In 32 years of education ministry, Sister Mary Jo Stoffel, SDS has taught 1,037 first and second-graders. She’s sure of it, because she still has a list of her former students from each and every year. She’s been praying for them too.
Sr. Mary Jo served in Catholic elementary schools from 1958 until 1990. In her early years of teaching she was known as Sister Boniface. Her assignments included a number of schools in rural Wisconsin communities, Landover Hills, Md., Sauk Rapids, Minn., as well as Mother of Good Counsel (MGC) and St. Pius X in Milwaukee.
Sr. Mary Jo began her teaching ministry in a second-grade classroom at St. Mary’s School in Maryland. Classroom veteran, the late Sister Kristin Stoppleworth, SDS took the fledgling teacher under her wing and shared some advice that Sr. Mary Jo took to heart. “She suggested that I keep a list of all my students from year to year and continue to pray for them. I think it’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done,” Sr. Mary Jo says today. “I’ve been so grateful to Sr. Kristin because it’s rewarding and keeps me connected to my teaching years.”
Each night, Sr. Mary Jo says a collective prayer for all her former students. Then every Monday, she mentions each name listed on one of 31 loose-leaf pages secured in a small, black leatherette three-ring binder. The hyphenated school year and parochial school name appears at the top of each page. The name of each child is neatly written in ink, in alphabetical order with last name first, just as it would have been on Sr. Mary Jo’s class roster. With each name numbered, it’s easy to see that her largest homeroom had 55 students – two years in a row – and her smallest had just 13 students in 1979-80.
Sr. Mary Jo talks about “double-session” classes in her first two years of teaching. In the 1958-59 school year, she taught 48 second-graders in the morning session. Then she and another sister who also had a second-grade homeroom split the afternoon session, teaching 45 more second graders for two hours each. The next year she had 55 students in her morning session and 43 in her afternoon split session. It wasn’t until 10 years into her teaching ministry that Sr. Mary Jo’s class roster dipped below 30 students.
Sr. Mary Jo recalls that as she said goodbye to a class when she was missioned to a new school, her students would ask her to write to them. Each time, she encouraged them to write to her and promised that if they did, she’d write back. She always kept her promise. Typically she’d hear from a few former students, but after a while they’d stop writing – except for a second-grader named Judy from Milwaukee, and a boy named Dan from St. Mark’s in Rothschild, Wis. To this day, both of them still correspond with their former teacher.
Sr. Mary Jo remembers Dan as a student leader even as a second-grader back in 1969. He went on to run his own cheese-making business when he grew up. Judy, whom Sr. Mary Jo taught in 1961-62, eventually became a teacher too. Years later, after Sr. Mary Jo was no longer teaching, she passed along to Judy some of her hand-painted bulletin board lettering to use in her classroom at the very same school where they’d met years earlier – MGC.
Of all her students, Sr. Mary Jo admits she best remembers “the naughty ones and the very bright ones,” but she prays for them all. She knows, too, some of them have passed away, but she still says their names and simply asks God to be with them.