Lois Stern de Gruy was 11 years old in 1938 when her Jewish father, Jerome, heard something about the citywide procession to City Park being planned for the Eighth National Eucharistic Congress in New Orleans.
Although her father did not attend Mass with the family at St. James Major Church in Gentilly – he went by himself on Friday nights to Touro Synagogue uptown – Jerome would take his three children after Sunday Mass on a six- or eight-mile walk to the Lakefront, giving his wife time to prepare the family meal.
“I wasn’t really old enough to march in the Eucharistic Congress, but somehow he finagled the pastor at St. James Major, and the priest decided that if my older sister was marching, then I could, too,” Lois said. “I just remember the crowd of people.”
For a public school student in those days, there were no church-state obstacles in learning about the Catholic faith. Once a week, in the morning, Lois would take catechism classes at St. James Major and then walk three blocks with her sisters to her public school.
Lois couldn’t help but feel a little different, especially when the kids in her catechism class remarked to her: “Your daddy never goes to church.”
“He does,” Lois would reply, “but he goes on Friday, and I’m not sure where it is.”
Jerome almost never went to Mass, but he was there when Lois and his other children made their First Communion and confirmation.
Lois’ knowledge of the Old Testament was limited. “We weren’t allowed to go to the synagogue, but we did go when he passed away,” Lois said.
When Lois married Raoul de Gruy, her coworker in the office of the Alcoa Steamship Company, she began having children, six in all, and the family eventually moved to Metairie.
She was sitting in the pews at Our Lady of Divine Providence Church at Mass one day in 1972, and there was an announcement that the parish needed catechists for its CCD program. Although Lois was a teacher’s assistant at East Jefferson High School, mostly working with special needs children, she never had taught religion before.
“I heard they were in need of teachers, and I had three of my older children who were going to be in the religion program,” Lois said. “So, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to give it a try.’”
Lois will turn 90 the day after Christmas, and for the last 45 years – exactly one half of her life, despite serious health issues that kept her in the hospital for a month last February – Lois has been teaching the same Catholic faith handed on to her at St. James Major. She is a diligent, careful teacher, never overstepping her bounds.
“A couple of times, the kids asked me a question, and I told them, ‘Wait till next week and ask me again, and I’ll have the answer,’” Lois said. “Then I would ask somebody after class, ‘Give me an answer, please!’”
When Earl Gervais, who coordinates the religious education program at Our Lady of Divine Providence, called her up from her pew on the evening of Sept. 5 in front of everyone, he had two things in his hands. One was a bouquet of flowers. The other was a plaque honoring Lois for “45 years of service to the children of Our Lady of Divine Providence.”
“I cried,” Lois said. “Luckily, I had some Kleenex with me.”
Lois prefers to downplay her influence. She has taught every grade in the school of religion except second and eighth, the grades that in the 1970s and 1980s were associated with preparation for Communion and confirmation.
“I let the people who were more religious than I was do those,” Lois said.
Her husband was there, by her side, directing traffic outside on CCD nights, but he died too early of a heart attack at the age of 52 in 1981. Still, every week, Lois showed up for her kids.
Her 31 years in the public school system were a chance to see God quietly at work. Two boys struck her heartstrings.
“One used to tell me, ‘You helped me so much, when I go to college, I want to put you in my backpack,’” Lois said. “Well, he never went to college, but he did go to work. I hear from him every now and then.”
The other was a nearly non-verbal, autistic child. “He tried and he tried, and the only thing he couldn’t master was math, but I worked with him for four years, and he got his diploma,” Lois said.
Those children meant the world to her.
“I’d look at my kids and my grand kids, and they were fine,” Lois said. “I have one special needs grandchild, but she doesn’t let anything stop her from doing her schoolwork or competing in the Special Olympics.”
That perseverance gene seems to have been passed down through the generations. Gervais was concerned that Lois’ recent hospitalization might end her career as a catechetical teacher.
“I told Earl I was going to try to finish out the year, and maybe give him another year,” Lois said.
Lois almost felt too tired to attend the first night of CCD classes last week, which would have spoiled the surprise flowers, for sure.
“But, then, I took a nice long nap in the afternoon, and I was ready to go,” she said. “I guess I do this because I was needed. I answered the call, and I stuck with it.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.