by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven
LEAVENWORTH — For over 160 years, there have been strong ties that bind Catholic education here and the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (SCLs).
Nothing — not even the current coronavirus pandemic — has managed to break that connection.
But this year, faculty, staff and students at Xavier Elementary School in Leavenworth have had to update their approach to maintaining the connection with the Sisters who live at the SCL motherhouse and Ross Hall skilled nursing facility.
The Sisters have been in quarantine and isolation for several months as precautionary measures against the coronavirus. Whereas previously Sisters took the lead in coordinating activities focused on spirituality and heritage at the school, this year, lay teachers have assumed many of these responsibilities, including planning the annual heritage week.
“And delightfully so,” observed Sister Jane Schmitz, SCL, of the teachers’ efforts. Sister Jane is director of faith formation at Xavier and a resident at the SCL motherhouse.
“I didn’t worry about planning for the recent observance,” she said. “I knew the teachers could and would do it. They did a great job and introduced wonderful new things.”
As a result of their efforts, creative and prayerful expressions of gratitude and thanksgiving abounded during Mother Xavier Awareness Week, Nov. 9-13, with some activities scheduled to continue through the academic year.
From prayer quilts to prayer buddies, members of the Xavier School community let the Sisters know that they missed their physical presence in the school and that they very much valued the SCLs and their heritage.
For Janet Meyer, fourth-grade teacher in her 32nd year at the elementary school, keeping connected with the Sisters and their history is “like learning your family history.”
“Since we no longer have the luxury of having the Sisters in our buildings,” she explained, “we need to work to understand who we are and where we came from.”
A large part of this is understanding the story of the SCLs and Mother Xavier Ross, their foundress. The Sisters arrived in Leavenworth on Nov. 11, 1858, and soon thereafter began teaching in schools associated with local parishes. Under Mother Xavier’s leadership, they responded to calls to serve by opening orphanages, hospitals and schools in Kansas and other states. Mother Xavier, who died in 1895, was known for her pioneer spirit, trust in divine providence, and deep dedication to service and to the members of her community.
In 1979, when the four Catholic schools in Leavenworth consolidated under the name of Xavier, administrator Sister Katherine Franchett, SCL, formed a committee to plan Mother Xavier Awareness Week with activities centered on the Nov. 11 Founders’ Day observed by the SCL community.
Sister Jane believes that every year since has featured an awareness week planned by a committee. She and Sister Elizabeth Skalicky, SCL, have been very involved in recent years.
“The week is an important opportunity to keep the spirit of Mother Xavier alive,” said Sister Jane.
Janelle Hartegan, principal, agreed.
“This is part of the tradition of our school,” she said. “The students learn about the great things accomplished by Mother Xavier and the Sisters and about ways we continue to benefit from their talents and dedication. They also learn about each individual’s call to service and about religious vocations.”
Introduction of new activities
Through the years, Mother Xavier Awareness Week has included a Mass, the telling of Mother Xavier’s story by a Sister portraying the foundress, age-appropriate arts and craft activities illustrating the Sisters’ ministries, and more.
This year’s committee introduced the new project of making “prayer quilts” fashioned from paper. Each student decorated a quilt piece or square with the name of a prayer or a scriptural quotation. Teachers connected the squares with ribbon and incorporated messages to the Sisters including: “Our prayers are sewn together like patches in a quilt. May they always keep your heart warm.”
Another reads: “God’s words will always keep you warm.” The quilts were hung in different locations in the motherhouse and Ross Hall for viewing by the Sisters.
Pairing individual Sisters and students as prayer buddies was another new and popular feature of this year’s awareness week. Initially, Meyer brainstormed with Sister Jane about this concept; Sister Jane suggested the development of actual prayer buddy cards as visual reminders.
Each student received a card with the photo and name of the SCL assigned as his/her prayer buddy, and vice versa, with each Sister given a prayer card displaying her respective student’s photo and name. The prayer buddy initiative will continue through the school year, with teachers allotting designated time for students to pray for their Sisters.
“This seems to touch everyone’s hearts,” said Sister Jane. “For the Sisters who were teachers, it brings back happy memories. It helps the students to have photos to relate to their SCL prayer buddies.”
Hartegan describes this commitment to pray for one another as helping expand the concept of service for the students.
“The students learn that praying for one another is a form of service,” she said.
The prayer buddy project definitely helps nurture connectivity. Meyer reports that kindergartners seemed particularly excited about their Sister photo cards. Some Sisters have already written notes to their prayer partners.
Also as part of Mother Xavier Awareness Week, the teachers produced a video and shared the link with the Sisters. The video intersperses quotes from Mother Xavier read by students and scenes of key events in the foundress’ life depicted by faculty. Capping off the video is a sound bite of students telling the Sisters — and perhaps Mother Xavier — “Thank you, and we love you.”
The week concluded with a Mass to commemorate Mother Xavier and Founders’ Day that was livestreamed to both classrooms and the motherhouse.