By Joe Lee
At the time Sister Michele Doyle grew up in metropolitan Chicago, it was possible for young Catholic ladies to join a sisterhood after eighth grade and begin a lifelong commitment to faith and religious life.
Now 90 years young, and having spent more than five decades in Mississippi as a Catholic schoolteacher, college professor and parish religious education leader, she’s grateful to her parents for holding firm when they thought she was a bit young to begin chasing her dreams.
Sister Michelle Doyle talks about dealing with loss during a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.
“From the time I was a small child, I knew I wanted to be a (religious) sister,” Doyle said. “All during elementary school and high school, I continued with that desire. My parents were wise, because at that time religious communities were taking people out of eighth grade. I would do a little tantrum because I wanted to go, and they would say, ‘No, not until you finish high school.’”
After graduating in LaGrange, Illinois, Doyle entered School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That year she and her fellow sisters took the first in a series of vows which, over a period of several years, led to a lifetime vow the women were asked to make.
“We call ourselves sisters,” Doyle said. “Nuns are formally cloistered. Sisters are active (in the local community). For a long time we were trying to live both lives: the active life and the prayer life. And we still pray, of course. But today we understand that you can’t be a fully contemplative community and at the same time be an active community.”
Doyle asked to be sent to China once she was ready for active life, but when the assignment from the mother house came in 1949, she was told she was being sent to Mississippi.
Sister Michelle Doyle leads a Catholic religion class Wednesday at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Madison.
“I was in Yazoo City for 20 years at St. Francis, an all-black mission school. I taught and was principal part of the time,” Doyle said. “The purpose in sending sisters down was in response to a request from Bishop (Oliver) Gerow, because this was a period of strong segregation — we were asked to go and not so much convert people, but the ultimate goal was to educate the African American students to help them move forward in the world.”
Doyle joined the faculty of St. Joseph Catholic School in 1969, the year St. Francis of Yazoo City closed its doors. St. Joe, now on Mississippi 463 in Madison, was located on Boling Street in West Jackson then.
“It was the year the schools were integrating, and I thought I still had something to give to the African American community,” Doyle said. “So I taught at St. Joe part time and taught history at Jackson State University part time.
“I did that seven years — I’d gotten a master’s in history from the University of Loyola in Chicago and a master’s in religious education from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, so by then I was free to move into the Jackson diocesan office in the areas of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and Adult Formation.”
Those areas of study — which involve, respectively, bringing new Catholics into the church and getting parish catechists (teaching candidates) certified — are crucial in rural parishes that may not have anyone on staff who is trained in religious education.
Although Doyle retired from full-time work in 2005, she remains very active in Adult Formation today. She continues to work closely with Holy Family of Jackson, St. Mary of Yazoo City, St. Thomas of Lexington and St. Francis of Assisi in Madison, and she’s teaching small groups of catechists right now at St. Mary and Holy Family.
Joyce Adams coordinates Adult Faith Formation at Holy Family and is also working toward certification while enjoying the series Doyle is currently teaching, “Mary and the Saints: Companions On the Journey.” It’s one of eight different classes Doyle has taught at the parish.
“Sister Michele is very meticulous,” Adams said. “She ensures that we get a minimum of 16 hours of instruction with each class. Discussions often include ways that the content has impacted one’s personal spiritual journey. Seeing the sunrise, visiting the zoo and hearing the sounds of children playing took on new meaning for me after taking the ‘Christian Prayer and Spirituality’ class.”
“Sister Michele taught me religion in 1976 (at St. Joe),” said Mary McDonald, part of the Adult Formation class at St. Francis of Assisi. “I always thought she was a wonderful teacher, and she was always very dedicated to her profession. It was so clear even to a high school student that she not only talked about service to others, but she lived it.”
“I think there is something extraordinary about a person who does not see age as a limitation to maintain a sense of purpose,” said Fran Lavelle, director of the department of faith formation with the Catholic Diocese of Jackson. “She is a great inspiration to me as I think about all of the years she has served God’s people. She could sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labor. But, for Sister Michele, the fruits are her labor.”
Diane Melton, religious education coordinator and a St. Mary’s parishioner in Yazoo City, took catechist Level II classes from Doyle in 2009 and became certified to teach adults at her parish. Doyle is currently teaching “Christology: Jesus of the Gospels and History” at St. Mary’s through the end of February.
“She has a way of making things relevant to our day and time as well,” Melton said. “Several of us have taken some of her classes the second time because she is so easy to listen to, and just to gain more information regarding our Catholic faith.”
It has been a full 75 years since the eighth grade sister-to-be was itching to leave home and serve. And as her students see each day, Doyle shows no signs of slowing down.
“I enjoy what I’m doing. It’s an opportunity to be with people and be creative,” Doyle said. “And to share the gifts I have — everyone has gifts. I don’t garden and I don’t cook and I don’t sew, so I do what I can do. People keep coming back.”
(Reprinted with permission from the Clarion Ledger.)