This story was updated at 11:06 a.m. Nov. 8, 2013.
Sister Karen Lester said she can hardly believe more than 50 years have gone by since she began teaching at St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic High School.
“Year after year just rolls along, you don’t realize that time is passing,” she said. “Each new year is a new adventure, because you have a new group of students, new things that you have to watch out for and that you want to do for them.”
Lester, 77, is a member of the Pallottine Missionary Sisters, an international religious order within the Catholic Church and the owners of St. Vincent Pallotti High School, a private Catholic school in Laurel.
In October, the school held a 50th anniversary celebration for Lester, who began teaching at the school in 1960, but spent three years of her career teaching at Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic High School, which was located in Laurel at the time.
When Lester began teaching at Pallotti, the faculty was composed almost entirely of sisters from her order. Now, Lester, who teaches Algebra I and II, is the last sister at the school.
Principal Jeff Palumbo said the numbers of Pallottine sisters has declined, and they are now more focused on providing medical care, leaving teaching in the hands of laypeople.
“It’s awesome having her here. I can’t imagine not having her here,” Palumbo said.
Palumbo, who took over as principal last year, said he was a little worried that Lester, given her many decades at the school, would not be open to change, but those fears turned out to be unfounded, Palumbo said.
“Because she does love Pallotti so much, she’s always thinking of the next best thing, and anytime we have new ideas, she always works with us to continue making Pallotti a great school,” Palumbo said.
Lester, a native of West Virginia, joined the convent at the age of 16, moved, she said, by the deep faith with which she was raised. Lester earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, but has taken college classes to prepare her to teach a variety of math and science classes at the school.
“I have enough credits for a master’s, but I never went to one school long enough,” she said.
Lester began teaching at 22.
“I was barely older than the students,” she recalled. “It was a challenge getting them to listen to me.”
Now, after more than half a century of teaching, Lester said her greatest joy in teaching is watching students improve.
“It’s a happy time when you see some students who were struggling their first couple years, and you thought to yourself, ‘Will they ever graduate high school?’ but then they go on to be very good scholars and finish high school with flying colors,” Lester said.
Pallotti Administrative Assistant Claire Rudinski said Lester isn’t just about academics.
“She’s a huge Notre Dame football fan,” Rudinski said, adding that Lester was the first female athletic director in Maryland.
The school’s basketball court is named “Sister Karen Court” in her honor, Rudinski said.
Dee Mason, 20, graduated from Pallotti in 2012. She said she was failing math until she was transferred to Lester’s class.
“She’s great. She helps you understand math in many different ways,” Mason said. “I’m not good at math at all, but she explains things to me in terms of cats and dogs, apples and oranges, rather than equations.”
Mason is a sophomore at Howard Community College, and said Lester still tutors her in college algebra.
“I definitely would not be where I am today without Sister Karen,” she said.
If God wills it, Lester said, she plans to continue teaching and has no plans to retire.
“I enjoy what I’m doing, so I’ll continue doing it as long as I can,” she said.