When did you come to the Rock County area?
I first came to Rock County as a visitor when my parents had relocated from a small town in Dane County. My father was about to retire and my mother was the first Special Education teacher in a one-room school house out on Ruger Avenue (now Janesville Community Day Care). At that time, it was outside the city limits, so was not part of the Janesville School District.
She had been interviewed by some very forward-thinking school administrators in that rural district who saw the need for Special Education and wanted to get it started. It expanded quite rapidly so that by the time she neared the end of her career, she was just one of many Special Ed teachers in the Janesville public school system.
Tell me about your family:
My ancestors were from Ireland on both sides. On my maternal side, my maternal great-grandfather came over first and managed to save enough money to buy some land to become the family farm. This is over in the Lancaster area in Grant County. He was here for about a year and then sent for my grandmother on a boat, and told her not to come during a certain time of year when the storms were bad. But she came over on a ship with 3 older children and she brought all of her & her children’s belongings all wrapped up.
Then the ship got blown off course and, probably due to contaminated drinking water, the youngest girl, a baby, lost her eyesight. They soon discovered that she couldn’t see. The ship’s captain told my grandmother that she would be turned back if the customs people found out. This was before Ellis Island. They just came into the dock. But, they wouldn’t let anyone with a disability, like blindness, into the country.
He advised her to keep the children awake and then about less than a half a day away from landing, let them sleep. So she did, and when they docked in New York, the captain said to the customs agent, “Do what you want, but those kids over there cried the whole time, so if I were you, I wouldn’t wake them up!” And they made it through.
The family lived up on the farm here and the children went to a one room school. But, it was hard for the blind girl because it was a long walk from the farm, and the other children would get distracted and not be mindful of her or help her as much as she needed. They had heard about “The Blind School” (Wisconsin School for the Blind and Visually Impaired) here in Janesville. They paid the bills, packed her trunk and got her enrolled.
They needed her father to leave $5 for spending money. But when he dropped her off, he only had enough for his train ride home. So, he left his money with her and walked across lots over farmland in Rock County, all the way back, sometimes staying with kind farmers and getting a hand out. I have thought of that so often, of his sacrifice and his stamina.
My father had been a cheese maker and our mother was a teacher. She moved to where my father worked once they were married. I was born near the end of the depression in 1934 in the back bedroom of my parents’ cheese factory in Iowa. In those days, there was a small cheese factory every few miles.
I had a very interesting life, chasing the chickens with my brother who was 14 months younger than I. My mother didn’t teach during the time we were small children. It wasn’t really acceptable at that time for my mother to be teaching. Married women were expected to stay home and take care of their families. And there were plenty of single women who were teachers at that time. That’s just the way it was.
Where did you go to school?
There was a one-room school house next to the cheese factory where I attended first grade. There was no other first grader there. I loved it, I have such fond memories. I remember sitting there listening to all those neighborhood kids who were older than I, listening them recite their lessons. They would have social studies for a couple of days, and then maybe math. It was based on their abilities.
Since I was the only first grader, I had school only in the mornings, soaked up all that was going on, and then would go home for lunch right across the garden. Then I was home in the afternoon. Well, that all came to an end because another first grader enrolled, so now there were two of us so we went to school all day.
Things were changing, mechanization was coming in. As far as my father’s cheese factory was concerned, transportation helped send bulk milk, like Pet Milk out. There was an opportunity for my father in Darlington at the bigger cheese factory there, so we relocated to the cheese factory there. By this time, WWII was in full force, so things had become scarce. We couldn’t get green tea, I remember that. My heritage was Irish, and my ancestors from the time they left Ireland, had always drank green tea.
But we adapted to not having things. Sugar, meat and all kinds of things were rationed. We lived and worked around that. It made a great impression on me. Our family conversations centered on what we could afford, what was available, maybe we could have cake with this meal if there was enough sugar, etc.
While we were in Darlington for that one year, for second grade I went to Holy Rosary Catholic School where I learned to read. I was in a class of 25 or 30 of us with a marvelous teacher. I loved it. Not only did I learn how to read, but I learned to love library books! That was great! My father loved his cheese factory management job, but there weren’t enough young men around to help as the war was still going on. Even middle aged men had gone to war.
My father had flat feet which disqualified him for the draft. So, there was too much work for him to do so he was working 12, 14 or 15 hours a day. So, he decided that he would give up cheese making, switched jobs and went to work for Pet Milk, who made condensed milk. The Pet Milk plants were all around southern Wisconsin.
So we moved to Belleville where he worked at the Pet Milk factory. It was the first time we lived “in town” and I liked living there. We had running water, we didn’t have to go to the spring house or pump water. We had both hot and cold! I got ahead in school back in Darlington, but that eventually leveled out. I went through 7th grade there in Belleville. My mother’s fondest wish was realized because just as she did, my brother and I were able to go to Edgewood Boarding School. By that time, the war ended and the G.I. Bill helped a lot of young men come to Madison for college, so we had a lot of rides to catch to and from.
