- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

WACO, Texas (AP) - Short in stature but never short of what her co-workers call “sports chutzpah,” Sister Natalie Marengo is Reicher Catholic High School’s biggest fan, they said.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports for the Italian nun from Chicago, her feisty loyalty and love for her favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, is only surpassed by two things: her love of students and her love for serving God, she said.

Marengo has been with Reicher Catholic High School the past 30 years and served as a teacher, mentor, alumni record keeper and sports supporter across all high school grade levels. She will be the last nun at the high school until officials can figure out what to do next now that the last of the Daughters of Charity are pulling out of Waco.

“I would bless the football teams and sports teams when they were going away for games,” Marengo said. “If they were hurt or something, I would pray over them to heal and make them better as often as they would ask me. It’s just I was present here, and for the first time in Reicher’s history, there will no longer be a sister here.”

She officially retired from the school five years ago, but she has been returning on a volunteer basis four days a week. Her last day of volunteering was May 4, she said.

“When I went to school here, the majority of the classes were being taught by sisters. It was very common that when you walked in you’d see six or as many as eight or nine, and that’s the way it’s been since the beginning when this school started in ‘54,” Development Director David Hurtado said. “But with Sister Natalie, it was different because during these last 15 years or so, it was just her and Sister Bridget, and the impact you see on the kids, that I’ve seen on my own kid, is just amazing. .?.?. She brought honesty, truthfulness and trust.”

The Daughters of Charity is based in St. Louis and includes about 16,000 women who devote their lives to serving poor communities. It has a presence in 90 countries, but its numbers are shrinking. It is pulling back from areas in three states, and Waco is the only area in Texas the group is leaving. It had been in the city for about 112 years.

The nuns first arrived to care for patients at Providence Sanitarium, now known as Providence Health Center, and have served in several ministries since, including Reicher Catholic High School, the Learning Club of Waco, St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, the St. Catherine Center and the Veterans’ Administration hospital to name a few, a press release from Providence states.

It is important for the Daughters of Charity mission to live in a community with enough sisters to properly serve, so five nuns remaining have been ordered to withdraw from the area, Daughters of Charity spokeswoman Belinda Davis said.

“The sisters are very careful when they withdraw,” Davis said. “They’ve spent many months thinking about it, and they know the ministry will continue there.”

Marengo, along with Sisters Cecile Matushek, Doris Brancato, Mary Rogers and Jean Ann Wesselman will move to other locations throughout the country between now and June 1, the press release states.

Marengo served in several other states before landing at Reicher, the best little secret in town, she said. But that wasn’t necessarily the first notion she had when she arrived on campus. The school had life and wasn’t white-walled with an antiseptic feeling like other places she had worked.

The first day she stepped on campus in 1987, she walked into an unused cluttered classroom. Her new classroom had been a dumping ground for what anybody didn’t want, and she was told to throw everything out before she started, she said.

“The kids always ask what’s the hardest thing and I always say, ‘No matter how long you’ve been teaching, when you come to a new place, you start from the bottom up,’?” Marengo said. “New principal, new grading system, all of that. I finally got through it all, and thought, ‘Now I’m at home.’ “

She spent the next three decades making sure her students knew they were in a classroom full of comfort, color, discipline and life lessons, she said. She wasn’t anything like a nun seen on a television show or a movie, she said. She never used a ruler to slap a child’s hands when they misbehaved. That wouldn’t have been in line with the Daughters of Charity philosophy. Instead, she ruled by example, she said.

“I tried to let them know I truly loved them, and it took a while for that to happen,” she said with a laugh. “I ran a very disciplined classroom but not rigid. It was a classroom in which everyone had the right to learn, and no one had the right to take away that right to learn. Once they realized I really loved them and cared for them - and I told them fussing is part of loving and love is discipline - then they accepted the message.”

She drove her students crazy trying to teach them how to be organized, be prepared and how to be accountable for their actions, she said. But the lessons weren’t always taught from a textbook. Sometimes, the lessons involved hands-on activities, especially one involving a soft football given to her by a teacher’s daughter, she said.

“When we would do quizzes, I would say, ‘I’m going to throw the football, and whoever gets the football has to answer the question.’ I was pretty good. I knew how to twirl the thing, but if you could have been in the class, you could imagine how some of them were ducking,” Marengo said. “In this one class, I had a filing case in the back of the classroom and this beautiful little Blessed Mother on the top. Well, I threw the football to this one girl, and of course, she flipped up her hand and it hit the Blessed Mother, lopped off her head and she fell down. . So there I am, trying to get Blessed Mother’s head out, and Rudy, who was sitting in the fifth row by the window, said ‘Oh, Sister Natalie, Jesus is going to be upset with what you did to his mama.’ “

Other times, the lessons came from guest speakers, or knowing when not to discipline a student or one-on-one conversations, she said.

“I expected them to do their work and do it on time. If they say they left it in their locker, I said, ‘Well, sorry.’ If they said their locker was right across the hall, I said, ‘Sorry.’ One day, I made a rare exception,” Marengo said. “Something in my gut told me to say, ‘Go ahead, go to your locker and get it.’ He didn’t come back and didn’t come back.”

As she stepped out of the classroom and looked around the corner, she saw the student on the floor with the contents of his locker sprawled across the floor.

“He had tears and he said, ‘I didn’t expect you to send me to my locker and I lied to you. I didn’t do it at all, and it wasn’t in my locker,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘OK, have you learned your lesson?’ He said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ That was it.”

Interaction with the students is what Reicher will miss, Hurtado said. And for softball coach Andrea Holdbrook, Marengo has been the school’s rock. Marengo’s love of sports is what keeps her and others on the campus young, Holdbrook said.

“It gives her something to look forward to every day because she pays attention to professional sports, college sports and the sports that are going on here at school,” Holdbrook said. “There’s always something she’s either reading in the newspaper, or she’s following scores or she’s asking for updates. The kids enjoy the fact that they can talk sports with her, and it makes her a lot more personable and relatable.”

Marengo is never afraid to speak her mind, and the Reicher family loves that her petite frame comes with a loud voice, Holdbrook said. She’ll always go the extra mile to lend a supporting hand, she said.

In 2014, as her team prepared to take the field for a state championship game in Waco, Holdbrook called Marengo to see if she could give a blessing before the game over the phone. Marengo took it a step further and showed up to the game to bless the team in person.

Marengo recently gave her last blessing over Reicher’s softball team and will keep up with her favorite school from afar. She will move to an independent living facility in Indiana with one of her other sisters, and it will be the closest she’s been to her family in years, she said.

“She’s not going to sugarcoat anything for you, which is kind of refreshing,” Holdbrook said. “She’s not afraid to tell you the truth, even if it hurts your feelings. And that’s really nice because sometimes, we all need to know the truth. We all need to know what to do if we really need to fix a situation we’re in or how to handle a problem we’re facing, and she provides us with more than just spiritual guidance.”

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Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com

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