(The remarks of the interviewer are in italics. Sister is referred to by both her baptismal name ‘Irene Mary’ and her religious name ‘Cecilia Ann’ in this story.)
On March 11, 1936, Frank and Mary Rose (Spisak) Fatula welcomed their eleventh child into the world. Born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Irene Mary was baptized at Saint Francis Parish. Frank and Mary had two more children after Irene was born for a total of thirteen – seven boys and six girls. Their names, in order, were Mathilda, Robert, William, Francis, George, Josephine, Andrew, Catherine, Therese, Bernard, Irene, Joanna, and Joseph.
Their father Frank was a hard-working coal miner, as well as, the road supervisor for the town. If something in the township needed to be fixed, then, he worked to see that it was done. He was also a member of the school board. He had a “heart of gold” and always helped anyone in need. Every Wednesday, he brought home ice cream from the coal miner’s store for his children. He was also known to leave treats in his lunch bucket for Irene and her siblings to find. Whether it was fruit, crackers, something from the coal miner’s store, or some other surprise, whichever child checked the bucket was sure to find something to delight.
Mary was a great housewife busy baking, cooking, sewing, and taking good and wonderful care of her children. She was an excellent cook and always made everything homemade from scratch. Whenever Irene and her siblings returned home from school or playing, their mother was often busy working in the kitchen. If any of the children entered the house and their mom wasn’t in the kitchen, they would call for her. They always had to hear her say that she was there – and she always was.
Both Frank and Mary were very prayerful, loving, caring, and church-going people who put all of their trust and love in God. They, in turn, hoped that their children would do the same. The family attended Mass every Sunday and often prayed the rosary at home. Mary, Irene’s mother, was especially devoted to praying the rosary every Sunday and other services at church. It was rare for her not to appear in church in time to pray.
Irene loved being part of a big family. When she was growing up, her brothers William, Francis, and Bernard had already joined the Army and Joseph the Navy. Her sister, Mathilda, had also left home to work as a nanny in New York. Nine of the Fatula children were still at home enjoying each other’s company. Her extended family lived nearby as well including aunts, uncles, and many cousins. The Fatula home was filled with prayer, music, love, joy, peace, and lots of fun and noise.
Irene attended Edgewood Grade School, Garfield Junior High, and graduated from Johnstown High School in 1955. All of the Fatula children attended CCD classes which were taught in their parish by the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. Sister Cecilia Ann particularly remembers her CCD teachers Sisters Raymond Cobak, Casimir Cutler, and Emmanuel Zvolensky.
Across the street from Irene’s house was a big field. The children often went there to play, content in the knowledge that one of their parents, aunts, uncles, or a friendly neighbor was always supervising to make sure they were safe and happy. Twice a year a carnival came to town and set up in a nearby field. Having the carnival so close to home was a real treat.
Irene and her siblings followed the good example set by their parents. Some of the Fatula girls sang in the church choir and some of the boys served at the altar. On one occasion, when Bernard was stationed in France, he attended Mass in Lourdes. The priest at that Mass did not have an altar server so he asked the congregation if anyone would help him. Bernard volunteered.
Both Frank and Mary prayed that one of their children would enter religious life. When Irene was a senior in high school, God called her to join the Vincentian Sisters of Charity. Her entire faith-filled family was very supportive of her vocation. While it was not easy to leave her close friends and family, Irene felt that she had to listen to her heart and follow God’s call. After graduating from high school, she entered the community of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity in Pittsburgh, PA on September 8, 1955. Although she left her family behind in Johnstown, she took a part of each of them to Pittsburgh with her. They always had a special place in her heart regardless of the physical distance between them.
On August 15, 1956, Irene was received into the novitiate and given the name Cecilia Ann. Of the three choices she submitted for her religious name, Cecilia Ann was her first choice. A picture of St. Cecilia hung on the wall in her home and Irene grew up hearing the story that St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, never played a note but sang to God in her heart. Aside from some uninspiring clarinet lessons her sophomore year in high school, Irene felt she could identify with St. Cecilia and sing to God in her heart. At the time she entered the novitiate, the community already had a Sister Cecilia (Vrancik) so Irene requested the religious name Cecilia Ann; Cecilia for the saint and Ann after her aunt.
Sister Cecilia Ann enjoyed her year as a postulant and her two years as a novice. They were very good years and she and the twenty-three other women in her class were fortunate to have two great novice directors – Sister Edith Roytas and Sister Ildephonse Manik. Cecilia Ann did not find the work in the novitiate to be too hard. It was simply what needed to be done “so you did it”.
Upon entering the community, Cecilia Ann began to pursue a Bachelor Degree from Mount Mercy College, now Carlow University. After graduating from Mount Mercy, she attended Duquesne University to complete her Master Degree in Education. She also attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio with Sister Barbara Popchak for graduate classes in Montessori education.
On August 15, 1958, Sister Cecilia Ann made her first vows. Her first mission as a vowed Sister was at Saint Matthew’s School in the South Side of Pittsburgh where she taught first grade. On that first mission, she was responsible for about thirty-five first graders. From her very first day in the classroom and throughout her teaching career, Cecilia Ann never experienced a day where she didn’t enjoy teaching.
