Port Catholic School’s goodbye to Sister Margie Ann Thole marks more than the retirement of a beloved teacher —it’s the end of a line of teaching nuns who served the school for 141 years.
Photo by Sam ArendtSister Margie Ann Thole said it is impossible to guess how many students she has taught during her 46-year career as a teacher and member of the religious order the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“It would easily be a number in the thousands. In the first two years, I had class sizes of 56 and 54 students and typically in the 30s most other years,” Thole said.
What is clear is that the final day of classes last week at Port Catholic School marked a landmark occasion for the parochial school.
After 15 years here, Thole was the last teaching sister in Port Washington. Her order has a local lineage that dates to 1870.
“I did some checking and learned that we have had 259 Notre Dames teaching in Port, offering 1,031 years of service,” Thole said.
That notion of service is big with Thole.
“I have never looked at teaching as my job. It has simply been my response to my call to serve,” she said.
Thole wasn’t much older than the second-graders she has been teaching at Port Catholic when she knew what she wanted to do with her life.
“I grew up in the small town of Glen Haven along the Mississippi River and went to Catholic school for eight years, and then went to public high school in Bloomington for four years,” she said.
“I got to do all the things high-school girls do, but when I graduated I knew I wanted to enter the religious life. That kind of surprised my mom and dad, but it was something I was sure of since about fifth grade. The religious life and teaching were what the Spirit was calling me to do.”
Thole grew up in a devout Catholic family, so there was no resistance when she announced she wanted to enter the convent.
She spent her first three years preparing for religious life at Notre Dame of the Lake in Mequon. She completed her studies at Mount Mary College.
Thole took her first vows in 1963 and her final vows four years later.
In an unexpected twist, committing to the religious life put Thole on the fast track in the field of education.
“I was teaching before I graduated, and was even asked to be the principal of a merged school in Escanaba, Mich., before I had a teaching degree,” she said.
Thole began her teaching career at Mary Queen of Peace School in West Allis, and also taught in De Pere and West Bend.
“When I tell people I am retiring, they usually say, ‘You’re too young to retire,’” said Thole, who coyly refused to reveal her age. “The fact is, I have been able to keep a young attitude because of the kids. I’ve just loved spending time with them.”
That isn’t to say the job has always been easy.
“Teaching today is so much more demanding than it used to be. Kids come in with so much more experience and knowledge about things like technology,” Thole said.
“But more importantly, we run into so many more problems that families are going through than in the past. A teacher today has to also be a nurse, a psychologist and a psychiatrist.”
Although Thole has been busy packing in recent days, she said she plans to leave much of her accumulated materials to the teachers who follow her. That collection includes a wealth of items geared toward reaching children with special learning needs.
Thole said test scores prove Port Catholic School is equal to the Port Washington-Saukville School District in preparing students academically, but said there are times when the resources of the public schools make it better prepared to handle some extreme needs.
“I would put our children up against anyone, but there have been cases where I’ve told parents their child would be better served in the public school,” she said.
What sets Port Catholic apart from public schools is the spiritual training it provides.
“Prayer is a big part of our daily life. It is not unusual, on the day of a test, for a student to ask, ‘Can we pray, first?’” she said.
Thole said she knows of two former students who have gone on to become priests and one girl who has joined the convent.
“But to tell you the truth, I take just as much pride in knowing I have helped the children live good, Christian lives and care about serving those in need. You need good people in all walks of life,” she said.
Still, there was a glint in her eye when she noted that three second-graders in her last class said they want to join religious orders.
“I was surprised by that,” Thole said.
She said she was especially moved by the end-of-school Mass held last Thursday.
“Father Tom (Lisjewski) asked me to say a few words after the Mass. It was hard not to get too choked up. There were parents and grandparents crying in the pews and the kids all stood up and clapped,” Thole said.
The students gave Thole a set of luggage and the school staff gave her a camera.
The gifts will come in handy when she takes a three-month sabbatical with her religious community in Nova Scotia. She said the time on the Eastern seaboard will give her a chance to embrace the retired life.
“I am going to have some time to rest and get used to the notion that I don’t have to be ‘doing’ anything, just ‘being’ and let the Spirit take it from there,” Thole said.
Ultimately, she will join a community of retired “but very active” sisters in Mount Calvary.
Thole said she has too many memories of students and families to single out any favorites, but years back one young girl wrote her a letter that will always be a cherished reminder of why she became a teacher.
“It was the end of the school year and this second-grader whose parents were going through a divorce wrote, ‘You helped me in good times, you helped me in bad times, but I always knew you and God love me,’” Thole said, recalling the words as if
the note had been written yesterday.