It was with grace that she began, with grace that she left and with grace that Mount St. Joseph Academy welcomed back a mother to their community, someone who raised students at MSJ, Christ the King and College of St. Joseph: Sister Shirley Davis.
“I love MSJ,” Davis said in an interview Thursday at the school. “I love the school, and I love the students. Don’t get into teaching if you don’t love students.”
The sixth of 10 children, Davis was raised on a farm in Wardsboro, Vermont, and was taught in a one-room schoolhouse where she didn’t learn to read until she was in fifth grade.
“I knew how to milk a cow before my legs were long enough to hold the pail,” Davis said. “There were 16 or 17 kids in our school and a third were my brothers and sisters.”
And she wasn’t the only one who benefited from her elementary lessons.
“My father didn’t have the benefit of an education,” Davis said. “We taught him to read and write.”
Davis said her family — her mother especially — attended Mass when they could, whether it took a car, a wagon or a sleigh to get them to St. Michael’s in Brattleboro.
At 10, Davis and her family moved onto Cedar Street in Brattleboro so she and her siblings could go to school while her parents worked at the cotton mill nearby.
It was in school at St. Michael’s that Davis said she developed a special connection with the Sisters of St. Joseph and was inspired to take up the habit and vows herself.
“I had this revelation that God was calling me to do something more,” Davis said. “I thought I was going to become a (certified public accountant), but God stepped in, and I became a math teacher.”
Fresh out of high school in 1955, Davis came to the Convent at St. Joseph’s to adopt a new way of life as a nun under the tutelage of Irish immigrant Sister St. Michael.
“All three schools were founded by the sisters of St. Joseph,” Davis said. “That’s my community. This was the first place they sort of rooted: It feels like Convent Avenue is home.”
After six months at the convent, Davis received her habit, and after three years took the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and process.
“It’s a challenging way of life: You buy only what you need and with permission. You learn your religion even more, then you practice it as part of a community. You get to witness to living in that community is possible,” she said.
It was in 1962 that she began teaching at Christ the King School, where she was a math teacher for five years before coming to MSJ, where she was principal from 1983 to 1998.
“I’ve been at MSJ 37 years,” Davis said. “ ... When I took the role of principal here, it was supposed to be an interim role. That turned into 15 years. The last year here, they called me president.”
But a new calling drew Davis from her beloved Convent Avenue school, and she was offered a job as assistant superintendent for Burlington schools in 1998, where she remained for just over a decade.
“I got to travel all over the state, and got to really get to know the Northeast Kingdom in particular,” Davis said. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
As time went on though, Sister Shirley felt it was time to cut down on her hours, and was drawn back again to her community in Rutland, where she served as a foster grandparent and tutor at Vermont Achievement Center for eight years.
“I absolutely loved that,” Davis said. “I wanted to fill whatever the need was, and they are a group that gives children a special someone.”
But earlier this year, Davis felt drawn once again to MSJ, to be a math tutor and foster grandparent to the 100 students at the place she found her spirit and her first studies.
“I looked forward to this all summer after Sarah Fortier said ‘yes,’” Davis said. “I’m here 5½ hours, four days a week. I take Fridays off, and the kids used to give me a hard time about it.”
After so long in the Rutland community, Davis said the school still feels like home, and seeing all of her former students growing up and becoming prominent members of the community brings her a sense of fulfillment.
“MSJ graduates running for office, it feels like what you tried to do with them, you succeeded,” Davis said. “It feels like more than just a paycheck.”
Davis said she remembers fondly the days when she taught state Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, almost every member of the Cioffi family, longtime Herald photographer Albert “A.J.” Marro and Mayor David Allaire.
“It’s about being with people, and helping people if I can,” Davis said. “I’m still willing to challenge people. We all need someone in our lives who can hold up ‘you can be more.’”
Though she stopped wearing her habit in the ‘70s as part of the Second Vatican’s message to “simplify,” Sister Shirley said she still holds close the dedication to her faith and the family she’s found in Rutland, whether they be the sisters of her order or the students she helps raise into dedicated and passionate people.
“One of the gifts we can give people is to let them be who they are. I used to have a sign in my classroom: ‘Nothing is worth having if it means trampling on the garment of another,’” Davis said.