Sister Savio: Great books inspire, teach life lessons

By Beth Donze

On Nov. 22, 1963, a few months into Sister Dominic Savio Estorge’s inaugural year of teaching freshman English at St. Mary’s Dominican High, a heart-stopping report came over the P.A. from school principal Sister Mary Damian Cazale: President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

“We stopped class and started saying the rosary – those were the days when people still had rosaries in their pockets,” Sister Savio recalled. “Sister Damian came back on later to say that President Kennedy had died. I was in this classroom. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

Ten U.S. presidents later, the still-spry 79-year-old, known for her infectious love for literature and her sparkling blue eyes, continues to be a beloved presence at Dominican, currently as an archivist and member of the attendance office staff. This year marks Sister Savio’s 55th year of service to the Walmsley Avenue campus, a tenure that includes 47 years as an English and religion teacher, the supervision of 28 yearbooks and administrative roles as the high school’s assistant principal, president and member of the general council of the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary.

“I loved teaching freshmen. I know this sounds corny, but they are ‘fresh.’ They’re not jaded; they still could have ‘aha’ moments,” Sister Savio said, speaking from the classroom formerly known as “Room 108,” her teaching hub from 1963-2010.

“Not everybody enjoys teaching freshmen, but I do,” she said. “They are silly, but that’s what’s fun!”

Vocational calling came early

Born Celeste Estorge, Sister Savio spent her first three years in Milwaukee, the middle child of New Orleans-born parents who had relocated to the Midwest for Mr. Estorge’s job as a turbine designer. When the Wisconsin cold proved to be too much for Mrs. Estorge’s health, the family returned to New Orleans, moving to various neighborhoods that had Sister Savio and her two brothers attending St. Francis Xavier, Mater Dolorosa and St. Matthias elementary schools, the latter operated by the Dominican Sisters.

As she approached eighth-grade graduation, Sister Savio expressed a desire to attend the Dominican Sisters’ Rosaryville high school for girls who were considering the religious life.

“My mother said, ‘Absolutely not’ because she wanted me to have, as she called it, a normal high school life,” Sister Savio chuckled. “Maybe the seed of wanting to be a sister was planted at that time, but it wasn’t enough for me to fight for it.”

She enrolled in her second choice – Dominican, then located on St. Charles Avenue and known for its life-preparing and comprehensive curriculum that taught girls the hard sciences, humanities, fine arts, Latin and home economics.

Ultimately, seven members of her Dominican class of 1956 would enter the Rosaryville convent. This time, the teenager had her family’s approval, her mother having witnessed her daughter’s desire firsthand as Sister Savio nursed her through cancer during a two-year leave from the convent.

“If you see one Dominican, you see one Dominican – you don’t see somebody cut out of a mold; I could be myself,” Sister Savio said of her attraction to the Dominican charism.

“You fit into a community, but you didn’t fade into a community. We each bring whatever gifts we have – and whatever idiosyncrasies – then we try to meld them into the community we live in.”

Passion for good books

Sister Savio received her first teaching assignment in 1962, instructing eighth-grade girls at St. Leo the Great and witnessing the school’s racial integration firsthand, which included the almost overnight departure of 300 white students.

After completing her undergraduate degree in English education at Dominican College, she was sent to Dominican High, newly headquartered at Walmsley Avenue, “because they needed an English teacher.”

Sister Savio, who also earned two master’s degrees – in English from Indiana University in Bloomington, and in education administration from Loyola – deliberately chose novels that taught idealism and the virtues. So in addition to classics such “A Separate Peace” – selected for its exploration of a friendship between boys of different backgrounds – she also assigned  “The Crystal Cave” and “The Hollow Hills,” in which author Mary Stewart traces the journey of the boy who would bring peace to Britain as King Arthur.

“We need some idealism in our lives,” Sister Savio said, listing virtues such as loyalty and care for the poor and marginalized. “(In Arthurian legend) it’s not ‘might makes right’; it’s ‘might makes responsibility,’” she said. “Arthurian legend teaches us that we don’t have gifts and skills just for ourselves; they are to be shared with others.”

She taught Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” for the same reason. Over the years, countless students have said it was Sister Savio’s passion for this book that led them to keep their yellowed copies to this day.

“Again, (“A Tale of Two Cities”) teaches about the importance of ‘the other,’” she said. “For Sydney Carton, it was more important to him for Lucie to be happy.”

Classroom osmosis

Sister Savio’s early love for reading was nourished inside the city’s public libraries. She and her older brother would be permitted to check out five books each – which meant they could read 10 at a time. 

The Estorge children were encouraged to pick up a book during their compulsory afternoon naptime during the summer months. As a St. Matthias fifth grader, Sister Savio’s teacher would cleverly leave out the ending of books read orally to her students on Friday afternoons, making the class hunger for more.

These partnerships in learning, between teacher and student, are what Sister Savio has enjoyed most about her calling as an educator.

“I used to lose my voice, like the time I was teaching poetry in English and the Trinity in religion (simultaneously),” she said. “I couldn’t talk, so I would write answers on the board that the students would call my ‘three-board answers.’”

Sister Savio said there was “something to laugh about in the classroom” every day. After a tragic fire at a CBD skyscraper, her students wondered aloud what would happen if Dominican went up in flames. Sister Savio assured them they would survive the two-story jump.

“The girl sitting right in front of me says, ‘Sister, that’s easy for you to say. You’ve lived your life,’” Sister Savio said. “After I stopped laughing, I told her, ‘I think I might have a few good years left.’ I must have been in my 30s.”

The teaching, she says, has always flowed both ways.  For example, when seniors wanted to form a “human American flag” to commemorate 9/11 in their 2001-02 yearbook, they carefully measured out the placement of each red, white or blue sweater-wearing student. Right before taking the rooftop photo, Sister Savio realized the students posing for the shot had forgotten to leave a space down the center of their human flag, which was important if it were to be printed on facing pages.

Sister Savio, whose first impulse was to move the whole crowd to the left or right, marveled at her students’ more efficient solution: moving just a handful of students from the center of the flag to its outer perimeter. Mission accomplished.

“They’ve taught me that they are very smart if we let them be. If we don’t interfere they can do some brilliant things,” she said. “I still get surprised.”

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