In the corner of a second floor classroom at Holy Cross Secondary School in Kingston, a handful of male students huddle to discuss the previous night’s high school hockey play-off game between rivals Regiopolis and Holy Cross. As the chatter amplifies, teacher Sister Marian McCallum is able to hush the boys with one soft-spoken word, “gentlemen!”

Another student walks in and gets a gentle reminder about the uniform policy. “Shannon, shoes are supposed to be black, not brown,” says Sr. Marian. Shannon smiles and nods.

It’s not a typical morning at the Woodbine Road School. It’s Ash Wednesday, which means the regular 75-minute classes are reduced to 60 minutes to squeeze in time for morning Mass in the gym. As students flood into the makeshift chapel, Sister finds a chair in the back to prepare for her job as Communion minister, as she does at every school Mass.

Back in the classroom after Mass, the mood is casual and relaxed, a tone set by the veteran teacher with 33 years experience. She brings a quiet sense of authority to the room, where students feel relaxed but know the boundaries.

A male student celebrating his 18th birthday on this day arrives 10 minutes late, without a notebook or pen. Sister smiles and delivers a joke, “What do you think it is, your birthday?” The young man smiles and offers her a peace offering-one of two chocolate bars spilling out of his uniform shirt pocket. He adds with a smile, “You’re a nice lady.”

“Teaching in the 21st century has evolved. These kids face more and different pressures and come to school with a lot more personal difficulties,” explains Sr. Marian.

Experience has taught this Sister that teachers can’t focus totally on the curriculum. “Students also need optimism and good communication at home,” according to the Sister of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul.

She is concerned about a young male student with chronic absenteeism. Seeing great potential in the young man, this dedicated educator plans a coffee trip to Tim Horton’s with the student to encourage him to stick it out.

It was 41 years ago when Sister entered the novitiate to begin her life as a Sister of Providence. Her resume includes eight years at Holy Cross, 19 at Nicholson in Belleville and six years at elementary schools in Trenton and Prescott. How does she view her role as a teaching Sister, one of very few religious women still involved in education in the Catholic school boards?

“Teaching is a mission. Bringing the teachings of the Church into the lives of these students is my work, and the work of most teachers.”

Sr. Marian McCallum
Sr. Marian McCallum is the head of Religious Studies at Holy Cross Secondary School.