by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In December, I received a Christmas card from a man who was a student in the 1952-53 kindergarten class at St. Thomas of Aquin parochial school in South St. Louis.
The class was taught by my mother.
Enclosed in his Christmas card to me was the Christmas card that he had received from my mother in 1952. On the back of the card was a handwritten note that read: “May you have a very Merry Christmas John.” It was signed: Miss Louise. I was very touched to receive the card and amazed that he had kept it for 70 years.
I have written before in this column of the tragic murder of my father on Dec. 18, 1948. At the time, my mother was three months pregnant with me, and my brother was not yet 2. My father’s sudden death had dramatically changed the course of my mother’s life. Her dreams had been shattered.
Mom used the death benefit from my father’s life insurance policy to make the down payment on a two-family flat in South St. Louis. We lived upstairs, and my maternal grandparents lived downstairs. Their rent made it possible for my mother to pay the monthly loan payments for our house.
In 1952, my mother did not have a college diploma, but she was a natural teacher. A few years later, my mother, having received a St. Rose Philippine Duchesne scholarship to Maryville College, suspended her teaching career and earned a bachelor’s degree in less than three years. With her degree in hand, she resumed teaching and eventually became an elementary school principal. Her career in Catholic education spanned more than 40 years.
I never considered our family poor; however, I am not sure how Mom made ends meet. With help from my grandparents, my mother sacrificed heroically to provide for my brother and me. She rarely spent anything on herself. Her “social life” was being an active member in our parish Legion of Mary group.
Of course, in December of 1948, I was still in my mother’s womb and thus immune to the consequences of my father’s sudden death. As my brother and I matured, my mother took great care to tell us about our father. We were very proud of his military service in World War II and very interested in his abbreviated baseball career.
When I was a teenager, I asked my mother how she coped with my father’s death. She confessed that initially she was crushed by this tragedy. She deeply mourned the loss of her husband. Mom also told me that my grandfather (her father) challenged her that she could not afford to overindulge her grief because she had two young boys to raise.
My mother never permitted my brother and me to consider ourselves victims. Though she acknowledged that not having a father to mentor us was a disadvantage, Mom was quick to point out the many ways in which we were blessed.
Interestingly, when I asked other relatives and friends of my parents about the time of my father’s death, all of them shared how my mother’s faith in the midst of tragedy inspired them. Many acknowledged that they had been renewed in their own faith by her example.
My mother never believed that God desired my father to be murdered. His death was the result of human sin. However, she did believe that God was faithful to his promise to be with his disciples always. She believed that God could bring forth good even from something that was obviously evil.
I am not certain that my mother would have become a schoolteacher had my father lived. In retrospect, it appears obvious to me that one of the great goods God brought forth from the tragedy of my dad’s death was my mother’s career as a Catholic schoolteacher.
She was a gifted teacher. Mom always felt she could teach most effectively the subjects that were most difficult for her in school, because she understood better the learning challenges her students were experiencing. Most importantly, she was a great and joyful witness of her faith in Jesus and his church.
While an auxiliary bishop in St. Louis celebrating confirmations in the parishes, oftentimes a parent or a sponsor of the newly confirmed shared with me that they were a former student of my mother. They did not really care that I was a bishop, but they wanted to speak with me because I was Mrs. Naumann’s son. They wanted me to know the difference my mother had made in their lives.
This week, we celebrated Catholic Schools Week. I am very grateful for our Catholic schools. What makes our schools special are teachers like my mother. They help their students develop the gifts and talents that God has entrusted to them. Most importantly, they witness to the faith and the difference that friendship with Jesus makes in their lives.
Unfortunately, as much as we might wish, we cannot protect children from experiencing difficulty, or even tragedy, in their lives. However, if they form an authentic relationship with Jesus, then no matter what happens to them, they will have access to the greatest source of strength, peace and joy. By keeping the faith, they will have confidence that Our Lord will draw forth good from life’s adversities.
Our Lord will use our adversities — and even suffering — as a means to draw us closer to him. Jesus can give us peace even in the midst of life’s storms. Our Lord can help us find meaning and purpose while we are experiencing adversity. Jesus can give us the capacity for joy even at times of sorrow and loss.
This Tuesday, Feb. 7, my mother would have been 100 years old! She was certainly my most influential and effective teacher of the faith. Whatever good I have accomplished in my ministry as priest and bishop is the fruit of her influence and example.
However, what is even more beautiful are the many other lives that she impacted and inspired as a Catholic school teacher.