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Sister Judy reflects on 5 decades of teaching kids to be better, not bitter

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After 53 years of dedication to education, Sister Judy Beiswanger, OSF, has decided to retire from the classroom and just wait to see where God leads her.

Sister Judy Beiswanger, OSF, sits in prayer during a retreat. After more than 50 years of teaching, Sister Judy is now ready to be led elsewhere. (Photo courtesy of Sister Judy Beiswanger, OSF, )

Sister Judy is best known for her work at Immaculate Conception Parish in East Aurora, where she served as the director of religious education for 16 years.

“My entire career has been in education,” she said, just a few weeks after retiring from Immaculate Conception, where she also had to roles of evangelization director and family faith formation director.

Although she began her first teaching assignment at the request of her Franciscan order, it became her passion to make sure that every child knew God loved them and that they had value.

“I wanted to accomplish having children know that they have worth, know that they can learn no matter what, and that as long as they work up to their capabilities they will do well,” she said of her teaching method. “I would challenge children to work up to their capabilities. I also would really, really, really try to spread the faith so that children knew that Jesus loved them unconditionally.”

Her teaching ministry began at the elementary level and took her to the city, the suburbs and the country. Sister Judy would adjust her teaching style to fit the students in front of her. A city kid herself, she understands the challenges of city kids the best. How they need more than to be taught math and English, they need to learn life skills. Sister Judy has seen mental illness, divorce and addiction in her own family. She would often pull from her own experiences to understand the problems the young ones had to deal with.

“A lot of times I have helped talk with children having difficulties either in the classroom or in their family life. Because of issues in my past growing up, I was able to help them because I had gone through some of the same things as a child and as an adult,” she explained. “I would pray with parents. I tried to help parents knowing they were busy through the pandemic and trying to really understand where they came from.”

She recalls one little boy who didn’t have much self-confidence. He used to cry every day in class. Sister Judy knew she had to instill a sense of self-worth in the child.

“I started to look, and when he had the right answer, I’d call on him. Then he started raising his hand. Then I thought, he has to know that it’s OK to make a mistake. So, I looked at his book. He had the incorrect answer. He raised his hand. I called on him. I said no, but I’ll help you get the right answer.”

It was at a school Mass when she discovered the source of his personal issues.

“He was sitting next to me. At Communion, his father went up to Communion, came back, leaned over me to say hi to his son, and I smelled alcohol. I said, ‘There’s the problem.’ The child wanted to crawl under the bench. I said, ‘It’s OK. It’s OK.’ I realized then what was wrong. But, the little guy grew confidence throughout the year,” Sister Judy recalled. “That was another lesson for me. You never know what issues children have when they come to the classroom.”

She always challenged her students to “become better and not bitter.”

“I’ve always said that through life experience, you have a choice to become better or bitter. It’s one letter difference.”

Now at age 74, the desire to learn, teach and share still exists, but the commutes from Williamsville to East Aurora through the snow are no longer enjoyable. She’s not sure what the future holds for her. “Just waiting to see where God leads me,” she said.

Sister Judy does look forward to volunteering, and is interested in NAMI – National Alliance for Mental Illness, which provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives.

“Ministry has been a wonderful experience of spiritual experience,” she said. “I found it very rewarding. And to be honest with you, I received more than I gave; I received from the children, from the parents, the other teachers. And the last 16 years, Father Bob (Wardenski), our pastor (at Immaculate Conception Parish in East Aurora) has been wonderful,” she said, adding Father Wardenski’s attitude of “You don’t work for me, you work with me” has led to a strong relationship. “That has made all the difference in the world.”

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