Religious Sisters Change Lives, and Sister Aaron Winkelman Changed Mine| National Catholic Register

Teachers like Sister Aaron may never get the thanks they deserve, but they have done more good than they know.

Back in the early 1990s, while our growing family was based in Tokyo, Japan, I accepted a job offer from the International School of the Sacred Heart to teach a class in Moral Decision-Making to sophomore girls. At the time, I had no prior teaching experience, but I wasn’t too worried. I knew what had worked best for me when I was a high-school student and decided to take the same basic approach. 

Accordingly, I adopted the Socratic method that had grounded Dominican Sister Aaron Winkelman’s Honors English class at Santa Catalina School for Girls in Monterey, California, where I attended high school from 1969-1973.

For four years, Sister Aaron’s English class consisted of rich discussions of classic literary works, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Sister Aaron posed questions about style and substance. We probed the meaning of similes and metaphors. We studied characters that served as icons of Christ himself, as well as characters brought down by hubris. 

Class time was also set aside for writing short essays in the classic form that addressed the topic at hand and allowed Sister Aaron to evaluate and strengthen our writing, logic and critical reading abilities. The essays were graded and returned with comments in time for the next session.

I loved the class. And I still remember with delight when the lightbulb went off as I struggled through Lord of the Flies in Freshman English. That was the moment I first realized that books contained deeper levels of meaning that needed to be unpacked and savored.

It was exciting. It was stimulating. And slowly, class by class, essay by essay, year by year, my classmates and I became readers, thinkers and writers.

I only really appreciated the gift we had received when I started college. I discovered that many of my new friends had not benefited from the same high standards and level of instruction during their high-school years.

Most of my high-school classmates who had Sister Aaron for English had a similar experience, and some, who became teachers or professors themselves, also tried to replicate the methods of instruction she employed.

Much later, I also realized that Sister Aaron had given us something else: a faith-infused perspective on culture that fortified our faith and moral compass, and informed other parts of our lives. 

Like many Catholic high schools in the early 1970s, our school had watered down religious instruction in an effort to offer a more relevant approach to the faith. There were classes on the Theology of Film, and we read books like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a semi-autobiographical story of a teenage girl’s struggle with schizophrenia and her battle to return to reality. Formal classes in theology and philosophy were limited.

But Sister Aaron’s class gave us an opportunity to explore Christian anthropology and theology through literary analysis. As a result, many of us received a foundation in the faith that we built on as adults.

I began reflecting on Sister Aaron’s impact on my own life after reporting on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ decision to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at their 2023 Pride Night event. 

The “drag nuns” group has earned a reputation for engaging in anti-Catholic speech and behavior that is deeply offensive to many people of faith. And one of the most egregious aspects of their work is surely the constant ridiculing of Catholic women religious.

For the most part, secular news accounts of the controversy over the Dodgers’ award to the group have dismissed Catholic objections and insisted that the group deserved recognition for its charitable activities. One news story I read even argued that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were not very different from Catholic women religious because both groups are involved with charitable outreach. 

“Where to begin?” I thought, as I read that clueless observation.

But many Americans, Catholic or not, are confused about women religious, and that problem has only increased a half-century after religious orders began hemorrhaging members.

At my Catholic high school, Santa Catalina, the board, with the support of some Dominican Sisters, opted to separate from the Dominican province in the mid-1970s. Sister Aaron and several other Dominican Sisters stuck with the Dominicans. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. in English, teach at Dominican University in San Raphael, and celebrate her jubilee in 2021, marking 60 years as a woman religious. 

Her ring motto is Ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos (“That you love one another as I have loved you”) from John 13:34. Her motto reminds me of the vital importance of her religious vocation, and the way she served as a spiritual mother to her students.

Sister Aaron was shy, even awkward, at times. And yet, she had a gift for fostering the best in her students, including a love of learning and of truth.

The good that I have tried to do in my work as a Catholic journalist is at least in part due to her ministry in the classroom. Teaching teenagers can be a thankless job, and even exceptionally gifted instructors like Sister Aaron may never get the thanks they deserve. But they have done more good than they know. They change lives, and she changed mine.

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