By Kira Dault
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Sister Connie Tarallo has been teaching first grade at St. Ann Catholic School in Bartlett for 41 years, nearly as long as the school has been open.
She doesn’t have any plans to retire.
“I take it one day at a time,” said Tarallo, who joined the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 1960, the same year St. Ann opened in Bartlett.
“I know this can’t go on forever, but for now I love what I’m doing, and I’m not planning on stopping yet.”
Tarallo is the last one of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth still active in education in Memphis, and one of more than 740 sisters who have served various schools and ministries since the order came to Memphis in 1882.
Last Sunday, Tarallo received the “Angel of the Catholic Schools Award” from the Catholic Diocese of Memphis on behalf of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who are celebrating their bicentennial anniversary this year.
“We are so proud of Sister (Connie),” says Nancy Gronostaj, St. Ann’s curriculum coordinator. “She has taught a lot of the children’s parents and even grandparents. I always show off her room when I take people on tours of the school.”
“Like a shepherd with his flock, Sister Connie tends to the needs of each of her students and gently guides them forward,” says St. Ann’s principal Roxanna Croxdale. “She is our hidden treasure.”
As a cluster of students pass by, a few stop to give Tarallo a quick hug and kiss.
“I’ve always enjoyed teaching the little ones. You give them such an important start,” Tarallo said. “It’s not a job. It’s a ministry.”
After 41 years of ministry, some things have changed. “When I started teaching, I was using those ABC flash cards with the kids. Today, most of them can read when they get to my classroom,” she said.
“Sometimes, I think I’m a frustrated actress, because I’m competing with all of these games and television shows. You have to be enthusiastic.”
Another change arrived in Sister Connie’s classroom this year: a medical assistance dog named Teag. “He’s the first dog I’ve ever had in the classroom, but he’s wonderfully behaved,” she said.
Many of the gifts of the job remain the same, even after all of these years. “It’s the grace of God that helps me to spread the good news,” she said. “I know that I’m making a difference in the lives of these children. My religion class is the high point of my day. I just love passing on the faith.”
Passing on the faith is one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, founded in 1812 in Bardstown, Ky. Over two centuries, sisters have served all over the country as teachers, nurses, social workers and counselors. As part of their stated mission, the sisters are “committed to work for justice in solidarity with oppressed peoples, especially the economically poor and women, and to care for the earth.”
According to Cathy Galaskiewicz, Vicar of Vocations for the Diocese, more than 740 Sisters of Charity have served in the Memphis area. “Each of us who is blessed to call them Sister, friend, mentor, neighbor is deeply enriched by their love of God and of each of us,” she said.
Tarallo joined the order right after she graduated from high school. “The sisters always seemed so happy, and I was really drawn to that happiness,” she said.
She taught for a few years in Kentucky, and began teaching at St. Ann Catholic School in 1971. She has been there ever since. “There are some people who told me that I should go on to be principal,” she said, “but I don’t apologize for still teaching first grade after all these years.
“I love what I do. It’s really about teaching them how to love one another.”
Kira Dault is a freelance writer and editor from Memphis who writes about religion, politics, and parenting.