Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

Sister Maria Babatunde talks about 'her kids,' bad habits and obedience

TAMPA

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?"

Noooooooo.

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.

Comments

High school scoreboard for Jan. 17

Wednesday’s scoreboardBoys basketballBoca Ciega 62, Clearwater 52Boys soccerPalm Harbor U. 3, Dunedin 0Girls soccerPalm Harbor U. 5, Dunedin 0
Updated: 3 hours ago
‘All I see is fire’: 911 calls released from Florida casino boat fire

‘All I see is fire’: 911 calls released from Florida casino boat fire

PORT RICHEY — The first call came into emergency dispatch at 4 p.m. on Sunday from shore, reporting a ‘giant’ boat on fire in the Pithlachascotee River."It’s urgent," the caller said.Others followed quickly, one woman crying as she described from her...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Shelters offer escape from the cold for those who need it

Shelters offer escape from the cold for those who need it

On warmer nights, Jerry Hardison can sleep for a few hours at the recycling center. He works 11-hour shifts there. He gets off at 2:30 a.m., then waits until the buses start running again.But not Wednesday."Getting out that time of the morning in the...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Apple to build second campus, hire 20,000 in $350B pledge

Apple to build second campus, hire 20,000 in $350B pledge

Associated PressSAN FRANCISCO — Apple is planning to build another corporate campus and hire 20,000 workers during the next five years as part of a $350 billion commitment to the United States that will be partially financed by an upcoming windfall f...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Michigan father deported after three decades in community; AIDS crusader Mathlide Kim dies; more in U.S. news

Michigan father deported after three decades in community; AIDS crusader Mathlide Kim dies; more in U.S. news

Michigan This was his home for 30 years, then ICE forced dad from familyWith two immigration agents hovering nearby, Jorge Garcia pulled his wife and their 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son close for a final hug at the Detroit airport. Soon af...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Gibsonton man faces 50 counts of child porn

Gibsonton man faces 50 counts of child porn

GIBSONTON — A 46-year-old man was arrested Wednesday by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents on 50 counts of possession of child pornography and one count of promoting a sexual performance by a child.Authorities said they received several tip...
Updated: 7 hours ago

He still has nightmares: Deckhand recalls prior casino boat fire

Cory Byrd said he still has nightmares about the smoke. In them, he is back in the cabin of the Express Shuttle II, scrambling to reach the white rectangle of an open door. The smoke was so thick, he said, you could barely see an outstretched hand. ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Wallaby bounds down Sydney Harbour Bridge; North, South Korea to march as one in Olympics; more in world news

Wallaby bounds down Sydney Harbour Bridge; North, South Korea to march as one in Olympics; more in world news

AustraliaWallaby infiltrates Sydney bridgeA wayward wallaby disrupted downtown traffic by bounding across the Sydney Harbor Bridge on Tuesday with police in pursuit. The adult male was captured without any apparent serious injury and is expected to b...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Pinellas sheriff, feds announce changes to controversial immigrant detention policy

Pinellas sheriff, feds announce changes to controversial immigrant detention policy

LARGO — For years, county sheriffs in the United States have faced a quandary when asked by federal officials to hold undocumented immigrants in their local jails. They could continue to hold them for up to two days past the time they were legally fr...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Water Street Tampa developers seek artist and design for $600,000 outdoor art near USF med school

Water Street Tampa developers seek artist and design for $600,000 outdoor art near USF med school

TAMPA — Water Street Tampa called Wednesday for artists to send in their ideas for a big piece of public art for the outdoor plaza between one of the $3 billion project’s office buildings and the new University of South Florida Morsani College of Med...
Updated: 8 hours ago