Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - On Sunday, May 18, students, parents, parishioners, and alumni of North American Martyrs School in Lincoln will gather for a fond farewell as Sister Patricia Heirigs, O.S.B., retires.
Sister Pat was the founding principal when the school opened in 1996. But her story as a teacher and a principal starts back in her hometown, Yankton, S.D.
“I wanted to be a teacher when I was in the third grade,” Sister Pat remembered. “I didn’t always know about the convent.”
Sister Pat attended the all-girl Mount Marty High School in Yankton, and was taught by local Benedictine Sisters. Sometimes, her piano teacher would talk to her about becoming a Sister.
“I told her, I’m not going to go to the convent, I’m going to stay home and help my dad on the farm,” Sister Pat recalled. “So she stopped bugging me for quite a while.”
The seed was planted, however. Despite moving ahead with her plans to graduate, going to dances and parties with her friends and so on, she felt that there was something missing.
As Sister Pat put it, “There was always that little ache that your life wasn’t quite fulfilled.”
She added, “It was God working, of course!”
Upon becoming a Benedictine, Sister Pat had two choices: nursing or teaching.
“…And that’s how I became a teacher,” she laughed. “I’ve taught and been a principal for 59 years.”
Sister Pat’s first assignment was in Sioux Falls, S.D. The school was so new, her classroom wasn’t even finished yet, She spent the first six weeks teaching second grade in the parish hall, with cardboard boxes serving as dividing walls. After a few years, she was transferred to Saint Paul, Neb.
“I taught there first, then I became principal there,” Sister Pat recalled. “Back in those days, you were a teaching principal.”
She worked at several different schools in Nebraska before Saint Mary Parish in Lincoln was divided in two, and she was named principal of the new North American Martyrs School.
Sister Pat said it’s been a joy to work in the Diocese of Lincoln, where there has been so much solid support for Catholic education.
“Our tuition is so reasonable. That shows the emphasis our bishops have put on catholic education. They want to make it so affordable that every child who wants to go to Catholic school can afford it,” she said.
Of course things have changed since her first teaching position, with its small chalkboard on wheels.
“Now we have Smart Boards and iPads… Every classroom has a TV, the teachers all have laptops, modernized computer labs,” she said.
Like many parishes in the diocese, North American Martyrs School was built first, and the gym was used for daily and weekend Masses. It would be eight-and-a-half years before the church was built at North American Martyrs.
Sister Pat served on the building committee, working with parishioners to ensure that the church would be a beautiful place to worship Christ while answering the needs of the many families in the parish and school.
“I guess I’ve had my hands in a great many things,” she laughed. “It’s going to be hard to leave.”
In the meantime, North American Martyrs School outgrew its facilities.
“We’ve had 28, 29, 30 students in a classroom,” Sister Pat said. “We are very, very crowded.”
Eight years ago, an addition was added on to the school, including a big computer lab. Still, Sister Pat has had to be creative to make room for the numerous families who want their children to attend their parish school.
The library has been moved into the parish hall. A supply closet has been converted into tutoring space. Special testing is staged in the locker rooms.
“We are the largest (elementary) school in the whole Lincoln Diocese,” said Sister Pat. “We have three kindergartens, two of every other grade, and four preschools.”
And, she added, “We have a waiting list.”
She commends the teaching staff, four of whom have been at the school as long as Sister Pat has.
“We have very dedicated teachers here,” she said. “The average 13 years.”
She’s not quite sure what she will be doing once she returns to the motherhouse in Yankton.
“I’ll probably help at the college,” she said.
But nothing could top her years at North American Martyrs.
“The children – they’re what make everything worthwhile,” she said “I’ll miss them the most.”
Sister Pat’s hope and prayer is that the school will continue to be successful.
“My ultimate wish would be that they could build on and have three classrooms in every grade,” she said.
Sister Pat will also greet people at Masses on Saturday, May 17 and Sunday, May 18. Refreshments will be served.