to buy. Of course, I thought suddenly, this argument couldn’t be wrong. Of course I was being presumptuous, with my little one-year-of-­graduate-study background, to think of challenging it.

Once again, though, something in me insisted that I had to trust my instinct, and I heard myself saying that I thought the critic’s thesis had blinded him to Fielding’s merits. “Good for you!” my teacher said. “How about the rest of you?”—and I sat, glowing and dazed again, as the discussion danced around me.

How sad for students when their teachers do not selectively invite them onto such limbs. Yes, it is risky to ask challenging questions in any teaching situation, secular or sacred, elementary or advanced. If a student can’t answer, that student can feel betrayed or put on the spot, and both she and the teacher can look bad. It’s important to remember, though, that challenges don’t have to be aggressively designed to embarrass people, and that students aren’t necessarily such sensitive souls that we don’t dare disturb their comfort. Sometimes, if we “directors” (whether spiritual or secular) want students to break through to a new level of understanding, putting them on the spot might be just what they need.

St. Francis de Sales understood this. While reassuring those who sought his spiritual direction that he loved them, he did not hesitate to challenge them. “Then why don’t you lower your colors?” he asked Jane Frances de Chantal—and she realized that, though he was criticizing her, he would not have been inviting her to give herself fully to her new life if he had not assumed that she could do so. De Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life is imbued with similar attempts to move readers beyond their comfort zones. He counsels, for instance, that it is not enough to physically give up “dangerous things”: one must stop even caring for them internally if one is to make spiritual progress. Although in Sales’ lifetime he was criticized for being too gentle with sinners, such evidence shows that with those in whom he saw great potential, he could be demanding, indeed—“the medicine of life,” as he termed spiritual directors who asked hard questions.

How I wish that people like that young teacher whom I observed could have worked with Francis de Sales, or with one of my own beloved teachers! All of these people recognized that it’s a tragedy to protect students from ever stretching because they might be embarrassed; to never confront them is a shame. For true empowerment, as these wise ones knew, isn’t fostered by safety. Rather, people begin to glimpse their own potential only when, surprised, they discover themselves rising to challenges—especially when those challenges are posed by careful, loving, and, yes, demanding mentors who will settle for only the best for those in their care.


For Further Reading Michael De la Bedoyere, Francis de Sales (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960).
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, ed. John K. Ryan (New York: Image Books, 1972).
Wendy M. Wright and Joseph F. Power, eds., Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal: Letters of Spiritual Direction, trans. Pérrone Marie Thibert (New York: Paulist Press, 1988).
Butler’s, 1:195–201.
Oxford, 206.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction    xi

1    The Healing Power of Meaningful Work    1
    St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
2    In Praise of “Lowly” Colleagues    7
    Blessed Andre Bessette
3    Teachers as Foster Parents    13
    St. Ita of Killeedy
4    The Value of Challenging Our Students    17
    St. Francis de Sales
5    Hard Work . . . and Miracles    23
    St. John Bosco

6    To Call All of Them by Name    29
    St. Blaise
7    The Real Work of Interruptions    33
    St. Scholastica
8    Wonder That Breaks into the Everyday    37
    Blessed Fra Angelico
9    “Extreme” Students    43
    St. Dositheus

10    The Brilliant, Tormented Outsider    47
    Blessed Henry Suso (Seuse)
11    The Role of Fearless Inquiry    53
    St. Thomas Aquinas
12    Grunt Work    59
13    The Gift of Second Chances    65
    St. Dismas

14    In Praise of Intellectual Curiosity    71
    St. Isidore of Seville
15    The Call to Professionalism    77
    St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle
16    Life with Ambiguity    83
    St. Bernadette of Lourdes
17    From Contemplation to Action    89
    St. Catherine of Siena

18    Leadership through Love    95
    Saint Antoninus
19    Healthy Individualism    101
    St. Josephine Bakhita
20    Humor at Work    107
    St. Philip Neri
21    The Fellowship of Suffering    113
    St. Dympna

22    On Quitting . . . and Taking Up the Work Again    119
    St. Gottschalk (Gotteschalc)
23    The Gift of Eccentricity    123
    St. Lutegarde
24    Flawed Heroes    129
    St. Thomas More
25    When Colleagues Disagree    135
    St. Peter and St. Paul

26    The Endless Task of Making Peace    141
    St. Elizabeth of Portugal
27    The Importance of Order    147
    St. Benedict
28    Teachers as Talent-Spotters    153
    The Magi
29    The Necessity of Reflection    159
    St. Ignatius of Loyola

30    The “Unpromising” Student    165
    St. John Vianney
31    On Surprising Oneself    171
    St. Edith Stein
32    A Holy Insistence on High Quality    177
    St. Pius X
33    Conversion as Just the Beginning    183
    St. Augustine of Hippo
34    The Greater Good    189
    Blessed Jeanne Jugan

35    The Tension between Work and Avocation    195
    St. Gregory the Great
36    The Temptation to Despair    201
    St. Peter Claver
37    The Right Discomfort    207
    Martyrs of Korea
38    The Courage to Be a Shepherd    213
    St. Lioba (Leoba)
39    Unlikely Disciples    219
    St. Jerome

40    Ego and Fear    225
    St. Thérèse of Lisieux
41    The Profligate    231
    St. Pelagia the Penitent
42    The Real vs. the Ideal    237
    St. Teresa of Ávila
43    The Case for Simple Devotion    243
    St. Jude

44    Unpopular Decisions    247
    St. Charles Borromeo
45    An Inspirational Legacy    253
    St. Martin of Tours
46    The Power of Joyful Optimism    259
    St. Gertrude the Great
47    The Lost Battle    265
    Blessed Miguel Pro
48    Students Speaking Up    271
    St. Catherine of Alexandria

49    When Everything Clicks    277
    Blessed Mary Kevin
50    Children as Sacred Embodiments of Hope    283
    St. Lucy
51    When the Plan Changes    289
    St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
52    The Importance of Meeting Fundamental Needs    295
    St. Albert Chmielowski

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