Marking the 40th anniversary of his ordination, one Catholic school pastor recently made a “pilgrimage of thanksgiving” to express his gratitude to several religious sisters who taught him in school and helped his journey to the priesthood.
Rev. Tom Simons is pastor of Holy Trinity parish and school in Comstock Park. He grew up going to St. Adalbert grade school* and West Catholic High School, both in Grand Rapids. His teachers were School Sisters of Notre Dame; he’s kept in touch ever since being their student. In August 2017, Father Simons visited several of the sisters at their mother house, Notre Dame of Elm Grove, Wisconsin.
Sister Rita Clare Swenarski, SSND, was one of his teachers. She made her religious profession in 1954, and in 1955 at age 21, she arrived at St. Adalbert (her first mission). She taught 1st grade for Father Simons and his 50 classmates in 1956-57 (pictured above, with Father Simons in the striped shirt in the center front). She also taught their 7th grade class. Sister Rita Clare served at St. Adalbert for 11 years. Now in her eighties, she continues tutoring students.
“She really communicated what today we call ‘the joy of the Gospel,’” Father Simons said of having Sister Rita Clare as a teacher. “She did that selflessly and lovingly – and is still doing it.”
Sister Rita Clare also taught Father Simons to be an altar server; he said in doing so she awakened his love for liturgy.
Pictured: Sister Rita Clare greets Father Simons on his arrival at Notre Dame of Elm Grove.
Sister Luetta Wolf, SSND, further influenced Father Simons’ priestly discernment and apparently knew his vocation before he did. Father Simons had Sister Luetta for French at West Catholic. She wrote a profound message in his sophomore yearbook: “One day you will be a priest.” At that time, he hadn’t identified his vocation.
“Somehow, she sensed or saw something in me, so I saw her [in August] and I specifically thanked her for that,” said Father Simons. “That was another kind of impetus for my vocation.”
The sisters’ influence was felt by other students, too; one of Father Simons’ West Catholic classmates, Sister Gladys Courtade, entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame upon graduation and now coordinates the mission of three Catholic schools in the Milwaukee area.
Pictured: Sister Gladys and Father Simons, classmates in West Catholic's class of 1968.
Traveling to see the sisters, Father Simons reflected on his gratitude for having them as teachers and for their influence on his life. “They just gave their whole lives to that; their whole focus was the welfare and the education of these children entrusted to their care,” he said. He also reflected on gratitude for his parents’ sacrifices to send him and his three brothers to Catholic schools; his dad often worked overtime to cover tuition.
Pictured: From left to right, Sister Luetta, Sister Marie de Lourdes, Sister Helen (previously known as Sister Joseph), Sister Bernita Marie and Father Simons.
Father Simons returned from his pilgrimage near the beginning of the school year and considered how today he and the educators at Holy Trinity are impacting children in ways beyond their knowing. That’s something he keeps in mind celebrating the weekly school Mass and visiting classrooms – and something he asks teachers to keep in mind.
“Seeds are being planted that you may not see now, but they will grow in the course of time,” he said. “I believe Catholic schools have the means to really give themselves to the total person for the whole range of a day. I see the difference that it makes. I see it in our kids’ attitudes, their concern for others, and their love of God and neighbor. … They can talk about God freely. They can do the works of the Church freely. That’s essential to the mission of the Church.”
The School Sisters of Notre Dame were one religious community among many who helped establish the tradition of Catholic education in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Father Simons said. “We build on foundations that somebody else laid. They did that -- and they admire what we’re doing today. When I tell them what our diocese is doing to promote Catholic education, they are excited, thrilled and happy because they know that what they did is continuing.”
To Father Simons, that’s something to be grateful for.
Above photos provided by Sister Rita Clare Swenarski and Rev. Tom Simons.
*The grade school at St. Adalbert was open through the 1999-2000 school year; the building is now home to various ministries and the vibrant parish’s offices. Learn about the Basilica of St. Adalbert here.