Life has taught me one thing: Theres no use lying to Sister Jeanne Marie.
Sister, I didnt do that, I say to her this week, lying.
Yes, Michael, you did.
Were sitting across a small table in her office at St. Matthew Catholic Church. Theres no place to hide. With nuns, there never is.
Well, I really dont remember, I say.
Of course, Sister Jeanne Marie remembers. Seems she once had a fourth-grader at St. Gabriel who snuck into the church one recess and started lighting all the candles. Before he could burn down the church, Father Paul Byron, the parish priest, walked in. He deferred sentencing until after school, in his office, three hours hence.
This student, though not bright, didnt need three hours to figure out what was coming. So he told his identical twin that the priest wanted to see him immediately after final bell.
OK, so maybe I did do that. But it was almost 50 years ago. How could she have known?
The answer comes straight from the secret handbook passed down through generations of parochial students.
Nuns know everything.
So here are a few things you need to know about Jeanne Marie Kienast. She was born in Haiti, to a family of Marines. She entered kindergarten on Parris Island. Her patron saint is Joan of Arc. The King of Heaven has sent me to bring you and your kingdom help, Joan once said.
Sixty-seven years ago this month, Jeanne Marie walked into a Belmont convent to join the Sisters of Mercy.
Friday she retired.
In the decades between, she dedicated a life, a mind and a heart to students and families of all kinds, to the homeless, to the elderly, to the hungry.
As a young nun she was principal and the only teacher in a K-8 school for black students in Belmont. She was principal of a school in Guam. She was dean of students at Sacred Heart College. And at St. Matthew, she helped coordinate a program with the city that furnished apartments to get mothers and children out of shelters.
Now 85, she hopes to write as she awaits Gods next move.
What am I proudest of? she asks, then pauses, as if pride must first be put in its place. That I belong to a community that continues to be concerned for people who are voiceless and, in most instances, invisible.
Does she have any regrets? That I didnt do more, she answers. Then again, its not over.
We met in 1960 when my family moved to Charlotte. My three brothers and I entered St. Gabriel the year school opened and the windows didnt have glass.
Sister Jeanne Marie was the first principal. She was tough. She was smart. But we also saw her laugh.
She needed a sense of humor to deal with me. The nuns all liked me. But my classroom behavior was almost feral. Out of frustration one time, my third-grade teacher took away my desk and made me stand for hours, nose to blackboard. To pass the time, I started blowing spit bubbles. Spit bubbles leave stains.
Over the years, St. Gabes would become the states largest Catholic church (it was eclipsed by St. Matthew). But back then, it seemed tiny. Charlotte was smaller, too, a more Southern city where Catholics were still an oddity.
One Halloween, Sister Jeanne Marie remembers walking across Providence Road to the nearby A&P to get something needed for supper. At checkout, a little boy took a look at her nuns habits and screamed Witch!! (Im here to get a new broom, she told him.)
St. Gabes was a happy place. Our parents became friends with our friends parents. It snowed hard that first winter. The entire parish mourned 4-year-old Molly Molloy, and Ive never felt closer to God.
A voice on the line
We left Charlotte in 1963. I returned 30 years later. In 1998 I wrote a column that paid homage to two nuns, Sister Ebola Virus and Sister Brown Recluse.
Soon after, my phone rang. My Lord, were we that mean to you? Sister Jeanne Marie asked.
Weve talked or emailed regularly since. But it had been a while since wed seen each other. So when a St. Matthews staff member told me of her pending departure, I drove out.
She had only one request: Dont make this sound like an obituary.
Sister, I hope it doesnt read that way.
Like St. Joan, you were born to help. So please consider this a thank you note from the thousands plus one that you have taught, prayed for and helped along.
We hope you know how important your life continues to be.
Then again, nuns know everything.