She texts by the dozens on her smartphone, emails into the wee hours and watches reality TV. On her Facebook page, she quotes the Dalai Lama, astronomer Carl Sagan and motivational guru Tony Robbins.
Not what you'd expect from a nun.
But Sister Maria Babatunde has never been predictable. At 19 she ran away from her home in Nigeria — to join a convent.
Now 44, she's a mix of celebrity and curiosity at the 118-year-old St. Peter Claver Catholic School, where she serves as principal. She has master's degrees in counseling, early childhood and administration. She's devoted to her charges, a hundred children ages 3 to 13, and to keeping their school open. Recently, the school won an $80,000 grant from the family of the late attorney Louis de la Parte and is scrounging for donations to meet the required match.
In the meantime, Tampa Bay Times reporter Elisabeth Parker caught up with Sister Maria to chat about her "kids" and the challenges of being a nun.
Tell me about your students.
They are 98 percent low-income. A lot have single parents. I'm constantly taking about my kids. I guess because I don't have family, I take them home. They don't know how I pray for them. (She wakes at 4:30 for an hour of prayer in her home chapel in Temple Terrace.)
I look for things online for them. I want them to have after-school programs, karate, running, dance for girls. They need someone who will believe in them.
How are they different from the kids in Africa?
The struggles are different in Africa. There are kids with no shoes in Nigeria. The meal they eat at school is their only meal. Families with nothing. Education is all the kids want.
Here, kids see violence. They think smart is not cool. We tell them it's okay to be smart. You can be smart, get a degree, still play football.
Do you whack knuckles with a ruler?
I wish. (Laughs.) I tell kids it's not illegal for me to spank them, but I don't do it. We do give work detention. I love to make them work. If there's nothing else to do I make them sweep against the wind. One time, a boy complained that his arm hurt from sweeping. I called his teacher to come out and said, "When you go home after dealing with him, what hurts?" She said her head. I said to him: "Do you get it? A little bit of return."
I do what works. Sometimes I just sit and observe a class. The kids behave better when I'm there. It helps the teachers. Sometimes I tell them "I can see you from the office." The little ones believe it.
When I don't smile — they know. Teachers will say, "Do you want to go to Sister Maria's office?"
Do you go to the movies?
Yes — and sometimes without a habit. When you go into the movies everybody sits up straight. People go to places like that to relax. I don't want to take that from them. I love drama. I wanted to be an actress. (The last one she remembers was The Italian Job, in 2003.)
Where else do you go out without your habit?
Sometimes, if I'm running to the grocery store or to my gym. I wear a hat or scarf at the gym. The kids always want to know if I have hair and how long it is. I have blue and white habits. Or complete white, or blue.
I have to ask, do you have any bad habits?
(Laughs.) I watch TV. I like the housewives. (The Real Housewives of Orange County.) It's so interesting to see them do things in public I wouldn't expect my children to do. If that's what it means to be rich, I don't want to be rich.
Why did you become a nun?
I guess, growing up, I just had a desire to help. Being a nun, you have this power to penetrate into places. People see that you're not going to harm them, and that you're not afraid of them and they try to behave.
My vision, my hope has always been to work with orphans. Also, I have more focus because I have no family.
You ran away to join the convent?
My mother refused to let me go. She thought I had a big mouth on me and I wouldn't be obedient and they would end up kicking me out. She didn't want that shame.
By the time she heard I was going, I had already gotten the habit. She went to the bishops and tried to get them to take it back. She refused to talk to me for several years. Now she does. She does everything for the church now. (Her family still lives in Nigeria.)
What questions do people ask you?
Why do you not have kids? Kids have always been my life. I was going to have four kids. I had names picked out.
(My students) want to know if I ever got in trouble in school. Do I have a boyfriend. Do I have any hair.
I tell them yes, I got in trouble. But I never fought. I ran away from fights. I had a boyfriend in high school. We were going to have four kids together. He was going to be a doctor. I was going to be a lawyer. He got married to someone else . . . Yes, I do have hair.
That's a smartphone on your desk? Next to an iPad?
Yes. I use it to Google. I text a lot. I text everybody. About 50 texts a day. It's easier. I don't like to stay on the phone too much. Someone gave me this iPad after I finished my third master's degree. I do most of my work late at night. People sometimes get an email at 1 a.m. and say: What are you doing up so late?
What's the hardest thing about being a nun?
Obedience. It's the hardest of the vows — chastity, poverty and obedience. Poverty is easy. I wear one pair of shoes all year. Black sandals. It's comfortable. It's simple. (But obedience?) They first sent me to study psychology, which was against everything in my life. Then they needed someone to work in school. I never wanted to be a teacher. . . If my superior comes now and says they need me to go, I want to know they have someone here who won't get frustrated and leave, who won't give up on these kids.
I want 50 of them to make it to college. That's my fear. I want this school to continue, but it's not in my hands. It's in God's hands. I spend an hour and a half every day in prayer. I believe that's why we're still here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.