An Interview With Sr. Maria Gemma, OP Director of Education

The article below is an excerpt taken from “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Today, we have a special guest with us for our series And The Truth Will Set You Free, Sister Maria Gemma Martek. Sister has been the Director of Education for our community for a number of years.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Sr. Maria Gemma, can you tell us what the Director of Education role in our community means?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
Well, as you know, study is integral to Dominican life. So that role means having a sister who is formally charged with Director of Education, who is able to watch over the sisters’ education and progress towards degrees and certification. As teachers, we all have to be certified. For me to have that role – to be able to contemplate and give to others the fruits of our contemplation – has been a true blessing. The vehicle by which we do that is studying. So when we talk about study, we’re not talking about study for study’s sake, but studies in service of the Gospel. When we do our study, we receive the Word and then preach it and proclaim it, so we have to be on the forefront of knowledge.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Do you not find that difficult?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
I’d say it takes a good level of detail orientation that I have to pray for. When sisters come in, most of them don’t come in as readymade teachers. So with whatever educational background we have, we look at the educational background that each sister brings to us upon entering the convent. We look at her post-high school studies, her talents, and her proclivities to be able to determine the best route for her and her studying. We want her, in the best way for her, to bring God’s Word to a thirsty land.

So it does take a good bit of organization. I have quite a bit of spreadsheets. Quite a bit.

Yet watching over the sisters’ progression towards degrees, and to then see them graduate and launch into the apostolate, is probably one of the greatest blessings of the job. Hearing their excitement when they come home from school is another blessing. They have a great class, and they’re learning a lot. As we’re able to touch the professors that are on campus with the other students, it’s really amazing to be able to see the fruits that come from it. To watch them blossom and grow in their apostolic life and eventually go on for advanced studies in graduate programs has been just a wonderful, wonderful gift.

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Sr. Joseph Andrew:
How do you and the individual decide what particular subject material they’re going to study to get these professional degrees or what level they’re going to study? How are some of those determinations made?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
Well, what’s beautiful about it is sometimes, the community and the superior will see something in a sister that she doesn’t necessarily see in herself. So sometimes, we might be asking a sister to stretch her capacity. I think that’s a beautiful spirit of our community that I was attracted to 20 years ago; there is this feeling of being on the edge of our seats, wanting to be where God wanted us and needed us in the church and in the world today.

So it’s funny, I remember meeting a Dominican friar along the way, and we were talking about always having this love of study that was put into us by the Lord from an early age. When I met the Dominican order, I was so excited to find out that there was this order that was devoted to study, among other things. Similarly, the friar said, ”I just thought I was a geek for all these years, but really I was a Dominican.” I think that sentiment resonates with a lot of our sisters.

But as I mentioned before, very few of the sisters come as readymade teachers. Yet I think that’s often a preconceived notion that most people have. People think that everybody went through an education degree, and then they entered the convent. But in reality, what we might come in with, like I did, is a series of varying degrees and paths. I did my undergraduate in political science and Soviet studies and went to graduate school for Russian and Soviet studies; that is one of the most unlikely paths you would have coming into the convent. But we have had sisters with electrical engineering backgrounds, aerospace engineering, math, physics, science, nursing. God uses everything that a young woman brings into the community as a gift not only for the community, but for God’s people and for the people to whom she will be sent.

So when a young lady enters and presents the transcripts from high school or college, we look at it to see her strengths and experience to determine our new novices and to determine what degrees they’ll be working towards.
If a sister’s transcript indicates that she has done really well in math, we can then put her math experience into use and probably send her to either secondary or elementary math. Does she have a science background? Can we put her into a science curriculum? For those who come out of high school, we might ask them what they were most excited about, but depending on the needs of the community, we may need more biology teachers or more math teachers or more social studies or whatever the case may be, or more secondary or more elementary.

I have the privilege of being able to sit down with Mother and look at the community’s future needs. Requests come in from all of the schools where we teach saying what kinds of degrees they might need, and we look at what a young woman brings to us, what her talents and gifts are, and then decide where we think she might be able to go. That’s sort of the first step.
And as you said, we have to be professionals. Gone are the days in the ‘40s or ‘50s when a young woman entered and went right back out to the classroom. We have to get those initial degrees. And then as we go forward, we decide what would be best for a graduate degree. Would it be better for her to go on like you did as a graduate program?

