There’s a picture of a brown-haired first-grader pinned to a bulletin board in Stephany Nelson’s classroom. It’s not a picture of a former student – it’s Stephany’s first-grade picture from Kendall, Fla.
“I did not have a good experience, I struggled in first grade,” she said. “My picture is to remind myself what it means to be in first grade.”
Stephany just completed her sixth year of teaching first grade at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green, Ky. It was her first year of teaching since she became a postulant with the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph. When the school year began, she thought it might be her last at St. Joseph, because she expected to enter the novitiate at Maple Mount, which would require her to spend her time in study and community with the Ursulines.
Illness in the fall of 2014 prohibited her from attending the classes she needs to complete her master’s degree as a reading specialist. Then in January her mother had two heart attacks and open heart surgery. Stephany knows it will be best to complete the two classes she needs for her master’s before entering the novitiate, so her entrance is more likely next summer.
Jan Lange, principal at St. Joseph, said sometimes she has to tell Stephany, “It’s OK to take a step back and give yourself more time.”
“Selfishly, I was very relieved I get to keep her for the next year,” Lange said. “I’m giving her a leave of absence. Whoever I hire will know it may only be for a year.”
The physical and emotional struggles of the past year have not fazed Stephany’s decision to become an Ursuline Sister. She studies the heritage of the community and the early pioneers with Sister Mary Henning, director of postulants.
“I told Sister Mary, ‘Sometimes I feel like Job,’” Stephany said. “God asks, ‘Are you going to trust me?’ God gives me trials for a reason,” Stephany said.
She is no stranger to trials, but looking back now, she can see how God has led her to the present, she said.
“I had a rough home life from third grade on,” she said. “I can look back now and see the hand of God protecting me. My dad was my parent. My mom was just around. It got better when I moved with my dad, but he made some bad decisions, so when I was 16 I moved in with some friends. At 17, I was on my own.”
She was a kindergarten aide at a Christian school, then earned a church music degree from Florida Baptist Theological College (which is now the Baptist College of Florida).
“I had a relationship with Jesus, but no direction,” she said. “I went for a music evangelization degree in Louisville, but they dropped the program before I got there.”
She got a job at a Family Christian Stores in Louisville, and taught preschool in Indiana two days a week, plus K-6 music one day a week. “I loved what I did, but I didn’t like teaching music,” she said.
Out of her comfort zone in a big city, Stephany eventually moved west to Bowling Green to work in the Family Christians Stores there. She worked part-time at Family Christian Stores and part time at Merry Maids in Bowling Green until she began working full-time at Merry Maids as sales and quality manager.
“I inspected after the girls cleaned and handled complaints,” she said.
Her boss at Merry Maids was going to a koinonia, a type of retreat held at a parish, in this instance Holy Spirit Church in Bowling Green. Though Stephany wasn’t Catholic, she was allowed to come.
“Father Jerry Riney helped me understand what was going on,” Stephany said. She started attending Mass and in 2005 became a Catholic.
“I’ve had so much growth spiritually in the last 10 years,” she said. “I trust what God is doing.