The Nun Who Made Learning Fun

Hello from the History Department.

Sister Mary Sebastian is remembered by students at St. Francis School in Bend, OR, as the Converse All-Star sneaker-wearing teacher who taught for just a short time in the early 1960s, but left a lasting impression. One former student recalled, “She was very spontaneous, very energetic and tall. She’d even go down the slide — I mean, she was young at heart. She would kind of hook up her skirts and run.”

Today, there is a guestroom in the Ed House named in Sister Mary Sebastian’s honor.

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Born Donna Van Laeken in North Portland in 1938, Sister Sebastian demonstrated athletic talents and an aptitude for teaching early on, but didn’t anticipate her call to religious service. The Sisters of the Holy Names proved a natural fit for her, though.

“I started my teaching career when I was 15. I was very athletic in school. Assumption School needed a coach for their volleyball team and they were so poor up there [she was a student at St. Mary’s High at the time]. Well, that turned out okay. And then by spring, it was time for softball and they needed a softball coach.”

With a heart for service, wherever a teacher was needed, Sister Sebastian accepted her assignment. As she reflects, “We had nothing to say about where we went or what we did, what grade, or how long we stayed.”

And so, at the age of 22, with five education posts already under her woven woolen belt, Sister Sebastian reported to Bend for her first full-year teaching assignment at St. Francis School. “It was like God chose all these disparate women and threw them all together and said, ‘You call this a convent?’ . . . ”

And within that convent, Sister Sebastian could be counted upon to keep the mood light-hearted. As Sister Mary Bernadette recollects, “We had loads of fun. You know we were modern-day girls and I can remember one time I walked up the back stairs and this one [Sister Sebastian] was in front of me . . . and she disappeared. And I went into my room and opened the closet, and there she was standing.”

It was this jovial spirit that Sister Sebastian also brought to the classroom. While teaching ancient Greek history at St. Francis School, her 7th-grade students wrote a play that included the story of the Trojan horse, for which Sister Sebastian helped build a suitable horse made out of large boxes.

“It was big, taller than we are. I don’t remember how we put all these boxes together – refrigerator boxes, big enough for several kids to get in it at one time so you could have the Trojan horse and then the kids coming out the side waving a banner that says St. Francis Grade 7 and I could be riding on top wearing my tennis shoes.”

Whether it was building a Trojan horse or sanctioning snow forts on Troy Field next to the school for a legendary snowball fight, Sister Sebastian brought a great deal of joy and learning to St. Francis in the year she taught there. After that, she was off to her next teaching adventure, utilizing an adaptability and diversity of interests that eventually allowed her to teach students of every grade level over the duration of her remarkable career.

1 Comment

  1. Madeline (Graziano) Collins on October 24, 2019 at 6:20 pm

    Reminds me of my Aunt. Sister Margaret Graziano. From the same order. She entered it when she was 17 yrs. Old and passed away a few years ago. In her 90s still in that order. I visited her the day before she passed. She wrapped her arms around me and said take me out of here. She was bed ridden. They did take her for walks in her wheelchair. But she was ill at that time. Loved her so much. She gave back to everyone she taught.

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