We had one of our sisters, Sr. Mary Elizabeth, who had come from the electrical engineering doctoral program at the University of Michigan. And Mother had sent her for her post-bac teaching certification and then afterwards said, “What do you think about trying to get back into that PhD program?” So we sent her to complete her PhD in electrical engineering. Now, she’s teaching science at the high school level. It’s kind of funny when we start a new mission and the administrators find out the educational experience that the sisters are bringing in with them. They are often amazed.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Sr. can you tell us how you obtained your degrees in political science and Russian studies and used them for your vocation?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
Well, I think what’s funny is when you look at the stories of all the sisters. There are threads that go through each of them. You would always hear the Eucharist, Our Lady, and sometimes you hear studies. But God works with us in individual ways; you have all of these random experiences in your life that the Lord pulls together, and they are gifts for His people and the community.

I was a little bit more non-traditional you could say. I had no idea when I was a young girl that God was calling me to religious life, although I had a great burning love for Him, His mother, and His church. The way it took form for me was being involved in the parish, in choir, in lecturing, you name it. I’ve always loved to study.

When I was starting my undergraduate, I had an idea towards working in the foreign service. Eventually I thought I wanted to be a college professor, but the thought of teaching at an elementary level scared me because I thought I would be responsible for all these little souls; if I goofed anything up, I would set them on a bad trajectory.

But then I learned that even in a school setting, you might touch one student, and you might not touch another student to the degree that another teacher’s going to. God has that soul in His hands, and He lovingly places the people around that soul that will help that young man or woman flourish. It is important to have that ultimate trust in God because it’s His work and we’re just participating in it. But I had no idea.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
Did you enter right after your college?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
I did not. I did not.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
What did you do?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
I still had that burning desire in college, and I went for political science and Soviet studies and Russian language. And I thought, “Okay. Whatever God wants me to do – I want to do whatever He wants me to do.” So I went on to graduate school and had the blessing of spending the better part of a year in Moscow on a research exchange in foreign affairs and international relations. When I came back, I was working for a company that was doing business in the former Soviet Union, and I loved it. I loved that I was doing good things for God’s people. I was praying that the Lord would give me the graces and the qualities that I would need to be a good wife and a good mother, but He was fashioning my heart for Himself.

It wasn’t really until I worked in a non-profit resettling Russian refugees that I started to realize that the Lord had made my heart maybe a little bit bigger, and maybe He intended me to be just for Him. I started spending lots of time in the Eucharistic adoration chapel and going to daily mass. He blew my heart wide open, and I opened my heart up to Him. It was funny; for me, I didn’t really have any Dominicans in my life, but I realize now that for the duration of my whole life I was a Dominican. I loved, loved study, I loved the Blessed Mother, I loved the Holy Eucharist, I loved the church. I wanted to be wherever God needed me to be, and God uses every experience.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
That’s true. I have to add, I have actually caught Sister Maria Gemma meditating out of a Cyrillic-written bible before. Nobody else in the community asks to borrow her bible for that reason.

Sr. Maria Gemma:
I try to keep the brain from being too rusty, but I enjoy it.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
One of the questions I’m sure our viewers are wondering is, for higher education in particular, where do we send our sisters?

Sr. Maria Gemma:
Well, we have the opportunity and the great blessing to be studying at the Catholic University of America for graduate studies and either getting a master’s in teaching or philosophy. We have our house of studies established here at our Motherhouse in Ann Arbor. After a young woman makes first vows, she would start her degree program at Eastern Michigan University, which is a secular college, and that is actually a blessing because we have a great witness opportunity on those campuses.

We had a math professor who had been in the process of converting and then left it, got married, and had kids. The Lord had been working on her, and she said, “Lord, if you really want me to be a Catholic, you’re going to have to do some really amazing, incredible sign that I’m not going to miss.” So she walked into her classroom on the first day of classes, and there were 10 of our beautiful smiling sisters sitting in the classroom. She went home and said, “Okay, Lord. I got it.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
As Dominicans, I guess we really do take very seriously our role in the church to preach and teach the truth. So we want to really thank you, Sr. Maria Gemma.

Sr. Maria Gemma:
Thank you for asking me to come.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:
It’s a delight to have you here. And I know our audience loves you very, very much as we certainly do. Keep us in your prayers, and thank you again. We do have a lot of young sisters that need a lot of education, so we really do thank you for believing in us and supporting us and praying for us as we certainly do you. God bless you all.

About:

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP is a Foundress and Vocations Director for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Her podcast “And The Truth Shall Set You Free” can be downloaded every Friday at 1:00 p.m. EST from iTunes. The podcast can be seen on YouTube at GoLEDigital.

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