The real heroes are in the classroom


By Paul McMullen

Super Bowl Week is upon us. Everything that is grand about the experiment that is the United States – ambition, collaboration, courage, discipline – will be on display in New Orleans.

The enterprise, conversely, offers an abundance of the grotesque – blind partisanship, commercialism, militarism, overspending – to say nothing of the hyperbole that can turn the popular sports narrative of overcoming adversity into outright fraud (see Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o, etc.).

Hero worship, as any student of Joseph B. Campbell and the power of myth will tell you, predates the birth of Christ by several millennia. While nothing new, it is crystallized at the Super Bowl, which I believe has supplanted the Fourth of July as the nation’s major secular holiday.

This Super Bowl offers maybe the most wholesome family story American sport has ever offered – see the hyperbole at play? – in the Harbaugh brothers. John coaches the Baltimore Ravens, Jim the San Francisco 49ers.

They had a peripatetic childhood, but wherever their father’s coaching career took them, they were usually enrolled in a Catholic elementary school. Along the way, they certainly had some teachers who reinforced the values that were displayed in the Harbaugh home.

Chances are, the names of some of those teachers started with “Sister.”

A generation ago, I made my living writing about high school athletics. The job included invitations to speak at awards banquets, and my message was this: If you need a role model, don’t look at the athlete on television, chances are his talent is one-dimensional; rather, emulate your parents and the people at the front of the classroom, whose work ethic is just as admirable.

She was never mentioned by name, but one of the inspirations for that argument was Sister Mary Margaret Pazdan, of the Sinsinawa Dominicans.

She arrived at St. Rose of Lima School in Brooklyn as the new seventh-grade teacher in 1967. The following spring she talked confused young kids through the hatred that wrought the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. She arrived wearing a habit and holding a religious name, Sister Marie Eugénie. The year 1968 was as tumultuous as any. The time included the Second Vatican Council, and one day she showed up without the habit, and going by a new name, Sister Mary Margaret.

A native of Oak Park, Ill., she had taught for three years in the Diocese of Peoria before being shipped East, to an area of the country she had never seen.

“I knew nothing of Baltimore and Maryland,” she told me last week, “but I fell in love with it. The symphony, hard-shell crabs, soft-shell crabs, we used to have parish fundraisers on the Eastern Shore.

“I especially liked being in a revolutionary school system. We experimented with open-space classrooms. … We had an extraordinary pastor (the late Bishop T. Austin Murphy) who was very interested in the sisters getting advanced degrees. When I was in Baltimore, I studied at Providence College in the summers.”

Sister Mary Margaret spoke from St. Louis. I caught up with her last week, unaware that I and my fellow numbskulls were taught 45 years ago by a first-rate academic.

Sister Mary Margaret is professor emerita of biblical studies at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. She has taught there since 1985. Since 2004, she has served the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation as its promoter of preaching. You have to Google her name in order to appreciate her scholarship and volume of her written word.

Chances are, your education was blessed with a Sister Mary Margaret Pazdan. This Catholic Schools Week, look her up and say thanks.

Paul McMullen is managing editor of the Catholic Review.

Copyright (c) Jan. 25, 2013 

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.