Catholic Sisters Week: Thinking Ahead for Me—and for Others

Joan DiLeonardo Leotta attended Ursuline Academy in Pittsburgh from grades one through eight. This is her story of how Sister Mary Anne Murkowsky, OSU, encouraged her to become a writer, beginning in the 6th grade with the school newspaper. Sister Mary Anne Murkowsky, OSU, taught at Ursuline Academy from 1936-1962. She died on September 25, 1990. Joan did become a writer and also performs stories on stage—often these are tales of food, family, and strong caring women like Sister Mary Anne.

Writing for Ursuline Academy–Pittsburgh’s grade school newspaper during my sixth grade year encouraged my love for writing and solidified a desire to have a career that would have my work in print. The four-page mimeographed monthly “newspaper” begun by Sister Mary Anne only lasted that one year, but while it was operating, I never missed a deadline, competing with the other students in my grade to have a piece published. I wrote furiously—poems, short articles, whatever Sister said was needed, hoping my work would be selected. Indeed, my pieces made it into most of the issues. That year confirmed for life my already growing love for seeing my work in print. Imagine my surprise when years later (in 1987) I learned that Sister Mary Anne began that newspaper specifically to encourage me!

It was an event during the year before, in my fifth grade year, which showed Sister Mary Anne how much I loved words. By age ten, I was already reading the newspaper that landed on our doorstep each morning. Every article’s author was noted under the article headline—by Jane Doe. That notation is known as the byline in newspaper lingo.

At the end of the fifth grade, we had an assignment to write a short story. I penned a rhyming tale about a dinosaur, complete with illustrations. She posted my story and all of the stories that got A’s on the school’s main bulletin board. I proudly enjoyed my story’s prominent place, with my byline right under the story title! After few days, however, the board was empty. I waited for the return of my story. Finally, a few days before summer vacation started, I asked Sister Mary Anne about my story.

“Oh, dear. I threw them all out just last night,” she replied.

I felt as if I could not breathe—she had thrown out my wonderful work, the closest I had ever come to a public byline. I tried not to dissolve into a puddle of tears, but Sister Mary Anne could see how upset I was.

“I will look for it,” she promised.

True to her word, later that afternoon, she handed me the two halves of my torn story. She had ripped it in half before putting it in the trash can. However, she had searched for both halves and returned them to me.

“I’m sorry about the misunderstanding,” she said, “No one else wanted their stories back.”

I thanked her. Somewhere I still have that story, each page still carefully taped together.

That following fall, when we started sixth grade Sister Anne started the school paper. Funny, I don’t recall the name of the paper, but that little blue mimeographed monthly, gave me the chance to prove how much I loved to write. Anyone who wished to do so, in all eight grades of the school, could submit their writing. Every month at least one submission from each grade was selected, by some juried process, (probably Sister Mary Anne’s choices) for publication.

Rejected pieces were always returned with helpful comments for improving it. When her funding expired, some time before the end of the year, Sister Mary Anne simply urged us all to send our work to the many countywide publications open to public, private and Catholic school students at the time. I did, often successfully. I left Ursuline in 1961 at the end of eighth grade to attend Our Lady of Mercy Academy (OLOMA), and when OLOMA moved their campus to Monroeville, I attended and graduated from Taylor Allderdice in Pittsburgh.

Though I did not keep up with Sister Mary Anne, I followed her advice to keep sending out my work. Throughout high school, college and into adulthood, I have continued to write all manner of stories, poems, essays, even a play or two. I was attending OLOMA when I heard a teacher urge a classmate to send her poetry to Horn Book Magazine, an adult publication that published work by teens. Remembering my early teacher’s faith in me, I looked up the address and sent one of my poems; it was accepted, and I received payment! Many of my other poems and essays found their way into print in the school papers and Allegheny County literary anthologies, rewarding me with that all-important byline.

College started off for me with journalism and then diverted to political science and international relations. I worked for the government. I wrote on the job, but did not submit any of my own work anywhere.

Fast forward to February 1987. I was living in Washington, DC. My husband, children and I were in Pittsburgh for my father’s funeral. Ursuline Academy had closed down as a school, but the Sisters were still there, operating the wonderful old Victorian mansion as a community center. The visit would also serve as a break on that sorrowful first weekend without my Dad, their beloved grandfather. We drove through the iron gates, up the asphalt driveway to the front door. The sight of the magnificent red brick building replete with wooden gingerbread decoration and an angel over the door, amazed our five- and seven-year-old children. They had never seen a school that looked quite like that!

