January 2021 marked 47 years since “National Catholic Schools Week” was officially declared a cause for celebration. Long before that proclamation, Sister of the Divine Savior Mary Jo Stoffel, SDS, has been celebrating in her own way.
In 32 years of education ministry, Sr. Mary Jo has taught 1,037 first- and second-graders. She’s sure of it, because she still has a list of former students from each and every school year. She’s been praying for them, too.
In her early years of teaching, Sr. Mary Jo was known as Sister Boniface. She served in grade schools staffed by Sisters of the Divine Savior from 1958 until 1990. Her assignments included a number of rural Wisconsin communities: Landover Hills, Md.; Sauk Rapids, Minn.; and Mother of Good Counsel (MGC) and St. Pius X in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Sr. Mary Jo began teaching in a second-grade classroom at St. Mary’s School in Maryland. She took to heart the advice of a classroom veteran, the late Sister Kristin Stoppleworth, SDS, who took the fledgling teacher under her wing. “She suggested I keep a list of all my students from year to year and continue to pray for them. I think it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” Sr. Mary Jo says. “I’ve been so grateful to Sr. Kristin for that advice, because it keeps me connected to my teaching years.”
Each night, Sr. Mary Jo says a collective prayer for all her former students. Every Monday, she mentions each name listed on one of 31 loose-leaf pages secured in a small, black leatherette three-ring binder. The hyphenated school year and parochial school name appears at the top of each page. The name of each child is neatly written in ink, in alphabetical order, last name first, as it would have been on her class roster. With each name numbered, it’s easy to see that her largest homeroom had 55 students – two years in a row – and her smallest had just 13 students in 1979-80.
Sr. Mary Jo recalls “double-session” classes in her first two years of teaching. In the 1958-59 school year, she taught 48 second-graders in the morning. Then she and another sister split the afternoon session, teaching 45 more second graders for two hours each. The next year Sr. Mary Jo had 55 students in her morning session and 43 in her split session. It wasn’t until 10 years into her teaching ministry that her class roster dipped below 30 students.
Sr. Mary Jo says, whenever she was missioned to a new school, her students would ask her to write to them. Each time, she encouraged them to write to her and promised that she’d write back. She always kept her promise.
Typically, she’d hear from a few former students, but after a while they’d stop writing — except for a second grader named Judy from Milwaukee, and a boy named Dan from St. Mark’s in Rothschild, Wisconsin. To this day, both of them still correspond with their former teacher.
Typically she’d hear from a few former students, but after a while they’d stop writing – except for a second-grader named Judy from Milwaukee, and a boy named Dan from St. Mark’s in Rothschild, Wis. To this day, both of them still correspond with their former teacher. Sr. Mary Jo remembers Dan as a student leader even as a second-grader back in 1969. He went on to run his own cheese-making business when he grew up. Judy, whom Sr. Mary Jo taught in 1961-62, eventually became a teacher too.
Years later, after Sr. Mary Jo was no longer teaching, she passed along some of her hand-painted bulletin board lettering for Judy to use at the very same school where they’d met years earlier – Mother of Good Counsel.
Of all her students, Sr. Mary Jo admits she best remembers “the naughty ones and the very bright ones.” But she prays for them all. She knows some of them have passed away, but she still says their names and simply asks God to be with them.
— by Jan Penlesky