By JOANNE FOX
Sister Miriam James Heidland, SOLT, admitted that one of the purposes of Catholic education was the pursuit of academic excellence.
“But the call of Catholic education is to be transformed in Christ,” she emphasized.
Sister Miriam James, a Sister of the Most Holy Trinity, was the keynote speaker for the 22nd Annual Bishop’s Dinner for Catholic Schools, Oct. 21, at the Sioux City Convention Center.
A native of Woodland, Wash., Sister Miriam James garnered laughs from the crowd of nearly 800 with her insights about the Pacific Northwest “where all we did was drink coffee, wear flannel and were depressed,” she quipped.
Following her high school graduation, Sharon Heidland earned a full scholarship to the University of Nevada-Reno where she played Division I volleyball and majored in communications.
“My dream was to work for ESPN, so I tell people I became a nun because Erin Andrews stole my job,” she said, referencing the sports commentator.
The young woman continued to excel as an athlete in college, became quite the party-goer and looked forward to future employment. A SOLT priest recommended she make a retreat in New Mexico to “find” herself.
Sister Miriam James entered the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in 1998 and made her first profession in 2002. The order is a missionary community that serves global areas of apostolic need; the order also serves the Sioux City Diocese at Domus Trinitatis in Willey.
Speaking with few notes and walking away from the podium throughout her speech, Sister Miriam James referenced her distinctive gray and white habit.
“I was in the produce section of a grocery store – because nuns buy kale – and a man, about 60 years old, came bounding up to me and asked me if I was a nun,” she said
“I replied – with the kale in hand – ‘Why, yes,” and he asked, ‘Do they still make nuns?’” she said, with an ear-to-ear grin.
The man shared the deep affection and gratitude he had for the nuns who taught him; Sister Miriam James asked the crowd to think about the word “catholic.”
“We know catholic means ‘universal,’ but there is a nuance in it that changed how I thought about it and that is ‘catholic’ is universal – as according to the whole, the entire breath of all things,” she said. “Catholic education does not address one part of the person; it takes in the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual parts of the person.”
Sister Miriam James, whose Twitter handle is @onegroovynun, insisted every generation “must encounter Christ” and “that begins with you and me.”
“God wants to transform our hearts and that is the ideal of Catholic education,” she said.
The dinner serves as the largest fundraiser for the 16 Catholic school systems in the diocese. According to Susan O’Brien, diocesan director of development and communications, the funds are used for grants to improve technology and textbooks.
“As a product of our Catholic schools and now a Catholic school parent, I appreciate everything our staffs, administrators and teachers do in our schools,” she said.
O’Brien acknowledged the assistance of Development Directors Dawn Prosser of Storm Lake St. Mary Parish and Schools and Lisa Niebuhr of Le Mars Gehlen Catholic Schools, who helped to spearhead the event while the development office was vacant.
“I’ve been a part of this event for a number of years and it was a privilege to be asked to help with it this year,” Prosser said.
“When I was asked, it was an easy ‘yes,’” Niebuhr added. “I’ve seen firsthand the impact of our schools in our diocese.”
Those in attendance might have thought they were seeing double, as twin brothers Dan and Dave Flattery, with their respective wives Roxie and Debbie, took the stage to discuss their experience as chair couples of this year’s event.
“It was a young priest, Father Lou Kollasch, who came to Duncombe and convinced my parents of the importance of Catholic education,” Dan Flattery recalled. “Our lives were changed forever, and for the better, in the fall of 1973, when we started Fort Dodge St. Edmond High School.”
Dave Flattery echoed his brother’s sentiments.
“In public school, the three Rs were reading, writing and arithmetic; when we started at St. Edmond, the fourth R was added – religion,” he said. “As Catholic school parents today, we understand we must be supportive of our Catholic schools whenever we can.”
Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City lauded the event with: “What a great night to be Catholic!”
“Parents, you have trusted your children to us,” he said. “Jesus can only lead us in the Way, the Truth and the Life. My promise to all of you is that we will lead them in that direction.”
The Bishop’s Dinner for Catholic Schools is used not only as a time to celebrate Catholic education but recognize those who contribute greatly to the schools.
Among the three teachers who received the Excellence in Education Award were Laurie Dougherty, art teacher at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City; Paul Niebuhr, fifth to twelfth grade band director at Gehlen Catholic School in Le Mars and Annette Vaske, business teacher at Bishop Garrigan High School in Algona.
Two staff members received the Good Shepherd Award: Sandi Prather, kindergarten aide at Mater Dei School, Immaculate Conception Center, Sioux City and Jay Sassman, head custodian, St. Mary School, Storm Lake.
This year’s Clergy Award was given to Father Clem Currans, retired from active ministry after most recently serving as pastor at Holy Family Church in Emmetsburg and the parishes in Graettinger, Ayrshire and Ruthven.