By Dave Jolivet
FAIRHAVEN — She was a young third-grader attending Sacred Hearts School, when she and her classmates performed in a play at Sacred Hearts Academy in Fairhaven. While there, she visited the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for Adoration.
It made a lasting impression on Muriel Ann Lebeau. So much so that then and there the young girl felt the seed of a calling to become a religious Sister. “I was so impressed, Sister Muriel told The Anchor in a recent interview. “The chapel was so beautiful and I was blessed to witness the changing of guards. There was a group of Sisters in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and then at a designated time, they were replaced by another group of Sisters who prayerfully adored Christ in the Eucharist.”
Sister Muriel, now 80, ended up attending Sacred Hearts Academy, graduating at age 18 in 1961. The following month she entered the convent there to begin her formation process, which would eventually lead to her making final vows in 1969.
In September of that first year, she was given her initial assignment at Sacred Hearts Academy. “I had no intentions of teaching when I entered the convent, but my first assignment was to become a kindergarten teacher,” said Sister Muriel. “At 18 I was ‘thrown into’ teaching 54 kindergartners.”
Sister Muriel jumped into the assignment with both feet. She was well-known for her love of decorating her classrooms and for her enthusiastic approach to teaching her young charges. “The children were so well-behaved and it was a delight to teach them,” she told The Anchor. “From then on, I knew teaching was my calling withing my vocation.”
After a few years in that position, Sister Muriel was reassigned to St. Bruno de Montaville, 20 miles outside Montreal,Canada, where she taught several grades at Sacred Hearts Boarding School. The young novice impressed the Mother Superior with the way she was able to keep the students on their best behavior in the dorms at night. She taught English, and also played the guitar and had her students learn songs in English, something most of them mastered after a period.
“Some of my favorite recollections at being in Canada were the cold, snowy, icy winters,” she said. “I loved it. I spent many hours sledding, skiing, skating and having snowball fights with the students. And another great memory is the fact that every student played outside during those many cold months — in full winter gear, of course.”
Sister Muriel’s stay north of the border lasted two years, at which time she was assigned to St. Joseph’s School in Fairhaven, teaching, as expected, kindergarten. “While there, the pastor, one December, asked me to take over as principal of the school on an interim basis, for six months until the end of June,” Sister Muriel told The Anchor. “I was a bit hesitant, never having been in that position before.” But it wasn’t the first time she was asked to take on a task that she had no familiarity with. It wasn’t surprising that she excelled in that role and she remained as principal for the next 19 years. “It was a difficult transition at first,” Sister Muriel shared, “but it was good stuff and the transition went well. My heart was always with the students, especially the kindergartners. In all, I was at St. Joseph’s for 31 years, more than half of those as principal,” she said.
From Fairhaven, Sister Muriel was moved across the bridge to New Bedford to begin an assignment at Holy Family-Holy Name School. “At Holy Family-Holy Name I started as a remedial reading teacher, and eventually ending up teaching kindergarten, specifically religion and math,” Sister Muriel added.
While at the New Bedford School, Sister Muriel shared and spread her love of Jesus and the Blessed Mother, by preparing weekly prayer services during the Lenten and Advent seasons; preparing the Living Station of the Cross; setting up Adoration schedules for the students; and always dressing up her kindergartners as saints when feast days occurred.
It was well-known that she had an “open door” policy, complete with a cozy rocking chair, for anyone who needed a ear to listen or for advise. Sister Muriel remained at Holy Family-Holy Name School until it closed in 2022, a total of 20 years.
In September of 2022, Sister Muriel brought her enthusiasm for Jesus and the Blessed Mother to the students and staff at St. Stanislaus School in Fall River coordinating special events such as Seder meals and Easter experiences.
Sister Muriel’s wonderful journey brought her full circle when she returned to hometown Fairhaven to become the campus minister at St. Joseph’s School in September 2023.
When asked what changes she has witnessed of her nearly six decades in the primary school environment, Sister Muriel said, “The family dynamic has changed so much. Early on, mothers stayed home with the children and the dads usually were at work in the textile mills in the area. The parents were greatly involved with their children at school and at home.
“But today, it’s difficult for one parent to stay home, and there are often single-parent environments at home. But the fact the parents are sending them to a Catholic school shows that the love they have for their child or children is rooted in faith; and they are still active at school and at home.”
Sister Muriel went on to tell The Anchor, “Some things haven’t changed over the last 60 years — the hearts and personalities of the children. Kids stay the same and they are eager to learn and be part of faith formation. There’s an expression that I hold near and dear and that is, ‘To stir the mind of a child, first reach the heart.’”
Sister Muriel has reached the hearts of countless children and as a result has stirred many minds, leading them on their own journeys of faith.
“My vocation has been such a great adventure,” Sister Muriel said. “I never intended to be a teacher and here I am 59 years later still in that environment. I am so grateful.”
She prays daily for vocations and actively invites children to consider such a lifestyle. “My life has come full circle, she said in retrospect. “I love being at St. Joseph’s. I want the children to come to know God’s unconditional love and help them realize that God will forgive us no matter what.
“I want to keep teaching and spreading the ‘Good News’ for as long as I am able. I’ve had good health, and God willing, I will continue to be a witness and a faithful servant.”