Dominican Sister Suzanne Walker’s pending retirement after 38 years as principal marks a new era for Holy Rosary School in Monroe City.
It will be the first time since the school was founded in 1901 that a member of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, New York, will not be at the helm.
Sr. Suzanne, a Monroe City native and graduate of both the Holy Rosary elementary school and its former high school, joined the faculty in 1975 and stepped into the role of principal in 1984.
“If you count the 12 years that I was a student, that makes 59 years that Holy Rosary School has been such a very big part of my life,” she told about 450 people at a June 12 celebration for her in the Monroe City Knights of Columbus Hall.
She shared that her goal as principal has always been the same as what drew her into religious life in the first place:
“I want to know Jesus Christ,” she said. “I want Him to be a part of my life. I want to feel the peace and joy of knowing Him, and I want to share all of this with those around me, especially the children.
“Through all of these years, I hope that I have been able to do this and can continue to do it in some way — know and love Jesus Christ, and pass this knowledge and love on to others,” she said.
Among the honored guests at the celebration were members of Sr. Suzanne’s family and nine representatives of the Sparkill Dominicans, including several former Holy Rosary School teachers.
The audience included many of her former students, as well as Father George Kramer, who taught Sr. Suzanne in high school.
Father Gregory Oligschlaeger, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish and of St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek, served as emcee.
“Everyone here has a story you can tell about how Sr. Sue reached out to you, ministered to you, visited you, helped you through a family problem, or simply celebrated a special family event with you,” Fr. Oligschlaeger told the crowd.
The evening featured many references to the “Miracle on Locust Street” — the parish’s and greater community’s valiant efforts to replace Holy Rosary School’s nearly century-old building with a state-of-the-art new facility.
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos blessed the new school in August 2016.
Members of the building committee announced at Sr. Suzanne’s celebration that the last of the debt had been paid in full.
“When I decided that I needed to transition into retirement, that was one of my hopes — that we could get that school paid off,” she later stated. “And sure enough, it happened!”
Fr. Oligschlaeger announced that the school’s spacious gym and auditorium had been named in honor of Sr. Suzanne, with a framed portrait of her now adorning the hallway outside it.
Sr. Suzanne plans to continue living in her hometown and remain active in her parish after retiring June 30.
“I’m a hometown girl,” she explained.
The second of 10 children born to Paul and Jennie Walker, both now deceased, she entered the Dominican Congregation of Our Lady of the Rosary — better known as the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, New York — on Sept. 8, 1964.
Sr. Suzanne chose to become a part of that community because they were the sisters that she knew best, since they had been her teachers throughout her 12 years of Catholic education.
She lived and studied at the Sparkill motherhouse for three years, then took up her first mission as a first grade teacher at St. Anthony School in the Bronx, New York City.
Her 56 students were mostly the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Italy.
While teaching, she continued her college studies and received a bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas Aquinas College in 1970.
She moved to St. Louis County and became the first grade teacher at St. Thomas More School in 1970, remaining there until 1975.
During her years in St. Louis, she completed her master’s in education degree from the University of Missouri‒St. Louis.
In September 1975, she returned to her home parish to become the second grade teacher.
She anticipated a challenge — that a “close eye” would be kept on her as she embarked on teaching the children of her peers.
“But before long, I felt embraced by the community,” she said.
One of the greatest blessings of being close to home was spending time with her parents.
“I was right here with them and could minister to them through their last years, which was a long time,” she said.
She remained with the lower grades for eight years, moved to a junior high position and then became principal in 1984.
She enjoyed tremendous support throughout Holy Rosary and St. Stephen parishes and the greater community.
A leap of faith
The old Holy Rosary School building was wearing out when a parishioner came to Sr. Suzanne in 2012 and told her outright to build a new school.
She advised the parishioner to talk to Father Michael Penn, who was pastor at that time.
With the priest’s permission, the man hired an architect to deliver cost estimates and preliminary drawings for a new school.
Following further deliberations and an in-depth feasibility study, the parish launched a capital campaign in 2012.
“I remember almost having a heart attack after that first meeting,” Sr. Suzanne recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘What are we getting ourselves into?’”
But the parishioners leading the campaign were adept, and the donors were generous.
Ground was broken in December 2014, and the doors opened less than two years later.
Sister and the rest of the alumni would miss the old building.
“What a great place it was!” she recalled at her celebration. “My heart and soul was in that old building as I cared for it for many years.”
But amazingly enough, “once everything was removed from the building, especially the statue of Mary, it was as if the ‘spirit’ had left the place,” she said.
Where did that spirit go?
“It came to the new building!” she said. “It’s such a wonderful, comfortable facility. It’s just perfect!”
It’s all new, safe and accessible — with important touches from the old building given prominent placement.
Having everything on one level means people who use crutches or wheelchairs don’t have to climb stairs.
Signs and wonders
Sr. Suzanne is excited to see what new miracles on Locust Street will come next.
“We have such a long and strong tradition of supporting Catholic education in this community, and I see that continuing well into the future,” she said.
She’s confident that the charism of the Sparkill Dominicans will continue to guide the school.
Many on the faculty attended Holy Rosary School and were taught by Sr. Suzanne or other members of her congregation.
“We have such wonderful, faith-filled laypeople,” she said. “The Good Lord has a plan, and we just have to listen and follow it.”
It’s not unusual to have families with four generations of ties to the school, she said.
After Sr. Suzanne announced that she would retire, Nancy Shively, the junior high science teacher, confided that she might apply to succeed her.
“She told me that the reason she was considering it was that she loves the school and wants the kids to continue having what generations ahead of them have been blessed to have,” Sr. Suzanne recalled.
The outgoing principal, who had hired Mrs. Shively, knew she could lead the school admirably. But where would they find another junior high science teacher?
Around that time, a teacher moved to Monroe City and sent a resume to Holy Rosary School.
She turned out to be a Holy Rosary graduate with experience teaching junior high science.
“She knows us,” said Sr. Suzanne. “She’s a member of our parish. She graduated from here. She moved back here, and she wants to teach here! I say that’s a miracle.”
Sr. Suzanne feels truly blessed with the many experiences and relationships she has shared with students, parents, teachers and parishioners.
She has had many opportunities to learn from each of them and be strengthened in her own faith by being a part of their formation.
She asks for prayers of thanksgiving for all the ways God has blessed her in her time at Holy Rosary School.
She also requests prayers for guidance as she steps back to discern how God wants her to carry-out her next phase of religious life.
“I really don’t have a plan,” she said. “My prayer is that I will do what I’m supposed to do.”
She knows that not being at school on the first day of classes this fall will feel strange, but she’s confident that the school is in capable hands.
“Our new principal loves Holy Rosary and is going to step right in,” she said. “And I’ll be across the street if she ever needs to talk to me about anything.”