Over the next forty-nine years, Cecilia Ann taught in schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Greensburg in Pennsylvania, as well as the Dioceses of Mobile in Alabama and Saint Catherine in Ontario, Canada. At St. Jude Education Center in Alabama, Sister had fifty first graders. She never had a teacher’s aide, in Alabama, or in any other mission, and to this day Sister Cecilia Ann is not sure how she managed to keep that many students under control and teach them at the same time.
In addition to teaching in during the week, Sister often taught CCD in the parishes where she was missioned. She also volunteered at various functions in the parish and school including festivals, fish fries, Math-a-Thons and football and basketball games.
Thirty-four of Sister’s teaching years were spent at Saint Sebastian School in the North Hills of Pittsburgh where she taught the first grade. One year Saint Sebastian needed a second-grade teacher so Sister Cecilia Ann taught the second grade instead of the first and had the added responsibility of preparing the children for their First Communion. While missioned at St. Sebastian, Sister Cecilia Ann taught primary grades all day, one night a week she taught CCD, two nights a week she attended graduate school classes, and on Fridays she started her lesson plans for the following week. (Sister Cecilia Ann had such a busy schedule while at St. Sebastian that one wonders how she managed to accomplish all that she did. Her many simultaneous accomplishments are evidence of her hard work and optimistic attitude. While listening to this part of Sister’s story, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between Cecilia Ann and her father who was always busy with his job, helping his neighbors and township, and serving his church.)
One summer, Cecilia Ann went with Sister Helen Chervenak and the Saint Sebastian Youth Group to help needy families in Eastern Kentucky. Sister Cecilia Ann worked to take down an old porch and build a wheelchair ramp so that the house was accessible for the owner. “It was so rewarding to help them. That was a wonderful experience that I will never forget.”
Sister Cecilia Ann enjoyed every day of her teaching career. “It was a great joy when the little ones could pick up a book and read along with understanding the skills that were taught in all of the other subjects. To mold their minds, hearts, and souls to the Lord was a wonderful feeling that only a teacher can explain and share with others.”
On May 31, 2005, Sister Cecilia Ann’s incredible teaching career was capped with receiving a Golden Apple Award which is given to ten teachers in the Pittsburgh Diocese every year in recognition for exemplary work in the classroom, church, and community. After fifty years in religious life and 47 years of teaching, Sister Cecilia Ann had certainly earned this honor. Sister always worked to be a good example and guide for her students, both in the classroom and throughout life as a whole. “I can bring the love of God to my students not only in formal religious classes but throughout the whole day. I believe that at times my attitude and the example that I give the students is more important than the materials I am presenting.”
In 2007, Sister Cecilia Ann formally retired from teaching and left Saint Sebastian. She went, however, to work for two years as a full-time teacher at the Vincentian Child Development Center with the “Toddler 3” children (two and three years old). Sister knew when she began the mission in childcare that she didn’t want to work with the babies and the very young toddlers. She knew her strengths. She wanted to work with the older toddlers who could walk and do some things on their own so that she could really teach them. This mission was very different from her years teaching the primary grades but she enjoyed the new challenge and the new experience.
As Cecilia Ann reflected on her years spent teaching, she recalled the many wonderful students, teachers, priests, and parents whose lives she touched and who touched her life. They continually taught her about living every day in God’s presence. “Children are indeed a very visible sign of God’s presence with us. This is the very reason why Jesus used little children as a symbol of the Kingdom of God among us.” (Sister recalled having wonderful children to teach and mentioned that one of her former students is about to be ordained as a priest and another is already a priest. She shared with me that she has kept a list with the names of every student she ever taught. I asked her how many names were on that list, expecting perhaps several hundred, and she responded that it was close to one thousand! It is easy to see how much each and every one of these students meant to Sister Cecilia Ann.)
Sister’s life in community has been very fulfilling. Each of the Sisters that she lived within the different missions has been very inspiring in her own way. Cecilia Ann seldom found it hard to live with Sisters and superiors at her different missions. Similarly, she seldom had any problems working with the different school principals. She recognized that they each had their own gifts and strengths. “They each have helped me in their own way to grow in prayer, love, and joy for the Lord.”
Today Sister Cecilia Ann volunteers at Lourdes Hall helping the Sisters who live there with whatever is needed. She often sews clothing for the Sisters, accompanies them to doctor appointments as a companion, and helps with their puzzles. She enjoys this ministry and the fact that she can make her own schedule. When not volunteering in Lourdes Hall, Sister works on various community projects. Presently crochets mats for soldiers and the homeless out of recycled grocery bags. She also makes lunches to give to the homeless.
Sister Cecilia Ann’s parents have both gone home to God. Frank went to his rest in 1978. Her mother, Mary, died at age “ninety-one in ’91” (1991). Robert, Francis, Andrew, Mathilda, Bernard, George, and William have also passed away. Five of her siblings are still living. Sister Cecilia Ann enjoys spending time with her family. They get together as often as they can. (In listening to Sister Cecilia Ann tell what God has done in her life, I was particularly moved by how close her family is and has always been. They are truly a beautiful and supportive family.)
Outside of her ministry, Sister enjoys a reading good book, listening to good music, relaxing while crocheting, and walking. As she continues to answer God’s call to ministry she hopes and prays that whatever God has planned for her, “I can say ‘Yes’ like Mary…Here I am Lord I come to do Your will.”
Interviewed by Kelly McDaniels, Archivist