Influence of nun honored for teaching
career felt way beyond classroom
By LAURA DODSON
Catholic News Service
MELBOURNE, Fla. (CNS) -- Former Army paratrooper David Isnardi had Mercy Sister Immaculata Knox as a teacher for only a year, but he said she had “such a huge impact” on his life.
“From the top of a mountain in Bosnia-Herzegovina, from Israel to the Middle East and North Africa, through the most arduous times, I thought of Sister Immaculata,” said Isnardi, who was in her kindergarten class from 1964-65.
“When I think back on the finer things in life, I realize that she was that finer thing,” he said.
People packed an awards banquet at a Florida conference center to honor the Irish-born nun, whose career spanned almost 50 years of teaching and extended far beyond the classroom. Sister Immaculata was selected as the Brevard County Woman of the Year in Education.
The award is the work of the National Women’s History Project, which has recognized the “diverse contributions of women” for the past 30 years.
Born in Bangor, Ireland, in 1935, Sister Immaculata was one of three Mercy sisters who opened Ascension Catholic School in Melbourne with six classes -- kindergarten through fifth grade for 335 students on Sept. 1, 1961.
Throughout her years at the school, the joy-filled nun routinely taught classes of 86 kindergarteners and 50 first-graders, as well as seventh- and eighth-grade art classes and religious education students.
And, though now retired from active teaching, she is still fulfilling her call as a pastoral assistant to the sick, homebound and incarcerated.
“Sister Immaculata brought my very sick husband not just books, pamphlets and the Bible, she also shared her heart full of joy, jokes and stories and had my husband laughing through his pain,” said Barbara Dunwoody, widow of U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard H. Dunwoody.
“She visited, prayed, laughed, teased and educated my husband in the most important lesson of all -- God’s unconditional love and mercy,” Dunwoody added.
Father Eamon Tobin, Ascension’s pastor, said with a laugh that Sister Immaculata “refers to herself as being ‘recycled.’”
“She has been recycled into the ministry of pastoral assistant, a position in which she wears many hats and is known far and wide for her wonderful sense of humor. Mention of her name always brings a smile to people’s faces,” he said. “She is constantly reaching out to those in need of a word of encouragement.”
Sister Immaculata was nominated for the award by Dr. John Potomski, the father of two of her students.
“If you want a living example of how Christ wants us to live, of Christ’s love, it’s Sister Immaculata,” he said.
The nun is the first religious to be selected for the Woman of the Year award by the Board of County Commissioners and the county’s Commission on the Status of Women.
“It’s an honor that we acknowledge the work of women in Brevard County. It is my greatest desire that women understand their great role in our world, said Mary Bolin, who read the award citation.
“As soon as I saw Sister Immaculata, I had warm memories of my years in Catholic school. We have the pleasure of doing this for you today,” added Bolin, chairwoman of the board of commissioners.
“I hope that in some way, this award reflects the work that the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy does through me,” said Sister Immaculata, who received a standing ovation.
“They have given their lives in education and pastoral ministry. This award is for them too,” she added.
Sister Immaculata shared a story from her teaching days.
“We had a reconciliation corner in the classroom with a Bible and I sent two children there,” she recalled. “I realized that they were looking for me in a picture, and it was then I knew that if my students thought I was with our Lord at the Last Supper, then it was time to retire.”
“Sister Immaculata has been committed to education all her life,” said Sister Rosaline O’Connor, provincial leader of the U.S. province of the Sisters of Mercy. “But in teaching children, there was the day-to-day commitment of doing the ordered and the ordinary and she did it so well.”
“I find her so full of life, positive, cheerful and very adventurous. She’s the real sister act!” she added.
As a testament to her adventurous spirit -- in a county that is home to the Kennedy Space Center -- Sister Immaculata was selected to become a Teacher in Space in 1986. Although that dream never came to fruition, she has sky-dived and still holds out hope of someday landing an airplane.