COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — People would expect to see Sister Maria Lovett praying.
But playing kickball?
Indeed, she pitches every school day unless it’s raining. And on those days, she invents a game or pulls out musical instruments.
Anything to keep her 6- and 7-year-old first-graders at St. Joseph Catholic School from growing restless.
“If you sat through a conference, you would need to move your body after a while,” Lovett said. “That’s important for small children, too.”
Now in her 60th year as a nun and teacher — 40 of those at St. Joseph on Devine Street — Lovett, the only remaining nun at the private school, is still on top of her game.
There’s not much that gets by Lovett, who has become something of a Columbia institution in school circles.
“She just has an incredible amount of energy,” said the school’s assistant principal, Kemn Dodds.
Comparing Lovett to that other famous Maria from “The Sound of Music,” Dodds admitted there are days when she has a hard time keeping up with her.
“I think she could scale that mountain with seven children if she wanted to,” she said laughing. “I couldn’t, but she could.”
Lovett teaches religion but also a full complement of other subjects, among them English, reading and arts and crafts.
She counts doctors, business leaders and many others among former students. And while Lovett declines to give her age, she notes that she soon will be teaching her third generation of some “St. Joe” families.
“There are not many people she hasn’t taught,” assistant principal Dodds added.
Retired Columbia prima ballerina Mariclare Miranda said she remembers Lovett being “very supportive” of her goal to dance.
“She always seemed interested in what I was doing and what the next ballet was that I was in,” said Miranda, who was a second-grader in Lovett’s class. “That’s really big to a child when you’re doing something extracurricular and then to show interest in that. It had a huge impact on me.”
That softer side is something Lovett thinks most people don’t associate with nuns, who some still view as intimidating.
And, many are curious. She’s often approached while out shopping, wearing her habit, and “they ask me if I’m a real nun.”
It makes her laugh.
“If you watch TV, you would think nuns are terrible,” she said. “But you can be strict and loving.”
And apparently nuns appreciate a good prank as well.
At a recent retreat, Dodds and Lovett attended at Ursuline Sisters of Louisville in Kentucky — where Lovett just celebrated her 60th “Jubilee” anniversary” as a nun — Dodds said Lovett had made it appear someone was asleep in her bed.
“I think I screamed,” Dodds said when she opened the door of her room.
“Sister,” as Lovett is simply called, also has been known to short-sheet a bed or two in her time.
Lovett, who grew up in Columbia, was influenced by nuns at Ursuline High School — which today is Cardinal Newman — who inspired her love of teaching.
She particularly enjoys first grade, a critical time for children learning to read, write and follow directions.
“Just to focus is hard for them,” she said. “But I like it because when they come in, they come in fresh wanting to learn,” she said. “By Christmas, they have just blossomed.”
On rainy days when things might get a little unfocused, it doesn’t take long for Lovett to find a way to redirect.
“You have days when you have a full moon and they’re going to be talkative,” she said. “But you look through your hands and say ‘They’re just children.’ “