Sister Martina Rockers: Still bringing teaching to life after 65 years

“The kids I taught in the sixth grade at St. Agnes Grade School were the first freshman class at Bishop Miege,” Sister Martina said. Among those students was future Ursuline Sister Kathleen Dueber, who now serves on the leadership Council at Maple Mount.

“She was certainly one of the reasons I became an Ursuline,” Sister Kathleen said. “When I moved to St. Agnes, it was such a shock to me to see sisters who enjoyed what they were doing, liked the students, and liked each other.”

Sister Martina taught Sister Kathleen biology I. “She was always full of life. Her enthusiasm was infectious,” Sister Kathleen said. “She made the subject matter come alive for you. She was one of the sisters who came to basketball and football games. She is genuinely interested in the whole kid, not just the student sitting before her.”

The two lived together when Sister Kathleen later taught at St. Agnes Grade School. “I have appreciated her so much over the years,” Sister Kathleen said. “I’m sure she has her down days, but she always seems upbeat.”

From 1956-59, Sister Martina began taking courses paid for through grants from the National Science Foundation. Then in the summers from 1959-65, she earned a master’s degree in biology teaching from the University of Notre Dame. For at least 15 more summers, National Science Foundation grants in chemistry, physics, and biology kept her aware of progress in biological and physical sciences.

“From the time I was a little kid, I was curious about everything in nature,” she said. “My way to relax is still to walk in the woods or botanical gardens. I love science so much, I want to pass it on to others,” she said. “There is something about seeing the light in their eyes, the questions they ask.”

Sister Martina stands next to this wooden statue of Saint Angela Merici in one of the Bishop Miege hallways. This statue is a smaller version of the one that stood in the Paola Motherhouse rotunda, and which now greets visitors in the chapel at Maple Mount.

Sister Martina believes the attitude of the teacher plays an important role in early high school science classes. “When I taught biology, the enthusiasm the teacher has gets passed on to the students,” she said. “Some would say, ‘I’m never going to dissect.’ I’d tell them, ‘There’s an art to dissecting.’ One of the kids told me once, ‘You’re like a doctor.’”

Teaching science for so long has allowed Sister Martina to witness much progress. “When I first started teaching, we knew there was DNA, but its molecular make-up was real hazy,” she said. The first article about the double helix structure of DNA came out in 1953. “After summer school in 1959, all of my biology students were in teams making DNA modules, even though high school textbooks contained very little information about DNA.”

Sister Martina’s only other ministry as an Ursuline was her tenure as a councilor on the community’s leadership team from 1978-82.

Living faith

Sister Martina has been through all the additions and renovations of Bishop Miege, and has seen an evolution in the students, who seem to have more outside pressures today. “I always tell the kids, ‘Do the thing that makes you happy. You’ll pass joy and encouragement onto others.’” she said.

Sister Martina was one of the people who pressed the school administration to honor students who excelled academically, and not just athletically.

As she was starting her 19th year at Bishop Miege in 1977, her mother died at age 81. “My mother stayed on the farm until my younger sisters were out of high school and the boys were married,” Sister Martina said. “She moved from one family to the next when a new grandchild arrived, to help the family. When her older brother was ill, she took care of him.

“Mother taught me a lot of patience and acceptance of what comes in your life,” Sister Martina said. “She taught me to face hardship with faith and God will help you through it. She buried her husband, three children, and two grandsons, yet even with these hardships, she kept a positive attitude. She was always there to help. If she saw a need, she would go.”

Perhaps her mother’s example is what spurs Sister Martina’s ministry outside the classroom. Each year, she takes part in mission trips, usually with students. For a couple of summers she went to Appalachia as a Catholic presence in Morgantown, W. Va., with other volunteers to work with Franciscan friars. Volunteers visited the elderly, helped with housework and gardening, and tutored at the day care center.