STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — Though Sister Kathleen Luppens served during the years when Catholic nuns were known for rapping the knuckles of naughty school children with rulers, in her time as principal at schools in New York she relied on other tools.
In her office, she recalled, “I had a rocking chair with a stuffed rabbit and a lollipop tree.” And when misbehaving children were sent there for discipline, she had a stock phrase to start the conversation: “Now tell me, what did your teacher do to you?”
Luppens, 69, marked 50 years in the ministry on Saturday, Sept. 8. Though she is retired from her years in Catholic schools, she remains committed to her spiritual work, winning, with another nun, approval from the diocese’s bishop to establish a religious “community” in her home to pray for priests and seminarians.
Luppens and Sister Anna Bocker, formerly a registered nurse who worked in a New York City hospital who shares Luppens’ home overlooking Stockton Harbor, also are active in the Stella Maris parish, which includes churches in Bucksport, Castine and Stonington.
The 50 years in which Luppens has been a nun span some dramatic changes in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as sweeping cultural and social changes in the nation. Throughout those changes, she recounted in a soft-spoken manner, she remained committed to what she believes are the eternal truths of her faith.
Luppens also has drawn some conclusions about the pain those cultural and social changes have caused, though she smiles more readily in conversation than points fingers.
“I graduated high school in 1960 and worked for AT&T for two years,” she said. “I went to college at night — and I had a lot of fun,” she said with a grin.
Luppens, the oldest of six children, then became a postulant, the first phase of entering the sisterhood. “After a year, you become a novice,” and in the year that follows, there is little contact with the outside world, she said. The time is devoted to prayer and reflection.
She then became “professed,” and began wearing the habit, veil and a ring signifying her status as a nun.
Luppens grew up in Brooklyn, but was wary about being sent by the church to the Bronx, another New York City borough just a few miles away. Bocker, overhearing, laughs that she grew up in the Bronx and was wary about being sent by the church to Brooklyn.
“I taught in the elementary school,” Luppens said, with classes of 60-65 students. “My classroom was in what used to be a bar.”
Surely teachers must be extra strict with so many students, right? Luppens paused, smiled and said: “You have to be organized.”
At the church-run school, “We were normal,” she recalled. “We played with the kids. We played ball, I played my guitar.”
In her time in education, Luppens said, she saw parental involvement decline and children lose respect for teachers and other adults. By the time she retired, some children were being dropped off at the school’s early morning program at 6:30 a.m. and not being picked up until 6:30 p.m., a sad life for children, she said.
Showing photos of herself and other nuns through the years, Luppens illustrates the changing church attitudes. The habits became less severe, the hemlines got shorter. Yet today, she wears a loose, poncholike gray and black robe with a veil covering most of her hair, a striking statement about her avocation.
“We designed it ourselves,” she said.
Luppens believes nuns should not try to diminish their differences with others, but instead highlight their commitment to God. More and more, she said, younger nuns are doing the same.
“We decided we wanted to stand out for Him,” she said. Gesturing to the cross she wears around her neck, she said, “This is who we work for, this is who we love. They’re reminders — very important reminders.”
Luppens retired to Maine in 2006. “But then we met a priest in the parish we joined who kept us very busy.”
She and Bocker began teaching religious classes in the basement of the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Bucksport, and are planning to lead a youth group as well.
They also were given charge of a fund bequeathed to the church to help Maine people in poverty. In an 18-month period from 2007 to 2008, they distributed more than $100,000 for food, heating oil and other necessities, though never giving out cash, but rather buying goods or paying bills. The donor stipulated that no questions could be asked of those requesting help.
The sisters still get calls for help, though the money is all gone.
Their work now centers on their community, approved by then-Bishop Richard Malone, which exists to pray for priests and those in seminary. The Sisters of the Cure of Ars is named for St. Jean-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), a pastor of a church in France.