One nun’s job description: Doing whatever it takes

Jerry Brumfield was 6 years old in August 1970 and living in the boondocks of Robert, Louisiana, when his mom had to go out and run an errand. She was driving to Baton Rouge to pick up Catholic school uniforms for Jerry and his elder sister Camille.
 
“The last thing my mother said was, ‘Don’t go playing on that big pile of bricks while I’m gone,’” Jerry recalled.
 
Of course, to a boy, that Mount Everest of large cinder blocks, essentially forbidden fruit waiting to be claimed by a Sir Edmund Hillary in cutoffs and sneakers, was like a stairway to heaven. Jerry started scaling toward the top. Everything was fine until he lost his balance near the 8-foot summit.
 
“It was absolutely in slow motion,” said Brumfield, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “I was on my back on the ground and the cement block fell on top of my left leg and bounced over me. I knew I was going to be in trouble, so I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I was more in fear than I was in pain. I broke the largest bone in the human body.”
 
Brumfield learned earlier than most first graders how to spell “femur.”
 
The break was so bad it required a plaster cast stretching from the toes on Brumfield’s left foot to above his waist. For stability while the bone healed, the orthopedist extended the cast to the upper part of the right leg, with an iron bar connecting the two immobile legs.
 
“I was flat on my back,” Brumfield recalled.
 
At Holy Ghost School in Hammond, which Brumfield attended with his sister, first grade was starting, and there was no way to hoist a 6-year-old mummy into the classroom. So, instead, the school came to him.
 
Two Dominican sisters – second-grade teacher Sister Mary Grace Daly and the principal, Sister Mary Michaeline Green – decided they would drive the convent’s Ford station wagon from Hammond to Robert each afternoon after school to keep Jerry up on his schoolwork.
 
“It’s possible that Sister Mary Grace was doing this out of the goodness of her heart,” Sister Mary Michaeline recalled. “She probably told Jerry’s mother she would be glad to keep him up by going over and working with him. I drove because she couldn’t drive.”
 
Brumfield still has his report card from first grade, where the back of the card shows the number of school days he missed.
 
“I missed 40, and that doesn’t count the weekends,” Brumfield said. “They brought workbooks with them, and I just remember sitting there propped up doing matching problems. I remember leaving only to go to doctor’s appointments and going to my grandpa’s barber shop for a haircut.”
 
Brumfield finally returned to school, right before the Christmas break. “I was really afraid that everybody else had their routine down, but I remember the class clearly was prepared for me,” he said.
 
When Brumfield’s mother, who had difficulty getting to places on time, showed up late for pick-up most afternoons, Sister Mary Michaeline “would come and get us and let us sit in the convent.”
 
When Sister Mary Michaeline became the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge in 1977 – a position she held for 32 years – Brumfield often would stop by her office in the Catholic Life Center with donuts so they could chat about the importance of straight lines, the pledge of allegiance and prayer.
 
“She was a dynamic culture builder,” Brumfield said. “There is no military commander I ever worked for that I have more respect for than I have for Sister Mary Michaeline.”
 
When Katrina hit in 2005 and Baton Rouge was inundated with New Orleans parents looking for a safe-haven school for their children, Sister Mary Michaeline mobilized her office to take in 4,500 elementary and high school students. Three weeks after the storm, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak to a U.S. Senate subcommittee on education and early childhood development about the need to help children whose “world was upside down.”
 
So was her office. As soon as someone in the office put down the phone to end one call, the phone rang again. A woman from New Orleans came to her office pleading to get her special-needs child into a Catholic school.
 
“She told me a story about her mom and dad who were flooded out in Lakeview,” Sister Mary Michaeline said. “She said, ‘My dad was holding my mom’s hand, and she broke away and we haven’t found her body.’ Oh, my God, the tragic stories you heard.”
 
Since her “retirement” in 2009, Sister Mary Michaeline has served in a variety of roles at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Kenner. She is now the parish coordinator, using her organizational skills to make sure the staff is meeting parishioners’ needs.
 
She is 80
“I’m probably working harder than I worked when I was superintendent,” she said, laughing. “These are longer hours because in parish life, there’s always something on the weekend.”
 
At heart, she always will be a teacher.
 
“A good teacher is one who is prepared, and the children know what to expect,” she said. “If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to have classroom management. You have to always be ready with Plan B – and C and D.”
 
So when students were having trouble raising and lowering the American flag at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, Sister Mary Michaeline, who works in the parish office, offered a Plan B. She called her former student.
 
“They were having an issue with the flagpole and the flag’s grommets,” Brumfield said, smiling. “It was really humorous. I asked the students, ‘Do any of you know Sister Mary Michaeline?’ They all nodded. Then one of the boys piped up and told me, ‘She’s in charge even when she’s not in charge.’”
 
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached atpfinney@clarionherald.org.

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