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For 77 years, Benedictine nuns have worked and taught at what is now the state's only all-girl's Catholic high school. Today, the school's principal, and only nun, shares just what makes their mission work.

Sister's Act

I'm the only one," confesses Sister Charlotte in a quick whisper, as if confiding a secret.

For more than a moment she pauses — just like she does at school assemblies when she wants the attention of 297 teen-age girls in uniform. Planted in soft-soled shoes, hands on hips, eyebrows arched and blue eyes wide, she makes her point, as she often does — without saying a word.

Sister Charlotte is no stranger to the neighborhood. She spent her childhood eagerly crossing sidewalks from her home on Crenshaw Avenue to St. Benedict's School. As a teen-ager, she walked more gracefully along those same sidewalks to Saint Gertrude High School. Outside the classroom, she didn't think about her teachers, the Benedictine nuns, who wore a different kind of uniform and kept womanhood a mystery. Instead, she dreamed of winning basketball games and of a world that would take her far — away from the house where she struggled with adolescence, with being the middle child, and with parents she didn't always understand.

Little did she know that the Benedictine sisters, whose lives had seemed so strange, so untouchable, would shape for her a way of life right in the community she loved best. And her Catholic faith would guide her home. Today, it's hard for Sister Charlotte to imagine anything more natural. But 40 years ago, she would have thought it impossible that one day she'd be the principal at her alma mater, and what's more, the only Catholic nun at Saint Gertrude High School.

Sister Charlotte Lange is not what you'd expect. There's no black-and-white habit, no rosary dangling from her pocket, no ruler. Her religious way of life is less conspicuous. And that's precisely her strategy. Dressed in a bright pink blouse and black floral skirt, she sports a neatly styled wedge haircut and looks more like a neighbor you'd bump into at Ukrop's than a Catholic nun who lives in a convent. When she introduces herself as Sister Charlotte, she's delighted that people seem surprised.

"St. Benedict said we should not stand out," she explains of the 5th-century Italian saint whose asceticism inspires Benedictine life, "and I blend in more like this." Even with her contemporary dress, and what some call equally modern thinking, Sister Charlotte does stand out. But few outside her community know it. Sister Charlotte is the only Benedictine sister at the private all-girls high school on Stuart Avenue, and, what's more, she's the only Benedictine sister at any of the 33 Catholic schools in the Richmond Diocese. And as she approaches 60, with no Benedictine sister in line to take her place, it looks as if the school will have its first lay principal in its 77-year history. Sister Charlotte calmly dismisses such talk of retirement, offering the proverbial: "There are miles to go before I sleep." Still, like a careful instructor, she's making plans — which include the launch of the school's first capital campaign for added facilities — to ensure her successor has all the necessary props. Not surprisingly, Sister Charlotte says this has caught the attention of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia — the 41-member Order of St. Benedict, located in Bristow, that owns the school — and also some in Richmond's Catholic community.

At a time when Catholic schools increasingly depend on alumnae donations to help attract top-notch faculty, keep the $6,200 tuition cost from rising too steeply, and maintain facilities, a lay principal may not attract the same financial support. It's possible, too, that a lay principal wouldn't maintain the school's strong religious focus.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasSister Charlotte is known for her hawk-eye attention to detail, especially in the school's hallways. "We don't pamper students. They get support and are challenged, but they still get structure. If you keep removing the limits for them, they never grow up.""We make sure we treat theology like English, math and science," says Sister Charlotte. Religion classes — which include a section that examines various lifestyles, and a class on world religions — are four-year requirements. "As a body and soul, I would want you to get your spiritual nourishment. Scripture is scripture, it's the basis of who we are." And Sister Charlotte believes firmly that the school's Catholic traditions, such as weekly services in the school's chapel and monthly liturgies at St. Benedict's Church, will continue as they have since she became principal 15 years ago. "We have to look at our Catholic identity and ask ourselves, how are we Catholic?" says Sister Charlotte. This, she says, is the first step in safeguarding Saint Gertrude's Catholic program for the future. "It's going to be important to the sisters, so you have to be sure it's written in the bylaws and policies. You educate the board, and you build it in if there is no one else to do it."

