Sister Catherine Schoenecker, 92, grew up in New Prague and has dedicated her career to education, working as a teacher, principal and supervisor. A Benedictine living at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood, she recently celebrated her 70th birthday as a professed Catholic sister.
Q) These Benedictines know how to party! For your jubilee, you renewed your vows on Facebook Live, reunited with friends and family, and received a surprise visit from King Boreas of the Winter Carnival, who knighted you. How are you?
A) I feel good, but I’m ready to get back to normal. I like normal.
Q) What prompted you to enter religious life at 21?
A) I worked with sisters and admired them. They inspired me not only to be a teacher, but to be a religious teacher. I thought I could do more good this way. I was called.
Q) Did people support your decision?
A) The pastor didn’t want me to leave. He said, “You’re still very young,” and I said, “Well, it’s time to go. At the time, they didn’t want to lose the lay teachers, which I was. My brother, my three sisters and my wonderful parents have all been so supportive. I remember my mother telling me, “If it’s not good, you can go home. It would have been kind of a scandal, but I appreciated her telling me that.
Q) You had his full support no matter what. It’s quite special.
A) I think so too.
Q) Was it hard to let go of the prospect of marriage and motherhood?
A) No. I had a boyfriend, and he was killed in a car accident. It was hard for me. It did, however, point me in the right direction.
Q) Has it made room in your heart?
A) It’s true. God led me in the right direction, and I followed as best I could.
Q) Were you allowed to leave the monastery and visit your home?
A) We couldn’t go home for five years. But my family could come twice a year to visit me. There was peace in my heart, but I missed my family. We were very close.
Q) Did the experience of religious life meet your expectations?
A) I think I adapted well. I was already close to the sisters and knew a lot about religious life. It helped. Those early years were good. I went out to teach right after the novitiate. I was going to teach eighth grade, and one of the sisters said, “They should already give you a ring because those kids are going to know you’re very young.
Q) She wanted you to have this outer symbol as a cover. What does the Benedictine virtue of hospitality mean to you?
A) Have a welcoming spirit – whoever comes to the door, whoever you meet. We all work together to make every customer feel welcome. One person does one thing, another does another. Hospitality is part of our life. When I entered the community, hospitality started there. I have always felt welcome. They liked to sit with me at the table so that we could converse together.
Q) You wore a black habit and a scapular over it.
A) It was very hot in the summer, but we got used to it.
Q) What did you like about teaching?
A) My students really liked it when I read to them, so I read part of a story every day. I loved reading sophomores “Ramona the Pest” by Beverly Cleary. I would pretend to be her.
Q) Teaching has kept you young in spirit!
A) I think so. I made different voices for any character I was reading.
Q) Did you come home exhausted?
A) It was a long day!
Q) You have become a director. What helped you become a good leader?
A) Humility, good listening. Be open, always in conversation with the teachers, as much as possible. I tried to lead by example. When I watched a teacher in her room, I would meet her, and I would try to point out all the wonderful things and save the things she needed to improve for last.
Q) Then you became supervisor of 17 Catholic primary schools in the Twin Cities. Was this mission daunting?
A) You could gently say no if you thought you weren’t qualified or didn’t have the strength or courage. But you were always made to feel like you could do it. If they trusted you so much, there must be a reason.
Q) You had an overview of all these schools.
A) I learned so much by observing other teachers. I was helpful to them, but mostly I learned from them.
Q) You seem to have an innate interest in people.
A) It was part of me. I like to attract people and make them talk about themselves.
Q) This reminds me of a quote: It is better to be interested than interesting.
A) I like this.
Q) What are your hobbies?
I liked to collect things. I collected letter openers. I had gotten one at the Colorado Military Academy, then expanded my collection. One Christmas at my sister’s, I pulled them all out and said, “Now you can all pick one.” I was able to get rid of my collection. I no longer needed it. They all picked the one they liked, and I felt good about it.
Q) Do you have a favorite prayer?
A) Psalm 100 is one of my favorites. [Serve the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song. Know that the Lord is God, he made us, we belong to him.] I try to say it once a day.
We pray the Liturgy of the Hours three times a day. We never change the time, so you know it’s eight o’clock in the morning, you go to prayer, and at 11:30 and five o’clock. It’s just an automatic thing. I would really miss it.
Q) What is the secret of a long life?
A) Routine in our community. The food we have is always healthy. These things make a difference. Prayer, community. My parents gave us our faith, a good family life and a good education. I thank them every day. My mother lived to be 95. No one can replace your mother. Nobody can.
Q) Do you think of being reunited with her in heaven?
A) Oh yes, I know that. I look forward to that day. Whenever the Lord calls me, I will be ready. We don’t know when it will be. Luckily we don’t know. We don’t need to know.
Q) Did life slow down when you retired?
A) I was supposed to be retired, but I don’t think I am. I am still in charge of the household. Other than that, I stay busy. I don’t like getting up in the morning, but I do. I like to sleep late. I should — we can do it if we want — but I guess the guilt would get to me. I thought, “Oh, they’re over there praying, they need me.”
Q) Did your idea come true that you were able to do more good as a sister?
A) I think so. I really felt that.
Q) What do you know for sure?
A) I am blessed. Just being able to be up and around. There are so many people who have to use walkers. I look at them and I think, “I’m lucky to have good feet and good legs. I try to be grateful for everything I have because I know I have more than I deserve. I try to thank God every morning when I wake up. “Thanks for another day.” For all he gave me, what can I give back?
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