Sister Mary Celine Weidenbenner, OSU: Joyful and creative

Sister Mary Celine stands in the hallway at Mary Carrico Memorial School, which was decorated for Lent.

I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” John, 15:11

The first noticeable trait of Ursuline Sister Mary Celine Weidenbenner is how easily she smiles.

“People will say to me, ‘What are you so happy about?’” she said. “Being joyful just comes naturally to me.”

Add in her inherent creativity, which she uses in both her craft work and in her classroom, and it’s no wonder people describe Sister Mary Celine as a joy to have around.

“I’ve been involved in schooling for 48 years, two-thirds of that as a principal, and she is truly exceptional as a teacher,” said Mike Clark, the principal at Mary Carrico Memorial School in Knottsville, Ky., where Sister Mary Celine has taught since fall 2007. “She has an incredible energy, and a passion for teaching and the students’ learning.”

Clark calls Sister Mary Celine “a powerful presence in the school and in the community” of St. William and St. Lawrence parishes. “The students are very fond of her and very responsive to her,” he said. “We’re very blessed by her presence.”

Within the first few minutes of her fifth-grade social studies class, it’s apparent there will be no boring recitation of facts. After a brief discussion of the Revolutionary War, Sister Mary Celine announces it’s time to shoot hoops. A plastic basketball goal, about 6 or 7 feet high, is set up and students on competing teams line up for a couple of shots with a small basketball. If they miss, their teammates tell them it’s OK. This is part of Learnball.

Learnball is an international classroom management program to improve student attendance, discipline, and schoolwork. “It involves consensus decision-making techniques and win-win point scoring—to create a novel learning environment,” according to its Web site. Sister Mary Celine began using Learnball in all her classes after taking a sabbatical in 1989.

“All the kids love it, they love shooting hoops,” she said.

Sister Mary Celine gathers in the gym with her fifth-grade Learnball winners of the week. The winning team got an ice cream treat.

She teaches social studies to fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, with no more than 11 students in a class. She teaches combined religion courses, with no more than 19 students, and also teaches art and square dancing. She had some students display their square dancing talents at the Mount last year.

“I learned from the old 78s from Sister Ruth Helen Flaherty at the Mount,” Sister Mary Celine says, as she pulls one of the 78-rpm records from a cabinet in her classroom. “The student council got me a new record player. Now we’re doing some line dancing.”

Any way she can be creative in the classroom, she’ll try. There are only 85 students in Mary Carrico, which appeals to Sister Mary Celine.

“It’s not so big I can’t do creative activities,” she said. “In lower grades, I did plays. In the third and fourth grades, I was bogged down in content. Now I can do content and let the children express it in their own way,” she said.

She has quick praise for the supportive staff at the school, which struggles each year to find the money to continue.

“I think she’s wonderful,” said Tamara Fulkerson, a teacher’s aide and a substitute teacher at Mary Carrico. She said the school is fortunate to have Sister Mary Celine.

“She’s somebody from a different vocation, and we get a different perspective,” Fulkerson said. “She’s so full of energy. Teaching these students is her No. 1 priority.

“It’s very important for our kids to see that, they don’t know what vowed life is,” Fulkerson said. “We’re struggling with having enough priests and sisters, they need to see their life.”

Students at Mary Carrico come in ready to learn, and seem to have a sense that they need to do their best to keep the school open, Sister Mary Celine said.