Friday, January 2, 2004

Nun answers call on field and court

She's a counselor to athletes

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Sister Mary Bookser attends a girls basketball practice at Cincinnati State.
(Tony Jones photo)
She doesn't wear a habit, but in the hallways and on the basketball court, she's known as Sister Mary.

Administrators, instructors - even the college president - call her by that name. But Sister Mary Bookser, a licensed counselor and longtime Sister of Charity, doesn't work for a Catholic school.

Since January, she has been a counselor and confidant to students - especially athletes - at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

Sister Mary is the only nun doing that kind of work at a public institution, according to the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletes. In fact, Sister Rose Ann Fleming at Xavier University is the only other nun who's an association member."I see this job as a continuation of my ministry - always to be the Gospel wherever I am, to reach out to those who may or may not know that God loves them," Sister Mary says.

Her presence at the two-year college of 8,200 students has made a difference, school officials and students say. Since Sister Mary's arrival, there have been fewer complaints about student athlete behavior and more have stayed the course in academics.

"During the past year that she has been working with the golf team, the team has lost not one player to academic ineligibility," says coach Scott Webb. "This statistic speaks for itself."

In her office, the stack of business cards reads "Sister." She keeps a copy of the Bible, the Quran, a weekday Hebrew prayer book and the Tao Te Ching, a book that has dozens of chapters of philosophical and spiritual poems, on her desk.

Title: Counselor, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
Born: Jan. 5, 1945, in Pittsburgh; grew up in Springfield, Ohio.
Education: Ph.D. in Women's Studies, Union Institute and University; master's in theology and master's in education/guidance and counseling, Xavier University; bachelor's in religious studies, College of Mount St. Joseph; bachelor's in music education, College of Mount St. Joseph.
Career: Served as director of Initial Formation for the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati for eight years, helping women interested in joining the religious community. Also has been a high school teacher, college professor and a counselor.
Activities: Plays piano, organ and bass guitar; volunteers as an organist at Bayley Place, an assisted living and nursing facility in Delhi Township; and is a board member of Imago, an environmental group in Price Hill.
Sisters of Charity, in Delhi Township, is an apostolic Catholic ministry of 520 women who share their mission with 129 lay men and women called associates. The sisters use their professional skills in education, health care and social services. They sponsor institutions that address education, health care and other needs, particularly for the poor.
History: Elizabeth Seton founded the Sisters of Charity, the first community of women religious native to the United States, in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Md. They educated children and cared for orphans, the poor and sick. Dioceses across the country requested their services. Four sisters opened St. Peter's school and orphanage for girls in Cincinnati in October 1829.
Source: Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati
Sister Mary wears a simple cross around her neck. Sometimes, students talk to her about God and meaning in their lives.

Often, they see her as a problem solver and an advocate.

"If we're having a problem, she takes care of it," says Ansley Davenport of Fairfield, 19, a freshman on the women's basketball team. "She's like our mom away from home. When you see her, it just makes you want to do good."

She's the nurturer

Sister Mary counsels students each week on topics ranging from homework to the death of a loved one. But she is specifically assigned to about 80 student athletes, both men and women, who play golf, soccer and basketball.

If the coach is the enforcer, she's the nurturer.

"I'm the one who asks, 'Are you in class?' '' Sister Mary says. "How are you doing in your classes? But I can also contact faculty and say, 'This person is out this week because they separated their shoulder or broke their thumb.' "

She sets up study groups, advises students on course work and acts as a liaison between player and instructor. She talks to students about time management and transitioning into college, and attends the home games for basketball and soccer.

Sometimes, her solutions are as simple as nudging a student to talk to a teacher. That was the case for Chuck Sweeney, 20, a liberal arts major from Louisville.

"As soon as this term began I had a problem with a teacher and a class, my African-American studies class," he says. "He's from Africa and I couldn't understand what he was saying, and I thought he was too hard on us. She just told me to go talk to him about it on the side and ever since then I've been doing all right."

But students also know Sister Mary's expectations - and her trademark lines.

"Be there," she says. "You have to show up in class to do well academically. It would be good to sit up front, ask questions, participate and do your homework. And watch your attitude! Instructors at Cincinnati State notice all of these things and will work with you if you are really interested and try hard in your coursework."

Or, the one about divine intervention at finals time.

"I believe in miracles,'' she says, "but if you come to me at the end of the term and haven't been doing the work and attending classes, there's no miracle that will save you."

Cincinnati State Athletics Director Gary McDaniel, who also coaches the women's basketball team, says he plays the role of policeman, enforcing the rules.

"But they need more people to talk to than the coach," he says.

Sister Mary's credentials go beyond a good listening ear. The 58-year-old has a master's degree in guidance and counseling and a Ph.D. in women's studies. She has studied world religions, most recently at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

"They feel free if they want to come in and talk about God and prayer in their lives," she says. "But I don't precipitate it. People see value in that. In my work as a counselor, I don't bring up religion."

More like mom than nun

Those who work with Sister Mary say her religious title has never been an issue.

Diane Stump is president of Cincinnati State's faculty senate and head of the search committee that recommended the nun be hired.

"Mary gave all the right answers," Stump says. "We felt her skills were everything we wanted and more."

Sharon Davis, assistant dean of student development, is pleased with the way students have responded to Sister Mary.

"They want to please her in terms of behavior," Davis says. "Like your mom, you know it's going to get back to her. They know she's a part of their lives at Cincinnati State."

Sister Mary admits she has no sports experience, though that hasn't stopped some of the athletes from trying to teach her. On a recent afternoon, Sister Mary calls out to a player who is shooting half-heartedly, "Hey, watch out. You are throwing the ball like Sister Mary."

That's when Davenport takes Sister Mary by the shoulders and leads her to the free throw line. Taking off what she jokingly calls her nun pumps - comfortable shoes with low heels - Sister Mary lobs the ball a few times.

Finally, with a little coaching, she makes her first shot.

Ashley Davenport, Ansley's twin sister, dribbles a ball across the court and congratulates the counselor on her first two points. To the Davenports and the rest of the women on the team, Sister Mary is their biggest defender.

"She's our super-fan," Ashley says.


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