Sister Marie Bosco Wathen has always made learning fun

Sister Marie Bosco Wathen keeps this small statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in her room at Saint Joseph Villa. Her devotion to the Sacred Heart began with her 10th-grade teacher, Sister Jean Mark Buckler.

(This article was written in 2012. Sister Marie Bosco continues to assist the Ursuline Sisters in Saint Joseph Villa and is active in the Powerhouse of Prayer.)

When Sister Marie Bosco Wathen was 6 years old, her paternal grandmother died of a heart attack. A month later, her mother died of pneumonia at 46 years old. Three years later, one of her sisters died of tuberculosis.

“All of that made life difficult,” she said. “I loved school, I would come home and have the attention of my mother, she would go over my lessons with me. After she died, I lost interest.”

That changed when she began her sophomore year at St. Charles High School in Marion County, Ky.

“That’s when Sister Jean Mark came into my life,” she said. Sister Jean Mark Buckler was a classmate of Sister Marie Bosco’s older sister, Sister George Marie Wathen, and knew of Sister Marie Bosco’s struggles.

“Sister Jean Mark was so kind to me. She made me understand the importance of learning,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “When I got to the 10th grade, I realized how much I had lost in those years.”

When Sister Marie Bosco became a teacher years later, she used that experience to make sure the students she taught never missed a chance to learn.

“I could never teach the same thing the same way,” she said. “Every class, every student is different. I tried to design the lesson plans to meet the needs of the students.”

Sister Marie Bosco will celebrate 70 years as an Ursuline Sister in 2013. She spent 28 years as an elementary school teacher, and another 23 years as a professor of education at Brescia College (now University.)

“I liked teaching first grade and college the most,” she said. “First-graders are so innocent in what they say. College students are afraid you’ll hear what they say.”

It’s an impressive career for a woman who never wanted to be a teacher.

A child of Little St. Joe

She was born Margaret Cecilia Wathen in the little central Kentucky town of Finley, but she claimed St. Joseph as her hometown because that’s where she went to school and church. Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph taught at St. Joseph School, so to avoid confusion they started calling the Marion County town “Little St. Joe,” Sister Marie Bosco said.

She was the youngest of nine children, two boys and seven girls, and grew up on a 180-acre farm. The first Ursuline Sister she knew was her sister, but she was only 3 when Sister George Marie joined the Ursulines at age 18.

“She called me her baby sister until I was 65,” Sister Marie Bosco said. Sister George Marie died in 2003.

She had three Ursuline Sisters as teachers in grade school and five more in high school, but her thoughts about religious life didn’t begin with wanting to become a sister.

“The Resurrectionist Fathers from St. Mary College took care of the parish,” she said. “The seminarians from St. Mary would come over sometimes to have a picnic. They seemed so happy, I thought they were very holy. My first vocation was to become a priest.”

As she got older, she didn’t change her mind. “Women were limited in what they could do then – you could get married, become a teacher or a nurse,” she said. “I didn’t want to get married or teach or be a nurse. I still wanted to be a priest. I prayed to God to change the Church, but instead, God changed me.”

Sister Marie Bosco when she wore the habit in the late 1950s.

She decided during her senior year of high school that she wanted to join the Ursuline Sisters. She was the only child left at home and decided to tell her father by writing him a note.

“The next day he said he thought it was great that I go to the convent,” she said. “Then he asked ‘What do you think about me getting married?’ He got remarried during my second semester of my senior year of high school.”

She entered the convent after graduating from high school. When her father took her to the train, all he asked her was, “Do they have some place you can go to cry when you get homesick?” Sister Marie Bosco said. “I never got homesick and I never wanted to leave.”

By the time she arrived, she found Sister Jean Mark was looking out for her again. “When I got to the Mount, she had all my underclothes and skirts made for me,” Sister Marie Bosco said.

She was one of nine women who entered in 1943, and three of her classmates remain – Sisters Annalita Lancaster, Emma Cecilia Busam and Naomi Aull.

When it came time to select a religious name, Margaret Wathen wanted to honor Saint John Bosco, the Italian priest who dedicated his life to helping street children and other disadvantaged youths.

“I was so taken with his caring and understanding of boys who were in trouble,” Sister Marie Bosco said. The name has produced its share of laughs over the years from students.

“When I was teaching at Brescia, I had a large class in educational psychology. I knew most of them hadn’t heard of John Bosco,” she said. “In the stores at the time was Bosco chocolate and Bosco dog food. I told the class, ‘The name Bosco doesn’t come from chocolate or dog food, it comes from a John.’ They all laughed and it dawned on me what I’d said.”

A teacher is born

Her first mission was as a second-grade teacher at St. Catherine School in New Haven, Ky. “There was something about those children, I felt I could help them understand things I didn’t know as a child,” she said. “I fell in love with seeing their faces light up when they caught onto a concept. It just kept growing on me. The more I taught, the more I loved it.”

One of the second-grade students she taught during her eight years there was Sister Margaret Marie Greenwell.

“I found out later this was her first year of teaching,” Sister Margaret Marie said. “Sister Marie Bosco was an excellent teacher. She was a very kind and gentle person — always interested in each of her students. I felt I had a very good foundation under her guidance and leadership.”

Sister Marie Bosco taught elementary school from 1945-1973 in New Haven, Louisville and Owensboro, Ky., and Affton, Mo., with one year as principal in Affton, 1973-74.

“I tried to motivate the students, to be innovative,” she said. “At Immaculate (in Owensboro), I’m sure people thought I was crazy. I had a big case for supplies, I turned it around so the back faced the students. They could paint their papers and then stick them to the back,” she said. “I went out and got old typewriters, only some of them worked, but I used them to help them learn the alphabet and with their finger dexterity.”

