In the News

Farewell, Sister Cletus

April 26, 2006, Lexington Herald-Leader

At Providence Montessori School yesterday, Sister Cletus Hehman wasn't behind a desk. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor, talking to a student. It's where Sister Cletus has sat frequently over the past 40 years. Tonight, Sister Cletus will be honored by former students and parents as she is set to retire from Providence Montessori. She will return to live at St. Anne Convent in Melbourne, run by the Sisters of Divine Providence. Not that Sister Cletus feels ready to retire, she tells you. "I've taught 40 years. I'd like to teach another 40 years, but that would be 80 years. Wouldn't that be silly?" she said.

In those years, she and Sister Marcia Jehn founded not only Providence Montessori but also its predecessor St. Peter Claver Montessori, and Sister Cletus organized the state's first Montessori teacher training program. She has directed that program for two years but never fully left the classroom.

"Cletus is the epitome of a Montessori teacher," said Ann Buchart, whose three children went to Montessori.

"Sister Cletus is very calm, patient, yet she is always in control," Buchart said. "She's amazing to watch. She goes from one child to another, and she takes an individual approach with each one."

Teacher Betty Snider said, "Cletus can make the most difficult child calm down, the most shy child become confident, the most undirected child become independent."

The teacher education program that Sister Cletus started is the only one in the state accredited by the American Montessori Society.

"She is well known, well loved, well respected," said Mimi Basso, vice president of membership at the society in New York City. "She has done a lot of important work to help spread Montessori education."

Snider, trained by Sister Cletus, said the nun "seems to know the answer to every question when it comes to children and the classroom. She never has to ponder. She'll just say, 'Try this.' And it's always the best answer."

Sister Cletus and Sister Marcia were trained in the Montessori method at Xavier University in Cincinnati in the 1960s. In Lexington during that time, a group of parents had formed the Lexington Montessori Society, raised funds to buy materials and looked around for teachers.

Sister Marcia moved here in 1965 and taught the first class at St. Peter Claver Montessori, next door to St. Peter Claver Catholic Church. Sister Cletus arrived the next year.

"They are two gutsy gals, ahead of their time. Nobody could stop them," said Pat Geradek, whose five children went through Montessori.

St. Peter Claver Montessori had a preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, housed in a 100-year-old building next to the church.

"Sister Marcia had the vision for the school. Sister Cletus was responsible for the nuts and bolts and how to make things happen," said Dave Shannon, a parent and board member. Sister Marcia retired in 2000 and still lives on the Providence campus. She will be returning to the convent with Sister Cletus.

The Montessori method, developed in the early 1900s by Dr. Maria Montessori, a medical doctor, emphasizes letting a child work individually. "Nobody is ahead or behind other children," Snider said. "Nobody is tracked. Nobody is classed."

"Some people get the wrong idea about Montessori, that children do whatever they want to do, but they have guidance and there's a sequence of materials they have to follow," said Mary Heilbron, who founded Southern Hills Montessori and was trained by Sister Cletus.

In 1983, the future of St. Peter Claver Montessori was thrown in doubt after a new priest arrived at St. Peter Claver church and kicked the nuns out.

"Most nuns would have said, heck with it, and gone back to the order," Geradek said. "Not those two."

With the backing of the school's board, made up of parents, the two nuns set out to raise money and build Providence Montessori. When local banks declined to put up the necessary $250,000, Cletus asked the Sisters of Divine Providence to guarantee the loan.

"The order did, because they knew how strong these two women were. They would make it work," Shannon said.

The order also sold the school 10 acres of land behind a nursing home it ran on Leestown Road.

Providence Montessori opened in 1983. It now has 212 students in preschool through fifth grade, with a new arts and activity center about to open, and a house on campus for the two founders.

"Sister Cletus has got a subtle way with young children, gentle but incredibly focused," said Sue Strong, an education professor at Eastern Kentucky University. "Her retirement is a great loss for the entire education community."

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or at bfortune@herald-leader.com.