"I forgot I got a Fulbright."
This revelation came out at the end of an hourlong interview, after the cameras were shut down, recorders were turned off, and pens were capped. Indeed, given all the things Sister Georgia Messingschlager has seen and done, it's not completely surprising that she might forget an experience, even an otherwise unforgettable one.
The Fulbright was part of an initiative to share best teaching practices in Japan. Sister Georgia spent three weeks touring the schools in Fukaya City ("Onion Capital of the World"!) and deciding that, all things considered, they were doing pretty well.
Japan is half a world away from her Independence, Kentucky, roots, but it was just one of Sister Georgia's international stops. Her mastery of history and Latin brought with it visits to England (to study the Roman influence there), Rome, Naples, and Mantua (to study Virgil). Closer to home, she taught history, Latin, and English at Covington Catholic for six years, a stint marked by a willingness to step away from the textbook—and the rule book. "One time we had a hot air balloon on the lawn," Sister Georgia recalls. "Even if it was a little bit crazy, we did it."
"I started out on a farm and we moved to Independence when my dad began working for the railroad. I went to St. Cecilia School and that's where I first met the Sisters of Divine Providence. Later I attended Notre Dame Academy. They honored me with the "Women Making a Difference" award one year, so the Notre Dames still claim me, but I guess the CDPs just made that early impression, so that's where I ended up."
Independence was hardly a metropolis in those days. One family discussion centered on whether Georgia's 6-year-old brother was old enough to ride a horse to school. (The verdict? He wasn't.) The area was developing, but was still a farming community. "My dad still liked to get dirt under his fingernails," Sister Georgia remembers, "so we'd add a little bit of land whenever we could. We always had gardens, and we canned. I still do."
This may be something of an understatement. Sister Georgia's canning is no mere pantry-padding operation. Each year at the Sisters' Evening Under the Oaks celebration, she supplies dozens of jars of jams and preserves for sale. Veteran event-goers know to stop by her shelves first thing; the cupboards are bare before the evening is over.
Beyond Covington Catholic, Sister Georgia taught at Thomas More College, Xavier University, and St. Xavier High School, the last for 31 years. Sometimes she had to assert herself to be compensated for her credentials and not allow herself to settle for "Sister pay." "I was always happy for the chance to teach, but I felt it was important that Sisters be treated fairly." She once rebuffed a recruiter's offer of low pay with the response: "You see that lake behind you? Go jump in it."
Along the way, Sister Georgia has developed an expertise in the history of the Underground Railroad in the local area, the subject of her master's thesis. "I gave talks on the Underground Railroad at UC, Xavier, the Cincinnati Historical Society, UK, Wilberforce, and down at Nazareth College. There are so many sites associated with the Underground Railroad that many people haven't heard about, but they got very interested once you starting talking."
These days, Sister Georgia stays busy with several ministries. She helps out on Mondays at the St. Bernard Food Pantry in Dayton, Kentucky (founded by another Sister of Divine Providence in 1986), and visits with elders of St. Matthew Parish—there are 13 on her route now. She also fills in as a substitute teacher at Covington Catholic whenever needed.
But ministry isn't always a formal affair, she says. "You have to be aware every moment and try to see what is being asked of you in this situation, with this person. Be open to whatever is handed to you. Somebody may need an ear, or a hand. You have to pay attention and be open to whatever is needed."