Because Sister Marie Bosco was sent to teach before completing her bachelor’s degree, she worked for 20 years to earn her degree in history by taking one class every summer, finally completing it in 1965. She was instructed to get her master’s degree in elementary education and administration, which she received in 1969.

Sister Marie Bosco, second from left, with some of her education students at Brescia College. She taught at Brescia from 1974-97.

That summer, she taught an introduction to education class at Brescia. After teaching first graders, she was intimidated by teaching adult students, some of whom had more education than she.

“I was scared to death they would ask me questions that I couldn’t answer,” she said. “I decided then I would never teach at Brescia.”

But in 1974, an education professor left and Sister Marie Bosco was asked to take her place. “My first year, I was teaching away and suddenly I felt faint, I guess because of the stress,” she said. “I excused myself to lie down. I thought to myself, ‘Should I go resign right now or go back to the classroom?’ I went back, because I didn’t want to give up teaching.”

She soon got acclimated to teaching in college, and earned a second masters in psychology. Four students she taught as first-graders at Immaculate School in Owensboro she later taught at Brescia. “They all remembered me,” she said.

“It was such a joy when you could see they were really making progress,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “Over the years I fell in love with not preaching, but teaching. I knew I was doing the will of God.”

She has no idea how many future teachers she guided, but she taught four classes a semester – education psychology, developmental psychology, secondary school methods and science and math methods. There were typically 35-40 students in her psychology classes, 20-25 in her methods classes.

“I didn’t teach methods from the book,” she said. “Because of the experiences I had, I helped them apply what they were reading about.”

One of her students and future colleagues at Brescia was Sister Sharon Sullivan, now congregational leader of the Ursuline Sisters. She remembers the third floor hallways erupting in laughter from Sister Marie Bosco’s classroom.

“Students would respond to her exponentially,” Sister Sharon said. “She would really engage her students.”

“We had a lot of fun,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “If you make education fun, students are going to learn.”

She didn’t want to stop teaching, but with her hearing failing, she decided it wasn’t fair to the students. In 1997, she began working in institutional research at Brescia, assisting Sister Nancy Murphy in gathering statistics on students and fielding requests from the faculty.

In 1996, Sister Marie Bosco and her friend Sister Marita Greenwell, who was still with the Contemporary Woman Program at Brescia, were asked by Sister Mary Matthias Ward, then the community’s superior, to become co-directors of the Ursuline Associate program.

“Marita can’t talk, and I can’t hear, and neither of us can remember anything,” Sister Marie Bosco told the superior. “Sounds like a pretty good team to me,” Sister Mary Matthias responded, and the two ran the program for the next six years, with help from Sister Elaine Burke the first two years.

“Every weekend we worked on associate material,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “We revised the manual, did the newsletter, visited associates. We sent birthday cards to every associate, about 300.”

A friend for life

In later years, it was rare to ever see Sister Marie Bosco without Sister Marita. Their friendship began in the late 1950s, when they both taught at Seven Holy Founders School in Affton, Mo. With Sister Marie Bosco flustered by trying to teach the Ward method of music, Sister Marita offered to teach her music classes.

Sister Marie Bosco, center, is pictured in 2005 with her friends, the late Sister Marita Greenwell, right, and Sister Rita Klarer, left.

The friendship became even stronger in the summer of 1974. Sister Marita had started working with the Contemporary Woman Program at Brescia the year before, and was driving 90 minutes each weekend to visit her ailing parents. One day she was in tears, telling Sister Marie Bosco she didn’t know if she could keep it up. “I said I’d help her,” Sister Marie Bosco said.

Sister Marita’s father died the next year, but the two of them helped care for her mother for eight years until her death. Sister Marita’s sister and her husband showed their appreciation by taking the two on vacations for nine summers.

“We went through 47 states and most of the provinces of Canada,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “We usually went on a tour bus. We had a lot of fun.”

She had great admiration for Sister Marita. “I realized I had lost out on a lot of the life of a woman. Her interest in advancing women in our society was of great interest and concern to me,” she said.

In return, Sister Marie Bosco used her mechanical mind to help Sister Marita with anything that she needed fixed. “Everything I had, I took apart and put back together,” she said.

In 2005, the two moved to the Mount, and shortly after, Sister Marita fell and did extensive damage to her shoulder. Every night Sister Marie Bosco would put a brace on her, and each morning she would come over to take it off. She took her to therapy and did exercises with her. Another fall damaged Sister Marita’s hip, causing her to stay in bed for seven weeks. Sister Marie Bosco worked up a schedule to be with her as much as possible.

On June 21, 2011, Sister Marita died a peaceful death. “I still talk to her, sometimes I think she answers me back through my imagination,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “When I lose something, I ask Marita to find it for me, and then I can find it.”

When she thinks of Sister Marita, she thinks of her deep spirituality. “She was years before her time. She helped me so very much,” Sister Marie Bosco said. “I look at her picture every night and laugh. She keeps me laughing.”

Blessed to be a sister

Sister Marie Bosco volunteers her time in the community archives shredding documents. She loves sports and watches University of Kentucky and Louisville basketball games.

She moved to Saint Joseph Villa, the extended care facility, on June 21 this year, the anniversary of Sister Marita’s death. “I chose that day so I’d only have to remember one date,” she said.

“I’m happy I made the choice to be an Ursuline Sister,” she said. “I have time to pray, time to discuss different topics — and time to have fun.”

By Dan Heckel


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