By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DeWITT — Pink, laminated crosses bearing the name of first-grade teacher Loretta Pennock, who died unexpectedly on All Saints Day, sway in the wind on tree branches outside St. Joseph’s School & Parish Center on a cold November day.
Inside the school, St. Joseph Principal Sharon Roling and 12 teachers take time out from their in-service program to talk about how they, their students and families leaned into their faith and each other to guide them through their loss.
Mrs. Pennock taught 28 classes of first-graders at St. Joe’s. The impact of her death had a ripple effect in the school, parish and greater DeWitt community. Some of the teachers at the in-service said their own children had been students of Mrs. Pennock. They described her passing as a “professional loss, personal loss and generational loss.” Teacher Lola Blaser’s four daughters were students of Mrs. Pennock. “There’s a lot of memories for them, too.”
Roling said she received a call around 6:30 a.m. on All Saints Day from a family member of Mrs. Pennock that she had died. Stunned, the principal contacted Father Stephen Page, the parish’s pastor, who texted Sister Janet Heiar, the pastoral minister, to plan how to share the devastating news. They gathered the teachers together in the conference room later that morning, while the students were at recess.
“I knew something was wrong, but that was the last thing I thought of,” teacher Corinn Blandin said. Teacher Jayne Riedesel felt a sense of shock, and the other teachers murmured in agreement. As they absorbed the shock, they asked aloud, “What would Loretta do?” “Loretta was the one who knew what to say,” teacher Donna Klostermann said. Sister Heiar and the Holy Spirit guided them through the day.
Sister Heiar told the grieving staff, “I know how you feel. You lost a co-worker. That happened to me twice. One was a co-worker who died of cancer and another was the sister I lived with who was killed in a car accident.” She told the teachers, “We have to be honest with the kids; we need to tell them the truth. There are going to be questions and they’ll come at the most inopportune times. That’s when you rely on the Spirit.”
All agreed that the teachers in the upper grades would inform their students while Sister Heiar and Roling would talk to the younger ones. “There were a lot of hugs, a lot of tears, a lot of memories,” teacher Mary Bousselot said.
When Roling and Sister Heiar arrived in Mrs. Pennock’s first-grade classroom, Sister told the students, “Boys and girls, we’ve got some really sad news … Mrs. Pennock died this morning.” One little girl started to cry; the other children appeared stunned, eyes growing wide. One little boy asked, “Who will be our teacher?” Still another child went around the room giving each of his classmates a hug.
Reading/math interventionist Patty Tarchinski and Hailey Nees have been co-teaching the first graders in Mrs. Pennock’s class. “Patty provided the routine” the students needed that day, Roling said. The school’s eighth-graders provided extra moral support that afternoon, helping the first-graders to make pink crosses in memory of their teacher. “Patty Tarchinski’s arms weren’t big enough to go around everyone at one time. The eighth-graders fulfilled that role,” Sister Heiar said.
Making crosses in memory of loved ones for All Souls Day is a tradition at St. Joseph. Students had completed this year’s project but wanted to remember Mrs. Pennock also. The cross-making project began anew. Students shared happy memories about their teacher, whose favorite sayings included “Show God’s love,” and “Jesus loves you.” Pink was the favorite color of the teacher, a breast cancer survivor.
That afternoon, the students celebrated All Saints Day Mass, a liturgy “that was really needed,” Klostermann said. The first-graders had served at Mass the previous week and Mrs. Pennock had prepared them for their roles, which seemed divinely inspired, her colleagues said.
At Sister Heiar’s advice, the teachers got books on grief from the public library. Central DeWitt Community Schools also offered books and other support, including counselors and a therapy dog. St. Joseph has a school-based therapist.
Prayer services were held and parents took the teachers’ places at school so that they could attend the visitation for Mrs. Pennock. Families and others lined the cemetery the day of the funeral Mass, holding signs in honor of the beloved teacher. The overwhelming support from families of St. Joseph Parish and School and the greater community was a godsend.
The strength of the St. Joseph School family made it possible for teachers to continue teaching while helping their students through the grieving process, Roling said. “It was almost like we had to grieve out loud to model for our students, Mrs. Bousselot said.
Coping and connecting continue. On Dec. 1, families will gather at St. Joseph. After sharing a meal together, the kids will play in the gym and the parents will receive resources to help their kids deal with the loss at home.
“We support each other. We pray with each other. We love each other,” Roling said. “We continue to do things in the spirit of Loretta.”