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To the Sister Who Gave Students With Special Needs a Chance When It Seemed No One Else Would

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There was a time in our community when orphanages and institutions housed children considered “unteachable.” Left to their own devices, without the tools to learn or encouragement to explore, without love to sustain them, these children did not thrive.

However this one time, in our community, a kind and ambitious woman who was a Sister and teacher at the St. James Orphanage decided to teach the children she knew weren’t allowed to attend the public school. Then, she began teaching others who needed special attention and had nowhere else to turn. This was 1960 and how the Madonna School in Omaha, Nebraska began. 

Sr Mary Evangeline

Sister Mary Evangeline gave her students a chance, she gave them love and most of all, she gave them confidence to learn. She worked under the premise that every person deserves dignity and should be taught to live as independently as possible. For many years, The Madonna School was the only option in our community for “special children.” 

She wrote, “I thank God for giving me a heart which cannot be satisfied with just knowing about or reading about these children of God.” 

Sr. Evangeline was not just a teacher but also a student of the children at the Madonna School. She wrote these words as comfort to herself and others after a young girl named Mary Beth died while still a student:

So many times, Mary Beth would smile and say to me, “It’s all right, sister – it’ll be OK!” And now I remember, and I thank God for the message he sent me through Mary Beth. “Don’t worry,” she often told me – and somehow these difficult days, I cannot recall what I did for Mary Beth or what I brought her or if I brightened any of her days – I am only remembering the patience she had with me, her attitude that whatever it was, was all right. In so short a time Mary Beth learned what some of us are still trying to figure out.

We found the Madonna School because my son, Marcus, although in the same building as “normal children,” was being excluded from them in his old school. The administrators saw Marcus not as a socially growing and anxious-to-learn child but instead as a severely handicapped boy with an IQ too low for integration. To me, those with the power were dooming him to failure. When we heard of The Madonna School, we were desperate for an option. 

On our first visit, the school building at that time was in a renovated church with small classrooms and narrow halls. But it was lit with positive energy, with ambition and, I’ll say it again, with love. How could I not choose the school where I felt the teachers wanted my child to learn? They rooted for his success. The halls were not darkened from defeat, which I literally felt like a weight in the public school option. 

This was 20 years ago, and again, much has changed. The public schools in my community no longer express that Down syndrome, in and of itself, is impossible to teach. Although many parents still have to work closely with the schools to promote integration and fair teaching of their children, there are several stories of success. 

The Madonna School, too, has grown and adapted, offering specialized teachers and therapists. All along Sr. Evangeline believed every child should be given the education and tools to be a part of his community, to be as independent as possible, to contribute, to love and be loved. 

In this era, the Madonna School is the option families turn to for a place of safe learning and social interaction, the students build life-long friendships. Students are taught both academic and life skills in an environment that allows positive peer relationships. And once the students reach high school and transition ages, independent living and job skills are an integral part of the curriculum. Sr. Evangeline was one of the first in our community to make adult living and life skills part of the goals for her students. As adults, she said, “I did not want them to sit at home all day with no possibility of being important to others or to themselves.” 

Sr. Evangeline was truly a hero among us; she dedicated her life to the children in need of a teacher and in turn taught our whole community how to value life. “There will always be special people who need special people.” This was her mission. 

Rest in Peace, Sister. My family and many others are indebted to your legacy.

Sister Mary Evangeline Randolph, RSM, was born on September 25, 1919 and died on February 10, 2015.

*All Sr. Mary Evangeline quotes are from her autobiography, I Have Seen Him.

This post was originally published on the Madonna School Blog.

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Originally published: February 13, 2015
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