NEWTON — Students at St. Mary Catholic School in Newton learn reading through the gentle, patient tutelage of a woman now in her 66th year of teaching.
Three hours each day, Sister Rosemary Sieg teaches first, third and fourth graders at the same school she attended. “I want to help children improve and do better with reading because that is so important,” Sieg said. For those struggling, she tries different methods. “I always think if a child has trouble, I will search and search until I can find a way to help them improve.”
Children bring her great enjoyment. “I love talking to them and listening,” said Sieg, who has taught at St. Mary since 1984. “They are so smart and so spontaneous.”
July 26 marked the 70th anniversary of her entry into religious life. Sieg is a member of Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph and lives in Newton. “I just did the ordinary and lived each day, and all of a sudden it has been 70 years,” she said.
Joshua Bargdill, who knew Sieg first through his children attending St. Mary, is now in his third year as its principal. “There is not a student I know who has not made progress with her,” he said. “But I think the more important thing they get from her is being with her on a personal level. She takes such care and devotion in her work, but she does so by putting kids first.”
Children respond to Sieg, he said. “They enjoy their time with her. I have seen her firsthand turn a child’s day around.”
Sieg taught Barbara Bunting’s son, Robert, and daughter, Molly, in the 1980s and ’90s. Bunting, who was Newton Area Woman of the Year in 2013, several times unsuccessfully nominated Sieg for the same honor.
“Her humility and lifelong professions of faith and teaching are not ‘sexy’ yet they are life-changing,” Bunting wrote in an email to The Active Age. “God’s sweetness through her breaks the stereotype of old people, nuns and teachers.”
Sieg grew up on a farm between Newton and Whitewater, the daughter of Cornelius and Mary Sieg. Her father worked at a rail mill in Newton and brought his children to St. Mary. Classmates in early elementary grades knew she wanted to enter religious life.
“That is because I told everyone, I guess,” Sieg said with a laugh. “It is because I fell in love with the sisters.”
Sieg graduated from eighth grade at St. Mary in 1951. She then entered Mount St. Mary Convent in Wichita, receiving her habit at 15. Sieg completed high school there and started teaching even before earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary of the Plains College, as was permitted then. She later earned a master’s degree from Pittsburg State University along with special certification in reading and language arts.
Though she has taught kindergarten through eighth grade, first grade is her favorite. “They want to do everything right, and they want to please you. They are sweet.”
Prior to Newton, Sieg taught in Derby, Parsons, Wellington, Wichita, and Groves, Texas. After Sieg’s father died, the head of her convent asked if she wished to teach at St. Mary to be closer to her mother.
Several hundred people attended an August parish reception for Sieg’s religious anniversary and teaching career. “It was really wonderful,” Sieg said. “I could not believe so many people” attended. Many sent in memories and messages, including Bishop John Brungardt of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dodge City. Brungardt was a deacon at St. Mary Catholic Church in the summer of 1997.
Marcia Mathews, office assistant at St. Mary Catholic Church, said one especially poignant moment came when Lorraine Farnan of Newton brought in a tiny prayer card given to her by Sieg when the two graduated from eighth grade at St. Mary. Farnan wanted the 71-year old-card returned to Sieg for the reception. “When she handed it to me, I was afraid to touch it. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I think it could disintegrate because it is so delicate,’” Mathews said.
Another tribute came when State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, in August read a proclamation on the Kansas State Senate floor honoring Sieg. Then the Newton City Commission at its Sept. 27 meeting issued a proclamation noting Sieg’s contributions to religion and education.
Sieg has been part-time at St. Mary since the early 2000s. She wants to continue teaching as long as possible but said it depends on her health.
Along with her love of teaching and children, she enjoys the camaraderie at the school. “Everybody here is so kind to me, and I enjoy being with everybody so much, my fellow teachers and the staff.”
Bargdill said Sieg “gives all the staff someone to look up to and to emulate. I feel blessed she is here to work with the students, but I also feel blessed that I get to work with her and to learn from her.”