Sr. Brigid Lawlor’s students on the first day of teaching English in Ecuador while on sabbatical.
I am filled with gratitude to Sr. Madeleine Munday and all of the members of our Province Leadership Team for offering me a year-long sabbatical following my years in Congregational Leadership. My sabbatical took on two focuses:
The first inspiration came from our 2015 Congregational Chapter mandate to:
1. rediscover the richness of our founding story in the lives of St. John Eudes and St. Mary Euphrasia and express it in contemporary language, and
2. recognize our inter-connectedness with the whole of creation which obliges us to “protect our common home.” (Laudato Si)
I participated in workshops, read books and went to Springbank Retreat Center in South Carolina for a three month program as a means of addressing the first focus. This is an on-going pursuit that I’ll write more about it in another article some day.
Reconnecting with direct service ministry while on sabbatical
For now, I’ll share my second focus, which was to reconnect with direct service ministry after many years in administration. I sought this out to more fully enhance the dimensions of the first focus.
I began my sabbatical with rest in Ocean City, New Jersey. The first week there I learned that St. Frances Cabrini Parish needed volunteers to teach English as a Second Language. I signed up!
From January to March I became a teacher, a profession to which I never really felt called. I was surprised to learn how many Spanish speaking people live in Ocean City. Most of them live in crowded apartments with many family members and friends.
English in Ocean City, NJ
The program ran on Mondays, with morning and evening sessions. I volunteered for both. The majority of the students were from Mexico. The women were mostly domestic workers; the men worked in construction or in the fields. While not scheduled that way, the women came to the morning classes. Some of the volunteers provided day care so the moms could participate. Men came to evening classes. Most of them were in their 20s or early 30s.
Many of the students were undocumented. Having done immigration work over the years, I understood the concerns of the students and occasionally provided legal assistance. This was not part of the original plan, but it came in handy! Because of their immigration status, I didn’t take any pictures of the students to share with you. I’m sure you understand.
One Monday while teaching during my sabbatical, actually it was President’s birthday weekend, none of the students showed up for the morning session. The week before they had thought it would be a great day for class because their older children would be home from school and could take care of the little ones at home instead of bringing them out in the cold.
The students called us to say why they weren’t coming. Here, news had reached them that the “feds” were coming to the area to look for “illegal” immigrants to deport. However, by the next week they were all back in class.
We used a teaching method called Side-by-Side. A student with less knowledge is paired with a tutor or student with more knowledge. They work together side-by-side.
One of our challenges was that many of the students had dropped out of school and/or were illiterate. They weren’t able to do grammar in their first language, let alone comprehend it in English. Conversation and pictures saved the day!
None of the other instructors or tutors knew Spanish so I became an immediate asset. When blank stares crossed faces, I was able to briefly explain the lesson in Spanish so they could continue well with the class. I spent a very enjoyable three months working with the Ocean City class.
There is a Spanish Mass at the Parish on Sundays so I would often attend the liturgy. Here I’d see my students and meet more of their relatives. This was an opportunity for me to improve my Spanish!
Mentored in Wickatunk
Two trips to Wickatunk, New Jersey, enhanced my sabbatical year of teaching, where Sisters Carol Bearsto and Virginia Daniels mentored me. Sister Carol gave me her resources and reports from the years when she taught English in various countries in Latin America and Spain. This was meaningful to me, as it allowed me to follow in her footsteps. I had made a promise to the Provincials in Spain and Ecuador that I would come and teach English in those countries once I completed my time in leadership.
Sister Virginia Daniels teaches English as a Second Language through a local neighborhood program, which Sisters of the Good Shepherd and the Mercy Sisters sponsor. Sr. Virginia uses the same method that I used in Ocean City. She gave me a lot of tips for practical approaches to teaching, such as how to evaluate the level of a student. She also had copies of the more advanced levels which I didn’t have, along with some other helpful tools.
I’m grateful to both of these Sisters. Their input increased my confidence and gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my New York Province friends in Wickatunk, New Jersey.
English in Spain
I headed to Spain for six weeks in April 2016, where I had a small number of students — five at basic level and one at advanced level. I think we did as much laughing as studying!
The basic class was delightful. Two of the Sisters had previously studied but didn’t have experience with speaking. For those with no experience, the Side-by-Side method was perfect. We met in the mornings and afternoons three days a week. Only English could be spoken at the noon meal. There was a lot of silence and sign language in the beginning.
Laudato Si served as the text for my advanced student Sr. Carmina Fernando. She would read a section and then we would pause to practice pronunciation and to clarify vocabulary. We used reflection questions to practice conversation after each section. It was informative for both of us.
