For Sister Valeria Beuke, living and teaching for 24 years on the Tohono O’odham Nation land in southern Arizona was a far cry both physically and culturally from where she grew up, attending St. Francis Borgia schools and parish in Washington, Mo.
But that is part of what made it one of the most rewarding experiences of her 60 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame.
“The O’odham have enriched me with their faith, generosity, endurance of hardships, their culture and unhurried life-style,” Sister Valeria told The Missourian. “I learned firsthand the process of growth and development of a young child while caring for an O’odham child in his preschool years.”
Sister Valeria, also known as Sister Larry to her many relatives in Washington, celebrated her 60-year jubilee last year. She entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1951 and made her religious profession in 1954.
Since then Sister Valeria has served as an elementary, secondary and religion teacher throughout Missouri, Arizona, Illinois and Louisiana. She worked in administration for seven years in California and Illinois.
‘There’s No Way I’m Going to Be a Nun’
The ninth of 10 children born to the late Martin and Elizabeth (Hilke) Beuke, Sister Valeria was taught by SSND sisters at St. Francis Borgia Grade School, so the idea that she would grow up to be one of them was always there.
“They would take us to the motherhouse for Jubilee Days, so there was always that consideration,” Sister Valeria recalled.
“When I was in eighth grade I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be a nun.’ But I changed my mind completely when I was a sophomore. It was during a retreat day. The Franciscan fathers were very influential too, and there was a priest there, Father Bruno, and he was talking about, ‘What are you going to do after high school? We need religious men and women. Why not you?’ ”
He was addressing the whole group, but Sister Valeria said she went home and asked her parents what they thought about it. “Do you mean go now?” they asked her.
For advice, her mom turned to an old family friend who was a sister, Sister Gemella, who had taught Valeria’s older brothers and sisters.
“Much to my delight, Sister replied, ‘By all means, let Valeria go now, she may change her mind,’ ” Sister Valeria recalled.
“I left when I was a junior in high school. I entered the Aspiranture, because you are aspiring to be a sister. It means I went to a boarding house in St. Louis. I attended Notre Dame High School and graduated in 1951.
From there she entered the Candidature, also known as the Postulance, and began college at the former Notre Dame College in St. Louis. Two other SFB women entered along with her — Joan Kleinheider and Arlene Marquart.
During her second year of college, Sister Valeria said she was placed on mission at St. Peter’s in St. Charles where she was assigned to teach 50 fifth-graders. Later she was told they were the worst class in the school.
“I didn’t doubt it,” she remarked with a smile.
On Reception Day, Aug. 1, 1953, she received the name, Novice M. Rose Martin. She was professed Aug. 2, 1954.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the former Notre Dame College in St. Louis and a master’s in English from California State University-Long Beach and a master’s in theology from St. Mary’s University in Texas.
Criss-Crosses Country for Career
Sister Valeria’s first assignment was teaching at a Catholic elementary school in Bogalusa, La., a paper mill town. She had large classes, as many as 50 to 60 students.
“Those were challenging years,” she remarked. “You learn quickly how to teach.”
From there she took a teaching position in Herrin, Ill., and later principal positions in Freeburg, Ill., and then in Pico Rivera, Calif., where the school had 800 students.
She spent 12 years teaching English and religion first at Helias High School in Jefferson City, then Notre Dame High School in Cape Girardeau and finally at Notre Dame High School in Quincy.
For each of these assignments, Sister Valeria was asked to go to teach at these locations. But her assignment with the Tohono O’odham (which means simply “desert people”) was one that she requested.
The sisters are asked, as a community to plan five years ahead, Sister Beuke explained. She took that responsibility very seriously, studied the needs, and found one of the big areas of need was Native Americans.
She asked about it at the SSND motherhouse and was told about some work up in Montana, but that didn’t appeal to her, so she continued to research the idea and learned of an SSND out of Dallas, Sister Ruth Speh, who was working in Arizona.
She wrote to her and asked about the work. Sister Ruth said it would be great to have the assistance, since she was growing too old to continue.
“I went really to work in the villages like pastoral ministry, but they needed teachers at the newly opened high school, so I said I could help with that. I was supposed to be temporary, but I stayed at the high school for nine years,” Sister Valeria recalled, noting it was a government school, Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. “I taught reading mostly.
“It was very quiet,” she said of working with the Native American students. “There was no response. They never look at your face. It’s just part of their culture. To get responses, you would have to get them into groups to talk, and they talked very quietly. They could have fun, but they were more subdued.”
