New Castle News

February 1, 2013

In the schools: Sister John Martin returns to St. Vitus for visit, tribute

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Students at St. Vitus School will be in for a surprise today.

When they report, both to morning Mass and their classrooms, they likely will see three women dressed in black skirts, black blouses with white collars and black veils with white trim.

“I started thinking when I was invited to come back that most of the children we will be visiting haven’t ever seen a nun,” said Sister John Martin Sullivan. “We probably will receive quite a few stares. I think it will be quite an experience for them.”

Sister John Martin and two of her fellow sisters who taught at St. Vitus when she served as principal during two stints in the 1980s and ’90s are visiting New Castle this weekend. They and the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are being honored by the Friends of Catholic Education for their years of service to the school and parish.

The visit will be highlighted with a 6:30 p.m. Mass tomorrow celebrated by the Rev. Frank Almade and the Rev. Nick Vaskov, followed by a reception, including a tour of the school. Both events, which wrap up St. Vitus’ Catholic Schools Week observances, are open to the public.

Joining Sister John Martin will be former St. Vitus teachers Sister Jeanne Marie VonderHaar and Sister Carolyn Carlisano. While the latter two teach school in Connecticut, Sister John Martin, who is 74, is semi-retired and living in a retirement home there.

“When we decided to honor Sister John Martin and talked about the sisters coming, the first thing Sister said was she wanted to spend time with the children,” said current St. Vitus principal Cathy Ryan. “We were thrilled, of course.

“The children will have so many questions. It will just be such a great learning experience for them.”

The sisters arrived last night after sharing time behind the wheel during a 10-hour drive (“Yes, we all drive,” Sister John Martin said, adding with a chuckle, “I expect one of the children to ask me that question. In fact, I taught driver’s education for 12 years, so I have spent a lot of time in a car.”)

After attending Mass this morning, the sisters were headed to the classrooms wearing the modified habits of their order, where they will greet former fellow teachers and three former students — Justin Venasco, Domenica DiGennaro and Marguerite Toscano Wills — who now teach at the school.

“I understand Justin makes great wedding soup and he saved us some,” Sister John Martin said. “We’re definitely looking forward to that.”

They will spend their three nights in New Castle at the St. Vitus rectory, which no longer is in use for the parish priests, but was spruced up for their visit.


Sister John Martin grew up in New Haven, Conn. She attended public elementary school, but had such a desire to join a Catholic school that her parents made a financial sacrifice to send her to Sacred Heart Academy there.

It was there, when she was a junior in high school, that she realized what she wanted to do with her life.

“I was a typical young girl, I think. I wanted to be a nurse and I expected married life was in my future,” she said. “But the sisters just impressed me so much and it made think if I wanted to follow their path.

“I remember being struck by a sweet, young boy who I was asked to tutor. When we parted, he said, ‘are you coming back next week, too?’ ”I told him no, but I think at that moment, I realized that I had in my heart a desire to teach the Lord’s love and goodness to people. I realized the Lord was calling me.”

She was 18 years old in 1956, when she decided to enter the convent, joining the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus religious community. Nine years later, an average for nuns, she received her habit, and she chose the name John Martin as a tribute to her father, John, and her brother, Martin.

“My mother suggested it and I loved the idea,” she said. “I am probably one of the few sisters with male names, so it raises some eyebrows, but I am very proud of my choice, to have been able to honor my father and brother.”

She taught school in several places, including her Sacred Heart Academy alma mater, before her Mother Superior sent her to Florida to train as an elementary school principal.

“I never considered getting into administration, but someone must have seen a gift in me that I didn’t know that I had,” she said. “When you are a nun, you go wherever help is needed and I was honored to be able to serve in that capacity.”


She proved to be a natural as an administrator and eventually landed at St. Vitus School in 1981, staying until 1987, when she was assigned to serve as a consultant for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, working on curriculum for math, science and computer education in the schools.

She then went to the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., as assistant superintendent, before she was called back to St. Vitus as principal from 1996-98. She went on to serve as development director there while teaching algebra to eighth-graders, until 2001, when the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sisters were reassigned. There were five nuns on staff during her first stint there and four during her second one.

She made several more stops in New Jersey and Connecticut before moving into the Connecticut retirement home, where she remains active by teaching two adult classes for Scripture, as well as book studies.

Sister John Martin said she cherishes the memories of her time at St. Vitus and was humbled to learn she would be honored there.

“I found serving as a school principal both rewarding and challenging,” she said. “I felt like I could talk to a child and see his needs right away. I wanted to work with children and I wanted to work with teachers and that was the place where I felt I could make a contribution.”

She left a lasting legacy by instituting a scholarship endowment fund for the Friends of Catholic Education so that children who might not otherwise get the chance to attend Catholic School would get that opportunity.


Current St. Vitus third-grade teacher Lillian Betts was hired in 1982 by Sister John Martin and is one of those who has been anxiously awaiting her return.

“She has always been a visionary — she knows how to meet needs before they become a need,” Betts said. “The teachers loved and respected her. But I think her greatest contribution was to the children themselves.

“She was stern, but very approachable and open-minded. Kids felt like they could talk to her. When she faced a behavioral issue, instead of punishment, she believed in doing something to change the child’s character. She was willing to work with anyone to give them a chance.”

Sister John Martin said while she encourages anyone who would like to become a sister, it takes a total commitment.

“It is a calling,” she said. “Of the 20 who have entered our (Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) community since 2001, 15 have stayed, which means that five decided to leave after months and often years of praying, reflection and training. These days, most enter in their late 20s, after they’ve done other things and realized there is something more to their life.”

And as for Sister John Martin?

“I’ve never had a regret,” she said. “I am happy to have served the Lord and hopefully had an impact on some peoples’ lives.

“I am so looking forward to this weekend. I understand I will see the grandchildren of some of my former teachers and students. What a treat that will be. I just look forward to a wonderful weekend with my St. Vitus family.”