Defying Time: Sister G

Sister G. as we both fondly and sometimes fearfully called her was one of those classic Catholic nuns that all of the musicals are written about. If ever there was an icon of the stern knuckle rapping nun, Sister G was it’s embodiment. She knew how to be tough and stern and unbending, but she also knew how and more importantly when to be kind, compassionate and forgiving. I worked for Sister G. at Guadalupe Area Project from 1979 to 1980 as a full time high school teacher. Don’t ask me what I taught because at the Project, you had to be willing to teach anything anytime. Education was more about character development than it was about rote learning. I also taught some citizen classes in the evening for adults in the community who wanted to gain their citizenship status. Despite our school being called the “Drop Out School” it was inspiring working there. I worked with about 12 other very dedicated teachers. We were paid about ½ the scale of a public school teacher but we did not care because we felt we were being called to a higher purpose. For me, the higher purpose was working for Sister G.

Sister Giovanni Gourhan, SSND, (1914-1990) of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, arrived in St. Paul in 1961 where she encountered many Latino teens performing poorly in school and eventually dropping out. In 1964, she began a summer school program for Latino youth, which evolved into Guadalupe Alternative School in 1967 to reach students that traditional high schools would not accept. “She singled out poverty as the villain and challenged the church and the community to work together to ease the burden.” -Helen Kock. The school was located in an area known as West Side Side Paul and had a large immigrant Mexican population.

I had finished my Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Wisconsin in 1979 and was looking for a counseling position either with a school or with an employment office. I had an undergraduate degree in education but was not really interested in teaching. I had done that for about a year before going back to my MS program and did not want the low pay, high stress and work load. I received a call about a counseling position and setup a meeting with Sister Giovanni at GAP (Guadalupe Area Project). This was pre computer so I did not do any background research and walked in knowing little about Sister G or the school. We met and she said she was looking for a teacher. I was immediately thinking and said “Well, I thought you were contacting me about a counseling position.” She said: “Oh, don’t worry; you will do lots of counseling with these students.” I said “Well, I am sorry Sister but I am not a practicing Catholic, in fact, I am an Atheist.” She looked at me and without batting an eyelash, she said: “I don’t care what your religion is as long as you are a good teacher.” The longer I talked to Sister G, the more I wanted to teach at GAP. I remember taking the position and never even discussing salary. As a matter of fact, salary was never even important to me while I was there.

Years later at Sister G’s funeral in 1990, I never cried so hard in my entire life. She was one of the greatest people I have ever known. Her good friend Sister Anna Louise Wilson (1929-2008) taught at GAP for over 30 years and worked very closely with Sister G. Just before Sister Anna found out she did not have long to live she said: “I am not worried – I have God, my Guardian Angel and Giovanni.” When Sister G was dying she told Sister Anna, “You take care of things down here and I will take care of things up there.” That was a covenant that was more than lived up to by both women. Sister Giovanni was a mover and a shaker. She did not let the Mayor or the Governor stop her from accomplishing her goal of making the lives of poor people in St. Paul easier. Not only were they at her funeral but also at least one US Senator was there. Sister G. would have noted the irony since they often did all they could to avoid her while she was living. She was one of the major voices for the West Side St. Paul and they were frequently at odds with Sister G. who wanted better living conditions for residents.

Sister G. was another one of those people who I think defied time by not allowing herself to be hemmed in by the strictures of her time. A woman in politics in the 60’s, a woman entrepreneur, and a woman who would challenge the male bastions of power was not a typical role. In the early sixties, a woman’s place was still largely in the home and many men, especially those in power did not take kindly being told what to do by a woman, much less a school nun. Sister G fought the power structure of St. Paul for funding, building permits, licenses and many other changes that would enable structures to help alleviate the poverty she found on the West Side. While many schools today in places like Arizona and the Southwest are downplaying the cultural heritage of immigrants, Sister Giovanni had classes in Mexican history and Spanish. She did not want the Latino community to lose its unique cultural heritage. Sister Giovanni was a very progressive thinker and we did many programs that would not have been tolerated in the Public School system.

As a manager and leader, Sister Giovanni was into the “Servant Leadership” model long before the term was even popular. Sister G. did not feel that we worked for her or that the students worked for her. She was there to support both her students and the teachers and staff at her school. She would not tolerate rudeness or lack of manners and she expected respect to be a two way street between teachers and students. She more than modeled the practices of Servant Leadership. She taught everyone what it meant to be a Servant Leader. Many managers today still think their employees work for them rather than the other way around.

Well, Sister G is the last of the five people I wanted to profile this week that I felt could fit under my rubric of defying time. Sister G. defied time and the establishment to create a more just world for all. She stood up for what she believed in and worked to be a leader who would bring more education to those whom the traditional education system had tossed out. She was a progressive with new ideas on education and she believed that curriculums needed to serve people and not the other way around. As you go about your day today, ask yourself what do you think needs changing? Are you willing to fight for these changes? Do you think these things will change by themselves? Are you willing to break with tradition and to find ways to change the rules? Why not?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    Jan 15, 2012 @ 06:04:20

    I went to GAP in '74-76. I was kicked out of regular schools and was considered “unteachable”. By my senior year Sister G had me doing college courses and tutoring other students who were slow or having trouble with their lessons. One day a former teacher from the last school I got kicked out of came to visit the school and was amazed at the work I was doing there. He said,” You have that guy tutoring here? He is incapable of learning. He even pulled a knife on me in class once!” Sister G replied,” You never presented him with challenges.” In 1976 I graduated at the top of the class and had earned scholarships at area colleges. A few days before she passed away she ordered me to call her so I did. She wanted to tell me how proud she was of me. Sam P.



  2. John Persico
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 14:45:34

    Thanks for the story and comments Sam. I learned a lot from Sister G also. It would be nice to have a book on Sister G full of stories like yours. She made a difference in so many people's lives. John



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