Story of Justice: Sister Mary Ann Potts, Music Educator

By Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Coordinator

“Music is the main thing in my life,” Sister Mary Ann Potts confesses, as she reflects on her 50-plus years of teaching music. It was a love she grew into in her family in Chillocothe, Missouri. Her grandmother and brother played piano, her father loved to dance. Her brother had a good voice. Often, they would roll up the rug in their front room and dance, with the neighbors gathering outside to watch.

“When I was a child, we didn’t have money at home,” says the Chillicothe, Missouri, native.  “But I never wanted for things. My mother sewed so I could take piano lessons. Music has given me opportunities I can’t believe.”

The Sisters of St. Joseph taught at the parish school in Cillocothe until 1934, when they were replaced by the Franciscan Sisters who taught Mary Ann. She entered their community after high school and remained with them for 15 years. While she was studying music at the conservatory at the university of Missouri-Kansas City, she lived with the CSJs at St. Teresa’s Academy.

“My mother always would say to me, ‘The Franciscans are just fine. But my love is the CSJs,’” Sister Mary Ann remembers. Her mother’s love became her own as she got to know the community. “I found in the CSJs a great love, a great acceptance,” she says.

You might say, S. Mary Ann has followed her loves all through life. And those loves have always led to the Dear Neighbor.

When teaching at the consolidated inner city high school in Denver in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, she provided accompaniment for musicals at The Original Scene, a local drama and dance endeavor sponsored by the Archdiocese of Denver. “I’ve done over 50 musicals,” she says with delight, remembering most of the performances she’s directed by name and year.

In her early years, she taught high school, teaching chorus and religious studies. But when she came to Brownsville, Texas 19 years ago, she made the switch to public school and to elementary ed. “I never thought I would love teaching elementary students. But I have found my niche,” she says. “I enjoy it tremendously.”

At Los Fresnos Elementary School where she now teaches, the student population is 92 percent Hispanic. “I am widely accepted, in the public school,” she says. “They call me Sister Potts. The little kids call me Sister Pops!”

After 19 years, S. Mary Ann is well-known by the region’s residents. It helps that she provides music at three different Catholic churches most weekends. “The people come to me when there is a great need,” she says. “I am aware of a lot of children coming across the border.” Some are migrants. Some lived in colonias, small plots of land on which simple houses are built with little or no infrastructure.

"Poverty is very, very obvious,” she says. “Even to get the children to bring $2 for a recorder is a big deal,” she says. “Parents don’t have the extra dollar.

“I have always wanted to teach the poor,” she tells. “My heart has always been for the underdog and the one who doesn’t have. I enjoy helping the children who do not have opportunities. Who would never see a play or be in a play. To give them that opportunity, I love it.”

Her presence in the public school is appreciated by the families in Brownsville, many of whom are Catholic.

“If I wanted to design a job, I could not do any better,” she says.  “It’s such a gift to be able to work with the poor,” she says. “If I can make these kids happy and give them a good start in music and a positive feeling about life, it’s worth everything to me.”

Mary Ann admits that at 79 years of age, teaching 650 kids every week “is pretty taxing! But when I go to school and see the kindergartners, I light up. I’m in my glory.

“I have a lot of energy. I say I’m going to retire at 80. But if I still feel good, I might continue. I love teaching children!”

Then, there are the people and the needs of Brownsville. “They say, ‘Once you’ve drunk the Rio Grande water, you’ll never leave.’” S. Mary Ann tells. “It’s poor but it’s wonderful. It has such a flavor. I’m a gringa – I don’t feel like it, though. I wish I spoke better Spanish. But through music, I’m able to work with different groups, especially the poor.”

“I can’t thank God enough. It is wonderful to teach music,” she says, “and bring joy and happiness to people.”

At Los Fresnos Elementary School where she now teaches, the student population is 92 percent Hispanic. “I am widely accepted, in the public school,” she says. “They call me Sister Potts. The little kids call me Sister Pops!”

After 19 years, S. Mary Ann is well-known by the region’s residents. It helps that she provides music at three different Catholic churches most weekends. “The people come to me when there is a great need,” she says. “I am aware of a lot of children coming across the border.” Some are migrants. Some lived in colonias, small plots of land on which simple houses are built with little or no infrastructure.

“Poverty is very, very obvious,” she says. “Even to get the children to bring $2 for a recorder is a big deal,” she says. “Parents don’t have the extra dollar.

“I have always wanted to teach the poor,” she tells. “My heart has always been for the underdog and the one who doesn’t have. I enjoy helping the children who do not have opportunities. Who would never see a play or be in a play. To give them that opportunity, I love it.”

Her presence in the public school is appreciated by the families in Brownsville, many of whom are Catholic.

“If I wanted to design a job, I could not do any better,” she says.  “It’s such a gift to be able to work with the poor,” she says. “If I can make these kids happy and give them a good start in music and a positive feeling about life, it’s worth everything to me.”

Mary Ann admits that at 79 years of age, teaching 650 kids every week “is pretty taxing! But when I go to school and see the kindergartners, I light up. I’m in my glory."

“I have a lot of energy. I say I’m going to retire at 80. But if I still feel good, I might continue. I love teaching children!”

Then, there are the people and the needs of Brownsville. “They say, ‘Once you’ve drunk the Rio Grande water, you’ll never leave.’” S. Mary Ann tells. “It’s poor but it’s wonderful. It has such a flavor. I’m a gringa – I don’t feel like it, though. I wish I spoke better Spanish. But through music, I’m able to work with different groups, especially the poor.”

“I can’t thank God enough. It is wonderful to teach music,” she says, “and bring joy and happiness to people.”


 

Read more about our sisters in the classroom in our latest issue of Connections

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