The school was brand new when she began working there and it looked like any other school. It was thoroughly modern with computers and all the other new technology for the time.
Instead of starting her classes with a prayer, as she would normally have done when she taught at Catholic schools, she began with an O’odham song.
In 1989, Sister Valeria brought two of the Native Americans back to Washington for a visit with her relatives here.
After nine years at the high school, Sister Valeria was sent to the elementary school at the Santa Rosa Mission for six years.
She was the lead teacher there for six years.
The last five years Sister Valeria was in Arizona, she led a program called FACE, Family and Child Education, which provided adults seeking a GED to bring their preschool-age children with them.
“I taught the adults, and there were two teachers who taught the preschoolers, and we also went into the homes,” said Sister Valeria.
The purpose of having the children come with their parents was to help prepare them for school — to teach language, vocabulary and social skills.
“These experiences in the Sonoran Desert bordering Mexico were at times desert in the real sense of the word,” said Sister Valeria, “but most often were periods of strength and wonder at God’s presence among these awesome O’odham.
“It was 24 years with people in a totally different culture, but they are so delightful and genuinely good and humble.”
Sister Valeria left the reservation to return home to Missouri in 2008, not because she was no longer capable of doing the work, but more so because of her age. At the time, she was 76.
“It is suggested once you are in your 70s to consider retiring,” she said.
Today there are no more sisters working on the reservation.
Continues to Work, Volunteer
Since returning home to the motherhouse in St. Louis, Sister Valeria has had a variety of jobs. She taught at the learning center helping Catholic high school students earn any English and religion credits they needed. She also assisted in the Notre Dame preschool.
Both the learning center and the preschool have since closed.
For a short time she was employed and living in Kennett, Mo., working at the MWHO Mission, a faith-based organization focused on addressing the unmet needs of migrant workers. This included writing grants.
Currently Sister Valeria volunteers in the SSND’s Resource Development Office signing letter of thanks that are sent. She also embroiders for quilts that are raffled through the department and serves as the hospitality associate at Maria’s Center when the building is rented.
She doesn’t want to simply retire, but prefers to work and stay busy.
Travels Influenced Her Life
Back when Sister Valeria was earning master’s degree in theology from St. Mary’s, she received a grant for five weeks of study in the Bible lands of Israel, Jordan and Greece.
“This study tour enlivened the Scriptures for me and remains one of the highlights of my life,” said Sister Valeria.
Accompanying her was her sister Josephine Frankenberg, whose husband, Jim, had recently passed away.
“We climbed Mount Masada . . . Climbed it in the heat of the day. We made it to the top. We started it at 2 a.m. with flashlights. It took us three hours to climb it, but we were there for Mass at sunrise,” Sister Valeria recalled.
The sisters toured the many archeological sights and both wrote papers on them for the class credit.
“We were also in Egypt at the time, 1980 . . . (a time when) the Sinai Peninsula kept switching back and forth between Egypt and Israel. We could hear gunfire in the distance,” said Sister Valeria.
Another trip that left a deep impression on Sister Valeria’s heart was to Central America in 1976. She visited SSND sisters working in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“El Salvador had just had an earthquake, so that was devastating, and Guatemala was one of the poorest countries in Central America, so that was an exposure to see how people lived,” said Sister Valeria.
She still cries remembering how a woman in Guatemala welcomed a group of the sisters into her home and fed them “the most delicious chicken and rice meal” even though she had so little means and food.
Sister Valeria shared stories of that trip and accompanying slides with her high school students studying social justice at Helias High School in Jefferson City.
‘I Learned From Family, Parish’
Looking back on her 60 years as a sister, Sister Valeria said everything she needed to prepare her for life as an SSND, she learned growing up in Washington with a loving family and attending St. Francis Borgia schools and parish.
“I learned from family and parish: generosity, hard work, determination to do my best and my part. This was balanced with learning to take time to create, to relax and to enjoy music, dancing and singing,” Sister Valeria, who is also known as Sister Larry, told The Missourian.
“How blessed was I was to grow up in the community of Washington. It prepared me well for an ever evolving and always surprising future as a School Sister of Notre Dame,” she added.
“In my ministries, I was often unprepared for the work I was given, but each assignment was a gift that made my life more complete and richer than I could ever have imagined as a teenager rooted in a wholesome family and vibrant parish.”