Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - At the annual diocesan Teacher Honor Banquet Oct. 9, Sister Loretta Happe, M.S., was recognized for 50 years of service to Catholic schools.
The banquet recognizes teachers from around the diocese for their years of service on milestone anniversaries. Teachers are invited on their service anniversaries in five-year increments up to 35 years, and then annually thereafter.
Born in Carroll, Iowa, Sister Loretta graduated from Kemper Catholic High School and then enrolled in Omaha’s College of St. Mary to study education. To her, the vocation to teach and the vocation to the religious life were closely entwined.
“I had a Sister for a teacher every grade in grade school and high school,” Sister Loretta recounted. “And I had a great-aunt who was a Franciscan.”
She remembered that when she was growing up, this great-aunt— Mother Rosemae Pender, co-founder of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist—would always ask if she wanted to be a sister.
“I would say, ‘No, I want to get married.’
At the College of St. Mary, Sister Loretta met the Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln. Soon, she realized that she was called to be a bride of Christ – just not with her great-aunt’s order.
“When I told her I had met the Marians, she said, ‘From what I know of you and what you’ve told me, I think that’s where the Lord is calling you.’ That was a real blessing,” Sister Loretta said.
Always an inspiration to Sister Loretta, Mother Rosemae recently died during the celebration Mass for her 75th Jubilee. Though she was 94 years old, she had continued to teach, tutoring students in French.
Sister Loretta has the same heart for teaching. She laughed when she pointed out she’s actually been teaching for 51 years, not 50. Her first year was spent as a catechist working out of Holdrege.
“We traveled to 12 different parishes after schools and evenings and all day Saturdays to teach CCD,” she explained. Alas, that year, though fruitful, isn’t reckoned with the years of service to diocesan schools.
The next year was her first at Villa Marie School for Exceptional Children, where she still teaches. Villa Marie, which opened in 1964, serves both commuter and resident students with special needs in a school building next to the Marians’ Marycrest Motherhouse near Waverly.
“I had tutored some special-needs students in my hometown for First Holy Communion, so I had a little bit of experience,” she said.
Over the next two summers, she attended classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to get her endorsement in special education.
Sister Loretta has spent nearly half her teaching years at Villa Marie in three different stints, one as principal. In between, she taught third and second grades at St. Mary and St. John the Apostle schools in Lincoln, later becoming a resource teacher for St. John and for St. Wenceslaus School in Wahoo.
As a resource teacher, Sister Loretta would help students who had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) due to various kinds of learning disabilities, as well as other students who didn’t qualify for IEPs but still struggled in some area, such as reading, math or writing.
“I loved every place I went, and I loved working with kids, especially kids who struggle,” she said.
Like other teachers who have had the joy of working at Villa Marie, Sister Loretta says the students teach her as much as she teaches them. Like the student who would proclaim, “Here comes Jesus!” every time one of the visiting priests who celebrate Mass at Villa Marie would take the chalice out of the tabernacle.
Or the many students who have found success in the workplace, succeeding at the same job for decades.
It wasn’t long ago that Sister Loretta telephoned the mother of one of her former students.
“His mother says that Villa Marie was the best part of his life,” Sister Loretta says.
She loves being part of something that makes such a huge difference for so many young people.
“It’s just a joy,” Sister Loretta said. “Educational-wise just to see them make progress and believe they can read and see that confidence to keep moving forward. And all those other things, like having friends for the first time, too.”
Being recognized at the Teacher Honor Banquet was another joy.
“It was nice to see the teachers that I taught with over the years,” she said.
She has no plans to stop teaching.
“As long as you have the health to keep going,” she said. “Even if you do retire, there are always things to do at the motherhouse.”
That reminded her of something one of her Villa Marie students once said. Peering out a classroom window, the child saw some of the other Marian Sisters strolling the grounds.
“There goes the motherhouse kids out for a walk,” the student had said. Sister Loretta still chuckles at the memory of it.
“They are really close to God, these children,” she said. “They are just beautiful to work with.”