I got a summer job in Madison, and I loved the social life at night. At that time, I decided to go to college. So, I enrolled in Edgewood College to study my generals.
Last year you celebrated your 60th Anniversary in your profession. How were you inspired to become a nun?
Actually, as a grade school child in Belleville, the nuns had a bus for us to take down every Saturday morning to learn catechism. The seed was planted.
I came from a very pious Catholic family. We lived a block from the church in Belleville and it was expected that we’d go to mass. So, my brother and I would go to mass, run home and eat breakfast, and then go to school. We’d go as often as we could. It was also expected that we would go to confession every Saturday, which I usually did.
I was very aware of faith and religion and the part it played in life. I had thought that if I was told I could be a sister, that that would be okay, but I was never quite sure. You have to live and experience life at all stages of development as a child and a young adult. Otherwise you miss out on some things. I was twenty at that time, and I enjoyed my social life.
But, I had known the nuns at Edgewood, and at the end of my first year of college, I had decided to go to the convent. I missed my social life when I went to the convent, but I knew that God was calling me. And I stayed. And I got better at it.
I have never, ever, ever regretted my choice! For me, it was the only choice. It was the most satisfying choice. I grew into it and felt fulfilled. And I’m very grateful.
Tell me about your career and work life.
I went to Milwaukee first, where I was at three convents and four different schools, all of them very different. As a result, I loved Milwaukee. It was such a diverse place!
Then I went to Chicago in the original, historic Old Town neighborhood. That was very enlightening, because I had come from a small town where we didn’t have any African Americans. Everyone was basically white and Catholic. So, I enjoyed the diversity. I learned from it.
Then I worked in Madison. I was also in Nebraska, but didn’t care for that. On Sunday afternoons it was so dead in this little town that tumbleweeds would just roll down the side streets! I have worked in many places and would go wherever my community would send me.
How did you end up in Janesville?
I was in Wauwatosa, kind of winding down my teaching career in Milwaukee. I was teaching reading exclusively. Because it was a very poor school, I ended up teaching an 8th grade reading class and running the library. My mother, who had been a widow for many years and was retired, was feeling the pinch of old age while living here in Janesville. She had lived here many years and she loved it. I told her I would take a couple of year’s hiatus and would stay with her. But, her health continued to decline, so I never left and made my home here in 1992.
I kept seeing this advertisement in the St. Mary’s bulletin for a position at St. John Vianney. It kept showing up and was afraid that there was something wrong with this job since no one had taken it. At that time, I knew the principal and she said, “Why don’t you come and help out Mrs. Buggs?” So I did that, and meanwhile, I also answered the ad for St. John Vianney, and interviewed with Father Mike Doro. The job didn’t sound too bad; visiting the sick, visiting the hospital, jail ministry and such.
He hired me on the spot! I asked him, “Why did it take so long for you to fill this spot?” He said, “You were the only one who could afford to take it. The other sisters who didn’t have a home already couldn’t afford the meager salary.” Since I was living at home with my mother, it worked out and I continued from there. The salary hasn’t gotten much better, however it has been rewarding along the way. I hope I have done some good there.
Around that time Mercy was enlarging their hospice care and making it more formal with a director. She happened to be a pastor and happened to invite me to a meeting. It was with Neil Dupree, Pastor Jim Johnson, a sister from Edgerton, one from St. Mary’s and me. She explained that she wanted us to use our previous training to visit hospice patients. It morphed into Agrace Hospice and I became what they called an On Call Agrace Chaplain. I absolutely loved it!
Now, you can’t be a chaplain unless you are qualified and certified. I had the background, but did not have the qualifications on paper. Anyway, we worked when the qualified staff was off, on weekends and when calls would come in. We gathered around the deceased and prayed with the families. It was a wonderful experience and has enriched me in ways I never thought possible. It’s a vocation in itself.
What are some of the religious life changes you’ve seen in the last few decades here in Rock County?
Working from the present backwards… When I first came here, there were more sisters in town working at the Catholic schools and in Beloit and the area. That’s not the case anymore. The sisters who are living here now, many of them are in retirement.
We’re going through the change from active ministry into retirement. I’m not there yet, but heading that way. I think over a lifetime from when I entered the convent; I had two years of formal training, which is still the case for sisters. I had started my degree, but I was out teaching right away and studied summers, weekends, spent a lot of spare time getting educated.
I didn’t get home to visit much because I was studying in summers. It made the formal education more important because I was practicing what I was learning. It was practical application.
The clothing has also changed. I started out wearing the habit, but then in 1966 things changed and it was decided that we sisters could modernize our clothing. We were in the 20th century but still dressing like the peasants from much earlier. So we went from full length habit with a veil to a little tiny veil to a black suit, and then not too many years to when we could wear street clothes. From then on there were so many changes! The convent went through a lot of changes from the 60’s to the 70’s and into the 80’s.
Sometimes I feel that in terms of change, I’ve lived a couple of lifetimes! I am eternally grateful for all the opportunities that have opened up to me in my life’s journey, my work, the people I’ve met, the things I’ve studied and for my degrees. And I’m so grateful for all the sisters I have known.