I rang the bell on that Saturday afternoon, fully expecting someone I knew to answer. Sister Mary Anne, looking somewhat fragile, greeted us. After exchanging hugs, she took us on a short tour of the classrooms, (grand old rooms with fireplaces) and let our children hop down the mahogany center hall stairs where we students once paraded in Halloween costumes. Then we all sat together in the sunroom, once off limits to students. She was a font of information about some of my former classmates who had remained in Pittsburgh.

Sister Mary Anne then asked me a question.

“Joanie, do you still like writing?”

“Oh yes, Sister! In fact, I am a professional writing and story performer now. I write for The Washington Post, The Journal newspapers and lots of business magazines. I don’t have much time for writing poetry and short stores right now, but I tell stories for children and adults on stage. The school newspaper you started really encouraged me.”

She smiled. “I’m glad.” She took a deep breath and spoke her next words, softly, slowly, and deliberately, as if confessing a deeply held secret. “You know, I started that school newspaper especially for you—to encourage your writing.”

I was amazed. I did not know what to answer except to say, “Thank you.”

We talked some more. Then, after more hugs, I thanked her again. All the way back to my mother’s home, in between answering questions from my children about the school, I marveled at the new information that had rocketed into my life that afternoon. What I had always assumed was simply a happy accidental intersection of my love of writing with a regular way to express that love, had instead, been a purposeful act to encourage me. Sister Mary Anne had me in mind. Not only that, but her question also demonstrated that she had, over the years, obviously thought of me, probably prayed for my expression of talent through writing. Her goal had been to fan the spark of my love of writing into a flame that would burn brightly and our meeting in 1987 confirmed the success of her project.

What is even more amazing is that the project she chose to encourage me also showed her love for all of us—for all of her students. By opening the paper to all students, she knew that students who perhaps had ever been interested in writing, might discover a love for the verbal arts.

Her project would benefit many, not just me. That realization makes me humble and happy, knowing that my obsession perhaps sparked a love of writing in someone else. You see, Sister Mary Anne worked with us every day to help others in the classroom. Older students helped younger ones. If you were strong in a subject, you helped others. We lived this every day under her care and tutelage. Perhaps we did not have the latest equipment or tools or theories of education operating, but we definitely had a teacher who loved us all in Sister Mary Anne. This true love for all of her students, exhibited by using one person’s interest to make a way for many, is the mark of a wonderful teacher.

Sister Mary Anne and I exchanged letters after that meeting in 1987. However, this dear woman died in 1990. But the power of her faith in me and the enormity of the encouragement provided by learning her action had been taken specifically for me, continues to shine brightly in my life.

In fact, although I had been writing newspaper and magazine articles for almost ten years, hearing of her faith in my work, gave me the courage to send out the first piece of poetry I had written in years—a poem I composed in late 1987 in honor of my father. Shells of the Summer of ’62 was the poem and its acceptance set of a round of work in poetry. Whenever I am discouraged, I remember this wonderful woman who saw a love of words in me and believed I could succeed with words.

I have often pondered how she recognized my talent and why she chose the little newspaper as the means of encouragement. Over time, I also, humbly have come to realize that although I was the inspiration for her action in founding the paper, her solutions was a way to also encourage talent and interest in others. And, over time, I have come to realize that what Sister Mary Anne noticed in me was not a mind-boggling talent, but a simple love for words, my own to be sure, evidenced by my desire the year before to retain a copy of my short story.

She knew that writing as a career is about more than talent—success means willingness to revise and to keep improving your writing and the desire to do the hard work of finding a publication outlet for those words you place on paper. Perseverance. Rejections, she noted, were simply a part of the path to later success.

Even today, when a piece is accepted; I celebrate, but do not “stand still.” I am always looking for ways to improve my writing, to expand my range of ability, to expand my impact on potential readers. Rejections the same.

Both my acceptances and rejections, I imagine, elicit smiles from Sister Mary Anne, as they did back in sixth grade. Both are occasions for me to learn to improve as a writer and to become the kind of writer and person that Sister Mary Anne would have wanted me to be, sharing my love of writing with others.

Thank you, Sister Mary Anne Murkowsky, Ursuline Academy in Pittsburgh, Order of Ursuline Sisters of Louisville.

—Joan Leotta

 

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