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After 75 years, sisters still answer their calls to duty

Sisters Irma Multer, 93, Helen Lange, 93, and Pauline Block, 91, are related by their calling. Each has been a Benedictine nun for more than 75 years. Their careers have followed parallel paths since entering the sisterhood in 1930. Their home base is St. Leo.

They remember a poor community in the 1930s whose major employers were Lykes orange packing plant and a local lumber mill. The depression left many Pasco families destitute.

The 1940s brought the German POW camp advocated by the Abbot of Saint Leo Abbey. The sisters can recall when the Seminole Indians came to the area to seek shelter from hurricanes and storms that would flood the coast. The Indians would camp on the Abbey's grounds.

Sister Irma Multer reflected on why she became a nun. As a teenager, she studied at a boarding school in Texas.

"We were students sitting in the dining room at the Academy and you could look out the window and see long lines of destitute men, women and children waiting for food."

The students had witnessed the beginnings of the Great Depression. Sister Irma was impressed with the nuns who distributed provisions to the needy. She traveled from Texas to Florida with four cousins. There, she, Sister Helen, Sister Pauline and the others entered the order July 30, 1930.

Initially they taught locally at the Holy Name Academy for girls and the St. Benedict Preparatory School for boys. The Benedictine sisters also had orange groves and would ship oranges nationwide to raise money. Many students attending the schools came from out of state and some from out of country. The nuns remember children from Cuba and Central America. Teaching assignments took them to Texas and Louisiana, but predominantly, they worked in Florida.

They taught circus children in Sarasota schools and remembered their families as gracious. Unfortunately, many would attend school for just a few weeks before going on tour.

In the 1930s and '40s, anti-Catholic sentiment made for strange encounters. Once, late in the morning, they found themselves needing transportation to the train station in Dothan, Ala. Catholics were few in this area and black robed nuns never before seen. The priest could visit only once a month. The taxi drivers initially refused to transport the sisters. A young boy spotted them and exclaimed that, "The witches are in town!"

When arriving at the depot, the station master could not be found. Some local college students saw the nuns and offered assistance. They found the station master hiding behind the potbelly stove. With prodding, he agreed to sell them tickets to their destination.

The nuns were warned to remain at the station and the local sheriff was called concerning their presence. They finally left at 10 p.m.

Sister Irma recalled walking to the post office in Ocala. A woman pointed at her and shouted, "Cover your children's eyes, here comes the Devil's wife.''

But there were examples of generosity and humor, too. Sister Helen once needed fabric to sew a habit and was referred to a Jewish merchant.

Two men in the back of the shop looked nervously at two nuns standing at the counter and finally approached them giving each a quarter. The nuns graciously accepted and then returned the coins to offset the cost of the requested material.

The sisters' combined tenure as educators total more than 225 years. They view the lack of family support as the largest issue facing school progress.

The three sisters still stay busy. One serves as the community's archivist, another crochets baby caps and other items for the community gift shop. The third continues to serve as the community purchaser.

In total, they have almost 300 years of service.

Marc J. Yacht is director of the Pasco Health Department. This is adapted from a Living History series he is preparing for the Community Aging and Retirement Services, CARES.