LEWISTON — Her former students describe her as witty, fun, firm and a self-admitted gambler.

Sister Cecile Mondor, 78, is also Maine’s last full-time teaching nun, according to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. This past year was her last as a classroom teacher. 

This year, she is a substitute teacher at Saint Dominic Academy elementary school.

For 24 years, she taught third grade at the school, the former Holy Cross School. Deciding to retire was not easy.

“It was time,” she said.

Fifty-seven years is a long career, she acknowledged.

“God gave me the grace. He gave me the health,” she said. “It’s God’s gift to be working with his children.”

Visiting the school Monday as Catholic School Week got underway, Mondor was greeted with smiles and hugs. Students who were in her last class, now fourth-graders, shared what school was like with her. 

“She would let us play games,” said Haydon Emery, 9. “We played with math (multiplication) flash cards.”

She was fun, he and Sela Russell, 9, said.

Molly Strout, 10, said Mondor taught her French. Lincoln Dinan, 9, said her classroom rules helped “so we don’t get in trouble.” Isabella Bouffard, 9, said, “She loved to gamble!” (That gambling was raffle games.)

The Sun Journal published a story about her in 2006 when Mondor was the only teaching nun left in Lewiston-Auburn. She took being the last one in stride, saying it was God’s will and there must be a reason.

Mondor grew up in Saco in a Franco-American family. She joined the convent in 1959.

“It was Feb. 11, Ash Wednesday, in a big, big storm,” she said.

She chose becoming a nun over marriage, letting an Air Force boyfriend go. Entering the convent “was a calling,” she said.

“You feel you’re called to it,” she said. “I answered.”

Throughout her years, Mondor taught grades two through eight in Massachusetts and Maine, including Caribou, Augusta, Biddeford, Saco and Lewiston. 

She started her career teaching third grade in Massachusetts and ended with third grade in Lewiston. Her students were a joy, she said.

“They’re so innocent, pure,” Mondor said. “They want to learn. They have an eagerness.”

Through the years, she taught thousands of students. In her first year, she had 65 pupils in her class. In her last year, her class numbered 19.

In Maine and across the country, rising costs have forced many Catholic schools to close and consolidate.

“Schools can’t afford teachers. People can’t afford tuition,” she said. “They get to a point where they have to fold up, like it or not.”

Annual tuition ranges from $5,550 for the lower grades to $12,750 for high school, according to the school’s web page. More than half get tuition assistance, according to the school.

Catholic schools help reinforce “the difference between right and wrong, how students should live what they have learned,” Sister Cecile said. “Hopefully, we can make good Christians out of them.”

Whether it was 1967 or 2017, Mondor made firm classroom rules. When she said “no,” or “take out your books,” her students knew she meant it.

“If they have structure, they learn how to control themselves,” she said. “Without structure, they lose control. But I did it in a gentle way. You don’t give a command. You do it with love.”

A big expectation was that her third-graders would memorize the multiplication tables, which she reinforced with flash cards and games.

“They don’t realize that playing games is a learning situation,” she said with a smile.

Janelle Bryant, 18, and Caroline Gastonguay, 17, both seniors at Saint Dominic Academy’s high school, had Sister Cecile in the third grade.

“She taught us about respect for ourselves, others and adults,” Bryant said. “She also knew how to have a lot of fun.”

Gastonguay said Mondor’s personal stories, even during math, were among her favorite parts.

“It connected us to her more,” she said. “We could talk to her about anything.”

Dennis Russell of Auburn said he is glad his three daughters had Mondor. For adults like him, who grew up with a Catholic education, he said it was rare to find a teaching nun.

“We love her,” Russell said. “She was witty, engaging, all the while remaining old school. You’d walk into the third-grade room, the kids are sitting at their desks working.”

Mondor’s advises that new teachers care about their students.

“You have to love them,” she said. “And at all times be just and fair. Follow those rules and you’ll be OK.”

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Sister Cecile Mondor’s final year of teaching was in the third-grade classroom at Saint Dominic Academy in Lewiston. Some pupils from that class, now fourth-graders are, from left: Lincoln Dinan, Haydon Emery, Molly Strout, Sela Russell and Isabella Bouffard. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Catholic schools in Maine:

Lewiston-Auburn: Saint Dominic Academy, grades pre-k to 12, 517 students

Augusta: St. Michael, 167 students

Bangor: All Saints, 207 students

Biddeford: St. James, 163 students

Brunswick: St. John’s, 117 students

Portland: Cheverus High School, 399 students

Portland: St. Brigid, 279 students

Rumford: Holy Savior, 58 students

Sanford: St. Thomas, 191 students

South Portland: Holy Cross, 131 students

Waterville: Mount Merici Academy, 219 students

Winslow: St. John Regional, 73 students

Source: Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland

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