Sept. 7, 1958, is a day Sister Charlotte will never forget. It's the day before she first entered the convent at Bristow. Sister Charlotte arrived a day early, on Sunday, because, she now says humorously, "My father had to drive me up, and he wouldn't take off work on Monday." Earlier that year, Sister Charlotte considered monastic life for the first time when her routine prayers on one ordinary day flooded her with an extraordinary feeling of purpose. Sister Agnes — who taught at Saint Gertrude 40 years ago when most of the school's teachers were Benedictine nuns — was part of the inspiration. "Everybody liked her. She was friendly and outgoing," Sister Charlotte recalls. Full of anxiety, raging hormones and self-doubt, Sister Charlotte says, she was a normal teen-ager. "I had this 'I'm not worthy' mentality about a vocation," she tells freely. "I felt like Moses. 'Not me Lord, I can't speak.'" But in an experience she likens to déj… vu, she knelt on the floor and prayed with Sister Agnes. "It just struck me then," says Sister Charlotte. She heard God calling and was ready to respond. When she told her family that she wanted to join the convent, they were supportive — Sister Charlotte's older sister Ann Marie is also a Benedictine sister at Bristow. With others it wasn't so easy. "I didn't tell my friends at first," she recalls. "There are lots of ways of living out your faith life, and this way was mine."

Once the primary source of teachers for the nation's 8,217 Catholic schools, nuns, brothers and priests are now scarcely found in the classroom. Alumnae of Saint Gertrude, like Ruth Ambrogi of the class of '63, remember well the days when most of the teachers at the school were Benedictine sisters. "Sister Damien and Sister Anita had their rank and position, and were very stern; they set a course for tradition. There was nothing wishy-washy about it."

But today, according to a July report by the National Catholic Education Association, nuns, brothers and priests make up less than 8 percent of those in the nation's Catholic schools. And within the Richmond Catholic Diocese, which comprises 10 Catholic high schools spanning Roanoke to Tidewater, this number is less than 1 percent.

More than 40 years ago, nearly 20 sisters taught at Saint Gertrude and lived in the school's third-floor convent. Today that number has dropped to two: Sister Charlotte and Sister Gertrude Mueller, who taught at Saint Gertrude until 1987 but now works at St. Bridget's Church. Sister Charlotte and Sister Gertrude are sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, a strong Catholic order of sisters originally from Bavaria whose service to the Richmond community in education dates to 1868.

[image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasReluctantly, Sister Charlotte spends more time this year in her office. "The balance between commitment to my job and prayer life is the biggest struggle."Today, outfitted with computers, overhead TV monitors and phones in every classroom, the all-girls' Catholic high school on Stuart Avenue is a far different place from the original two-room school tucked below the convent. The tawny stucco Spanish-mission style convent was built in 1914 and housed Benedictine sisters who taught at St. Mary's on Fourth Street in Church Hill. After World War I, enrollment declined sharply at St. Edith's Academy, in Bristow, and the all-girls' school was converted to a military school for boys. Left with no educational facility for young women in Virginia, the Benedictine sisters moved their ministry to Richmond and opened Saint Gertrude in 1922.

And for 77 years students have wondered about that mysterious convent. The steps stop at the third floor and the school squinches in size with the ascent. A daring few have cupped hands over the tiny windows set high on double doors that keep them out. Fewer still have tried the handles. "I hear that it's a senior privilege to get to see the convent," says senior DeeAnn Davis tentatively. "I've heard they have a black leather couch and a wide-screen TV up there."

"You're entering the inner sanctum," leads Sister Charlotte. And the wilder imaginings of teen-age girls — and older thirtysomethings — quickly, and almost sadly, deflate — but only a little. A green-tiled floor buffed to a shine seems cold and slick. Do they ever run through these halls in their sock-feet? There really is a TV room at the end of the tiny hall, and in it are seven plush blue and mauve Lazy Boy-like recliners. There's also a small kitchen with a dinette set and a laundry room with clothes folded atop the dryer. Nearly a dozen bedrooms, tiny and neat, are saved for guests — and occasionally one comes.

Sister Gertrude joins Sister Charlotte in a small carpeted room with four parlor chairs. Lamps are turned off, on the center table a single candle is lit, and together the sisters pray. The soft way Sister Gertrude says "God" sends gentle shivers. She is the opposite of Sister Charlotte in almost every way: private, quiet, measured. But together daily, they recite the same prayers, share the same faith and live the same Benedictine order. Two unlikely roommates, serenity and energy, fill up that convent. "Our community is supposed to be small," says Sister Gertrude. And here, the community can be as small as two.

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