Community to celebrate Presentation’s legacy

Julie Filby

In its 91-year history, Presentation of Our Lady School has provided a Catholic education for thousands of children. Alumni, former and current staff, students, parents and anyone involved with the school is invited to a reunion May 30 to look back on the legacy of the west Denver school before it closes in June.

“It was fun, like one big family,” Joan Pfenning, 81, told the Denver Catholic. “Everybody knows everybody.”

Pfenning has been a member of Presentation of Our Lady Parish for 52 years and served as the school’s secretary for 20 years. She’s looking forward to the reunion and seeing old friends like “Mrs. Schnur,” who managed the school cafeteria for 27 years; Jeanette Vahling Wacholtz, who attended Presentation herself then had a family member there every year for 63 years straight, and “Andy,” who once babysat one of school’s most beloved alumni, Father Ron Cattany, soon-to-be-installed pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Closure of the school, founded in 1924, was announced by 10-year pastor Father Edward Poehlmann last November following consultation with the parish finance and pastoral councils and the Archdiocese of Denver. Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, the space will be leased to Escuela de Guadalupe, an independent Catholic school with a dual-language program, founded in north Denver in 1999.

“We’re very grateful for the alumni,” Father Poehlmann said. “The last 10 years have been difficult for the school and they’ve been very helpful and supportive.”

At its height in the 1960s, Presentation served nearly 500 students in the Barnum neighborhood. In the last decade, more than $3.6 million was invested by Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, The Catholic Foundation of Northern Colorado and the archdiocese.

A plan was developed by the Office of Catholic Schools to facilitate the transition of Presentation students and teachers. Of 97 students, more than 60 plan to go to other archdiocesan schools, primarily St. Francis de Sales and St. Bernadette, according to Father Poehlmann. The Presentation community has pledged to help the students with the transition financially, including continuing their annual golf tournament fundraiser, which will be held Aug. 18 at Inverness Golf Course in Englewood. Father Poehlmann also said that all of the teachers have jobs for next year.

The reunion will begin with 4:30 p.m. Mass in the church at 695 Julian St., celebrated by Father Poehlmann, followed by a reception in the school gym at 660 Julian St. Refreshments will be served. There is no charge for the event, though there will be an opportunity to purchase raffle tickets to raise funds for students.

“We’re so anxious to keep the kids leaving Presentation in Catholic schools,” Pfenning said.

“Presentation of Our Lady School has served the community of west Denver well for 90 years, thanks in no small part to the sacrifice and hard work of the Sisters of Mercy,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote in a statement last November when the closure was announced. “The school has struggled in the past few years … but this in no way diminishes the great work it has accomplished in the lives of generations of students.”

Guests are encouraged to show their Panther Pride at the reunion by wearing shirts with school logos. RSVP to Joan Pfenning at 303-936-5934 or Bill Uebelher at mbu11@q.com.

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.