Teaching wasn’t all work; weekends were free. When I wasn’t teaching, we were out visiting museums and palaces. We even had an evening of flamenco dancing. We also took a day trip to Toledo. I made Powerpoint presentations about my trips, which I’m happy to share.
There were also several celebrations, a jubilee and the Feast of St. Mary Euphrasia. Associates joined in both celebrations. I had met the associates on my previous visits to Spain, so we had a nice reunion. My students sang the Our Father in English and also wanted credit for singing the Alleluia! They were very proud of their accomplishment. We had a delightful “graduation” ceremony at the end of the course.
Sr. Carmina and I took a one-day trip to Avila and Segovia. The spirits of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross were very evident. Sr. Armelle Dehennault, who was also on sabbatical, came to Madrid towards the end of my six weeks there.
Spanish in the USA
Knowing that I would be heading to Ecuador where I would have a lot more students, I applied for a scholarship to the Rassias Program at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire. For about the past 12 years I had been receiving their brochure and always wished I could schedule in their program. Finally, sabbatical let it happen!
I wrote an essay on Good Shepherd’s internationality in order to get a scholarship to help with the funding. This program is intensive. It is ten full days of speaking Spanish from morning to evening, including meals, where professors joined us. There are no books. The process includes mostly fast moving drills. Classes were 55 minutes long with a five minute break. There were eight classes a day. Cultural events in the evenings were also in Spanish. Needless to say, my Spanish improved and I learned another teaching method, which I used with the Side-by-Side program when I got to Ecuador.
English in Ecuador
I was in Ecuador from the last week of July to the first week of September while on sabbatical. The classes took place at our Euphrasia College. I lived at the Provincialate which is in walking distance from the school. I had 40 students! Mission Partners, Sisters and Laity studied together.
There were several young mission partners in the group called Friends of St. Mary Euphrasia. These are young women and men who give one year after high school to work in our programs before going on to university. Some were also in vocation discernment. Ages of students ranged from 18 to 82. There were both apostolic and contemplative Sisters in the classes.
Because of the large number of students, I had to do an assessment and divide them up. There were two basic classes, one intermediate class and one advanced class. One thing that both the basic and intermediate classes had in common was mixing up the words kitchen and chicken. I responded appropriately to whichever word they used. A good laugh for all!
There were four Sisters in the advanced class. For this group I used another document by Pope Francis, The Face of Mercy. It was a lovely way to celebrate the Year of Mercy, and it became a tool for very deep sharing as well as learning.
The advanced group liked to “play” on Friday afternoons. I had Godspell with me so we watched it in English with Spanish subtitles.
We played a game called “banana.” It is a little like Scrabble and is good for learning how to spell. I learned the game from the college students at Dartmouth. It was the “in” thing to do in the cafeteria.
I was invited to various communities on weekends by both the contemplative and apostolic novitiates for Latin America, which are located in Ecuador. My students were in these communities. They were proud to show me their communities and ministries. I also enjoyed a visit with Sr. Gema Cadena, former Congregational Leader. I celebrated Ecuador’s Independence Day with the Provincialate community.
We had a pause from class on the Feast of St. John Eudes for a Eucharistic Celebration followed by a fiesta! A Eudist friend of the community said the Mass. Another celebration was the missioning of two Sisters: one to the Philippines and the other to Chiapas, Mexico. I also attended a ceremony of an entrance into the contemplative novitiate. Oh, and then there were the earthquakes! The first one shook things up around midnight. All of a sudden my bed was rocking and I realized what was happening. After it stopped, the Sisters came to my room to see if I was okay. They seemed more “shaken” than I was. I had experienced earthquakes in other countries.
Since we had electricity I suggested that we have a cup of tea and watch the news. One of our convent chapels was being reported on when we turned on the television. The bell tower was hanging off the building and the walls were cracked. Fortunately, everyone was okay. One of my students lived in that community. The second earthquake happened in the middle of the day shortly after lunch and wasn’t as strong as the first one.
We completed the course with a big graduation ceremony that was followed by a pizza party.
It was a joy to be with our Sisters and Mission Partners in this capacity. I witnessed our founding story in them. Their zeal and love for mission was evident in our conversations and as I witnessed them fitting English into their busy lives. Using Laudato Si and The Face of Mercy were tools for the interconnectedness we have with one another and all of creation.
Because I am not a teacher, I know that I “over” prepared but I think it paid off. I learned a lot from my students. I watched them struggle to learn. I also learned that to teach, you have to be an actor. The classes were fun and we laughed a lot, but occasionally there were a few tears and frustrating moments for the very serious students. They motivated me to continue my own study of Spanish.
Needless to say, I was enriched and blessed by the opportunity during my sabbatical year to be with these inspiring English students in Ocean City, Spain and Ecuador. Gracias y adios!