Consecrated laywoman instructs everywhere she goes
By Nissa LaPoint
Theresita Polzin was born to be a teacher.
The 97-year-old consecrated laywoman has spent her life instructing people of all ages about academics and the Catholic faith.
“Teaching was and still is my one love,” Polzin said from her room at Little Sisters of the Poor’s Mullen Home in Denver.
“Wherever I went, I tried to teach something,”
The Illinois native grew up in Denver and spent much of her 50-year teaching career in Chicago. Today she invites youth volunteers at the senior home to listen to a short lesson and distributes her authored publications on Catholicism.
“She always shares the word of God with them,” said Little Sister Joseph Maureen Hobin, unit coordinator at the home. “She’s willing to share her faith with anyone who will listen.”
Inside her simple room with a crucifix, peach curtains and stacked bookshelf topped with saint relics, Polzin, a former nun, shared the story of her path to becoming an educator.
Initially, her experience of school was not positive. After her first day of school when 5, 6 and, again, at 7 years old, she asked her mother to let her wait another year.
“I really wasn’t ready,” Polzin said. “She wanted me to go and I went one day and I said, ‘I quit.’”
When 7, she complained to her mom, Pearl, after running home from school that she feared the hawks soaring above would catch her.
“She said, ‘No. You’re too big and they’re too small, and they could never lift you.’ That has been a guideline for my life,” Polzin said. “It makes you feel whatever the obstacle, it’s too small.”
She used that moment for courage when faced with a challenging course, she said.
School, Polzin said, “was traumatic for me, but I did well in class.”
She sped through school—passing four grade levels in two years until she entered fifth grade at 10—and attended the then newly built St. Joseph Polish School in Denver. It was there that she discovered her vocation.
One day the school pastor gave her and the other choir girls a tour of the nuns’ convent, showing the inside of their rooms and living area.
“Father turned around and he said to me, ‘See, when you’re going to be a sister, you’re going to have a room like that, too.’ That was the first time the thought struck me I could be a sister,” Polzin said. “I made up my mind right that minute when I was 10 years old.”
She was further convinced of her vocation when she first laid eyes on a nun during school registration day.
“She was beautiful,” Polzin said, impressed by the nun’s habit.
For high school, she was accepted to St. Joseph Academy in Wisconsin. She graduated at 16 and immediately entered a Franciscan order.
She made her first vows at 18 and began teaching seventh grade at a school in Chicago. Three years later, Polzin made her final vows.
Pulling a photo from her desk drawer, Polzin revealed a snapshot taken of her in 1939.
“Isn’t that a beautiful habit?” she asked.
Referring to her serious look in the photo, she said, “I never had a problem with discipline.”
During class, Polzin said she would stop if a pupil was talking.
She carries some of her teaching habits today. If leading prayer before meals at Mullen Home, Polzin will pause until the room is quiet.
“There’s no sense in having two people talk at the same time,” she said.
She loved teaching and taught at Catholic schools across Chicago from elementary to high school and eventually college.
“I enjoyed it because I do have the gift, I would say, of being able to explain and that really made it wonderful for me,” Polzin said.
She attended classes herself after school and received her bachelor’s degree in history from DePaul University. She later earned her master’s degree and doctorate in sociology from Loyola University Chicago.
During Vatican II, sweeping changes made to many religious orders impelled some to leave, among them Polzin. So at age 55 she returned to Denver and became a consecrated virgin.
In Denver, she taught at Metropolitan State College of Denver for 14 years.
She penned pamphlets and books from the classes she taught that focus on the mystical body of Christ, the essentials of the Catholic faith, the saints and the emotional development of children.
She gives them out to everyone, said Sister Hobin, adding that Polzin is called the “resident poetess” at the home and often initiates the plays put on by the residents.
“She’s sharp as a tack,” Sister Hobin said. “She’s willing to share the knowledge she has.”