Sister Mary Schifferle is named religious woman of the year

GREENVILLE — If you hear anybody say that Sister Mary Schifferle works magic at St. Anthony of Padua School, it is not just a figure of speech.

The Franciscan sister periodically gives magic shows at the Greenville school where she teaches religion to students from 3-K through fifth grade. Using simple sleight-of-hand magic tricks, she delights students and their parents during the school day and at holiday parties.

This one-of-a-kind approach to her work helped Sister Mary win the 2009 Religious Woman of the Year award given by the S.C. Conference of Catholic Women.

She was honored at a banquet held at the SCCCW’s annual conference on Hilton Head Island March 28. Kathleen Merritt, director of ethnic ministries for the Diocese of Charleston, nominated her.

“It was a big surprise to me that they would even think about me,” Sister Mary said in an interview with The Miscellany.

“I just chug along every day. I call myself one of the ‘faithful pluggers.’ I work every day doing my little job and trying to do it well,” she said.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Sister Mary and her three brothers attended schools taught by Franciscan sisters. These teachers inspired her to pursue a vocation and to join the order.

“I knew ever since first grade that I wanted to be a sister,” she said. “I had prayed for a sister to come along in my family and I got brothers, so I just had to be patient, and I ended up with 400 sisters later.”

She joined the Franciscan order shortly after graduating from Bishop O’Hern High School in Buffalo. Sister Mary said she has been a Franciscan for more than 45 years.

She is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, based in Syracuse, N.Y. She lives in a convent at St. Anthony with Sister Catherine Noecker, principal at St. Anthony School, and Sisters Mary Jane Reisdorf and Mary Frances Cannon.

She has spent 40 years teaching at Catholic schools in Buffalo and Chicago, and has been in Greenville since 1994.

At St. Anthony of Padua, and the other schools she has served, most of her students are African-American. She said many of the youth come from poor families, and she is glad to serve them since it is  part of the Franciscan commitment to work with the poor.

Sister Mary frequently adds music, pictures and other elements to her daily teachings about the sacraments and Scripture.

“She is very interested in gathering and sharing African-American materials, including pictures of black saints, biblical pictures from Africa, African fabrics and lively music,” Merritt said. “She hopes to increase pride in the children’s great heritage.”

Sister Mary said she particularly enjoys introducing students, many of whom are non-Catholic, to the beauty of the Mass. She said one of her greatest joys is seeing her students grasp the idea that God loves them and is present in their daily lives.

“They know that God is real, and they are happy to just have me come in and share with them,” she said. “The students are so open to what’s real, and they need it so much in their lives. There is a real sense of enjoyment in their worship.”

Magic shows happened by chance.

“My brothers started magic shows in the basement of our home in Buffalo, and we sold tickets,” she said. “I bought a magic kit after that and over the years it developed. I started looking for tricks, the simplest ones that don’t fall apart.”

About 10 years ago, a magician who was supposed to perform at the school could not make it. Instead, Sister Mary ended up creating magic for the whole assembly.

Since then, she has become a regular performer at their annual All Saints party, where she walks around and performs tricks and optical illusions for small groups of students and parents.

“She is a joy,” said Franciscan Father Patrick Tuttle, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church. “Sister Mary has been the story teller for Jesus, the troubador of the children’s Mass, and the organizer of religious education for our school.”

He said Sister Mary regularly takes students to the athletic field to pray the rosary.

“More than anything, I personally appreciate the fact that she wakes up every day … and gives herself away in tenderness and gentle tones to children whose lives are filled with much more than children should ever have to encounter,” Father Tuttle said. “She is an oasis of peace and a guardian of souls here at the school.”