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 | By Marissa Nichols

Teach them what they need for life

Notre Dame San Jose’s Woman of Impact 2023 award winner, Sister Rosalie Pizzo

“My mom was insightful. She said the most important thing was for me to get a Catholic education.” Sister Rosalie Pizzo recalled living in the downtown Sacred Heart Parish Community, where she and her sisters attended the nearby Notre Dame High School where the seeds of her vocation as a Sister of Notre Dame were first sown.

She shared her vocation story. “A sister changed it all. I can still see her and where we were standing. It was during my senior year. I remember her saying, 'Your class is 100 girls and 10 percent should be religious.’ I asked if I was part of that 10 percent, and she replied, ‘Yes, you are; I have been praying for you.’ Well, that put it in my head and heart, and nine other girls and I entered. Her prophecy came true.”
More than 70 years later, after decades as an educator, administrator, and pastoral minister, as she stood to accept the Women of Impact award at Notre Dame San Jose’s luncheon, Sister Rosalie shared a surprising fact: “In retrospect, pastoral ministry was my calling, but to be a Notre Dame Sister meant teaching, so I did.” Nevertheless, all teachers can glean wisdom from Sister Rosalie’s time as an ‘accidental’ educator. “Initially, my emphasis was on the subject matter. Eventually, I discovered that the ‘soul' of teaching was recognizing each person's unique gifts in whatever response they offered.”

The example of St. Julie Billiart, the foundress of her order, continues to guide her to this day. “What gives you the ability to see goodness and reflect that: that was Saint Julie's main charism.”  Sister Rosalie firmly believes that the Church’s greatest challenge is to indicate that God’s goodness is present for those searching in faith, “to show God is here in this messy world,” she emphasized. And this transcends vocation.

The Paradigm of the Teacher as Learner

She shared a new idea for the educator's paradigm that she came upon when she taught in the classroom, “When I began, I thought you taught subjects. But after a while I realized the children taught me.” She personally arrived at a paradigm of what it meant to be an effective educator: “To be a good teacher, you must be a good, lifelong learner. I did not know that at the beginning.” Adaptability is what some might call a superpower of an educator. It is also an underlying principle of one St. Julie quote that has guided her vocation: “Teach them what they need to know for life.” For Sr. Rosalie, this means guidance for navigating through life with a faith dimension. “At some point, everyone wonders how to move through life’s challenges and find the blessings.” Teaching what is life-giving guided her especially as pastoral minister, where she has taught practical life skills to Ethiopian refugees in Rome, job skills to Haitian refugees locally, and later helped set up the Emergency Housing Consortium for the City of San Jose.

As a Pastoral Associate at St. Lucy Parish, teaching what people need for life meant accompanying couples through marriage preparation, sitting with the grieving, and overall encouraging those seeking to find God in their lives. She confesses that her nineteen years at the parish was the highlight of her vocational activity although she has never ceased to be involved. “A religious never retires. We simply transition to another call to reflect God’s goodness in some new way.” Under San Jose’s late Bishop Emeritus Patrick McGrath, she was appointed the bishop’s Delegate to Religious. A woman of impact, indeed.

Gratitude for her grounding in the Charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame

She spoke again to the presence of reciprocity in pastoral ministry just as in teaching. “Those people you are privileged to serve form you as much as you form them. It is a profound privilege and grace to have been part of the grace-filled moments of so many."

Her years as a teaching sister of Notre Dame are not without their own tangible fruit including how former students have sought her out and continue to stay connected with her. In one instance, a former Seattle student she taught in 1st grade contacted her a few years ago. “They did not know if I was still alive. When they found me, they put me in touch with the children I taught, and many started writing to me. It has been a great joy. That is part of the whole Catholic school educator experience, too.”

Women of Impact Event

Sister Rosalie considers the diversity of our Diocese of San Jose schools as their best attribute. “We have a wonderful opportunity for thinking bigger than ourselves because of the variety and the ethnicity that resides here. I am so grateful that I belong to an international congregation because our sisters are all over the world, and they send reports back to us about what they are doing and those countries that keep us more focused on the world than on just where we are here and now.” She sees that same global emphasis at Notre Dame San Jose. “It is one of the best schools. Students come from all ethnic backgrounds and economic backgrounds and so forth.”  She laughed and acknowledged, “I must tell you that I am a little partial to Notre Dame High School. Can you tell?”

At Notre Dame’s Women of the Impact event, examples of student-created table place settings, part of the greater “Women’s Place Project,” lined the lobby. This bespoke commemoration of inspiring figures from Dorothy Day to Billie Holiday set the tone for a fundraising brunch honoring key women of impact in the community. As this year’s award winner, Sister Rosalie gave the keynote address in which she naturally referenced her foundress. “Saint Julie said, ‘We should have hearts as wide as the world.’ Is there any doubt she is saying that we should strive to find a place in our hearts for all? This is not to say that we agree with everyone, but we need to listen respectfully to diverse points of view. In doing so, we might move the needle slightly toward compassionate listening.”

Sister Rosalie believes that the educator, the pastoral minister, the Church itself, has one job in every aspect of life: “I am convinced it is to bring hope to the world and to be hopeful. If you trust God, you are hopeful.” Many small moments along the way have confirmed this for her. She shared a brief personal story as an example.

“One time, I was sitting in a dentist's office, and a commercial radio interruption came on. It was about one of the televangelists who was involved in some scandal. A man in the waiting area looked up, and he said, ‘Oh, these church people, they are such hypocrites! That is why I do not go to church!’ and on and on. I listened to him for a while, and he asked me what I thought. I replied, ‘Well, you know, I do not think people go to church because they are good. I think they go to church because God is good.’

“He looked at me and exclaimed, ‘You sound just like a nun!’  When I told him I was a nun, he told me this wonderful story. When he was a child preparing for his first holy communion (it turns out he was Catholic), his mother could not afford a suit of clothes, and a nun found a little suit and gave it to his mother for him to wear.

“I asked him, ‘Do you remember that sister's name?’ And he did: it was Sister Lucidity, one of our Notre Dame Sisters. I told him I knew her and lived with her. He was so happy to make that connection, and he started crying. The whole atmosphere in that waiting room changed.”

For Sister Rosalie, stories like this are part of restoring hope, “I hope we all remember the good things, the good stories that bring hope to the world, which is such a need right now. That is absolutely a part of teaching them what they need to know for life.” MN