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Catholic Sister Recalls Her Pupil, Gov. Mike Pence

Gage Skidmore


  Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump have been in the national spotlight for decades. But Americans are still getting to know their vice presidential running mates, Gov. Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, and Gov. Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana. 

Someone who's known Pence a long time is a Catholic Benedictine Sister from Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, IN.

Sister Sharon Bierman taught Pence in seventh and eight grades at St. Columba Catholic School in Columbus, IN.

Bierman, whom I met at an American Benedictine Academy  conference recently, recalled her former student as polite, diligent, out-going and very smart. She said she hoped he'd one day become a priest.

He told her he wanted to be a "father,"  but one who marries and has children.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Pence said the title he is proudest to hold is "D-A-D."

In an eighth grade graduation booklet, some of  Pence's classmates predicted he would one day run for president.

"He's getting pretty close -- vice president," said Bierman, an energetic 73-year-old  with wavy silver hair dressed in a print jacket and dark slacks.

As a student, Pence earned As and Bs on his report cards. Bierman said he never failed to turn in his assignments.

Whenever he encounters his former Benedictine teachers, Bierman said Pence thanks them for encouraging him to join The Optimists, a speech club.

"I introduced him to The Optimists' speech contest," Bierman said. "He said that has been the most helpful thing for him as he pursued a political career. He wrote about historical things and many times he won first place" in the contests.

Bierman sometimes attends speeches Pence gives in his home state with other sisters from her monastery. "He would say, 'Thank you, without you I would have been a hoodlum.' Of course, that wasn't true. He came from a very good family."

Pence's parents, she said, never missed a report card day at St. Columba, which was a chance to talk with teachers about their son's progress..

Bierman taught Pence math, science and religion, and said he was quick to memorize Catholic prayers and catechism. As an adult, Pence left the Catholic Church to join his wife's evangelical Protestant congregation.

Bierman said she was disappointed, but not surprised.

"Mike believed in union in the family, so he became an evangelical to be one with his wife and children so there would not be a separation in his family," she said.

Bierman can still be a stern teacher. She has some advice for Pence: tone down the rhetoric about Hillary Clinton.

Critiquing his acceptance speech in Cleveland, she said, "In the beginning, when he laid out his ideas for what he was going to do as vice president, I loved that part." He did what he was taught in the Optimists speech club -- be clear, concise and direct, she noted.

However, she said she tuned out when he began to criticize Clinton.

"I did not like that at all, and I don't like it when Mr. Trump does it either," she added.

Clinton, she said, deserves respect as a former senator, Secretary of State and the first woman nominated for president by a major party.

She said she hopes that both the Republican hopefuls clamp down on personal attacks in the coming weeks, and added that she thinks Pence could help "soften" Trump.

"I think Michael will continue to practice his own ideals ... It seems Mr. Trump really respects Michael. So I am hoping Mr. Trump will start following Mike's suggestions and stop talking about building walls and separating people."

Bierman isn't disclosing who she will vote for in November. Her former student will get her blessing, but for now it appears uncertain whether he will get her vote because of the man who is at the top of the Republican ticket.

Credit Judith Valente
Benedictine Sister Sharon Bierman taught Gov. Mike Pence in seventh and eighth grades.

She said she  was "sorely disappointed" by Trump's acceptance speech, which she described as "that hour and a half of yelling."

"There is no way one person can accomplish all the stuff he says he can accomplish," Bierman added.

"I hope Mike will help him be more realistic about what they can accomplish and [encourage Trump to] take away some of the more blaring comments about other races and cultures. That would be a great help to Mr. Trump if he would listen to Mike's values."

Before he became the Republican running mate, Pence entered the national spotlight briefly after supporting a "religious freedom" law in Indiana that critics said would have allowed business owners to refuse services to gays if homosexuality and same sex marriage conflicts with their religious beliefs.

The proposal was scaled back after a public outcry in which some companies threatened to pull business from Indiana.

Bierman said she was disappointed that Pence supported the law, but believes he may have been trying to appease ultra-conservatives in his state.

She said as a boy, Pence was open and welcoming. She recalled him befriending children at his school whose families were migrant workers and who sometimes struggled to fit in.

"I believe he accepts every person for who they are. That's the way he was in school," she said.

Without revealing her vote, Bierman said she is nonethleless excited about the prospect of the first female president. 

"I am very excited about it as a woman and our community of women is excited abut a woman being ready to step forward," she said.  But she is quick to add, "Certainly whoever is the president I will support."

Bierman no longer teaches, but says at age 73, she is still trying to make a difference. She is now a chaplain at a long-term care facility near Indianapolis.