When Sister St. George Skurla passed away on Feb. 9, it was the culmination of a life that was lived to the fullest. Sister not only knew and understood Carpe Diem, she was Carpe Diem!
A sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 70 years, she also was a mother to legions of impressionable young men, of which I am one.
Before she passed I would see her every other year or so at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, sometimes with other nuns, and sometimes by herself. About ten years ago I happened to run into her and asked her if I could one day take her to breakfast, and if I could in turn have her cell phone number. We never were able to go and have breakfast at Pann's (which is where she wanted to meet up), but I was able to talk with her over the phone every six months or so, to see how she was doing.
I feel honored to know that I must have been one of the last students from Daniel Murphy to have spoken directly to her via cell approximately two weeks before she passed. And I can’t help but to reflect a bit and think back on how her life influenced mine, and so many others.
It was The Year of Our Lord 1984. Tom Bradley was going into his 11th year as Mayor of Los Angeles, and the Soviets had boycotted the Olympics in response to the U.S. doing the same in Moscow four years earlier. Against this backdrop, arguably the single most influential nun outside of the Vatican — in our minds, at least —set her steely, eagle-sharp eyes squarely on the largest freshman class in the history of Daniel Murphy High School in mid-town L.A.
As we would soon learn, Sister St. George made it her life's work to not only be a faithful servant to the order to which she belonged, but to seize upon every opportunity to mold, influence and create responsible young men who could go forth into society and lead productive lives.
When you entered into her classroom, you knew it was her domain. You were the student, and she was the master. Often we would jokingly say things like “We are the Kings of the class,” but we would soon learn that Sister St. George was the Queen who ruled, no matter how big and bad you thought you were. And she would have no problem informing you of your place soon enough.
Whether you listened and applied yourself — that was another matter. Lord knows I was the epitome of the term class clown, but in the end, Sister always got the last laugh.
If you showed that you hadn’t absorbed the material (I had her in English class), she could make you feel about as big as an ant, but without insulting or belittling you. Sister was a master of subtleties, for she had two ways of delivering a message. There were the verbal instructions, of course, but the stare did the rest!
You may have thought you were wasting her time, but the genius of Sister St. George Skurla was that you realized through that stare, and that crystallized special silence that resulted from that stare, that ultimately you were wasting your time.
Without having to say so, she always conveyed the message: "Live your life to the fullest, but be mindful of your actions.” There were and remain consequences to all actions. It was just understood that this nun meant business and, perhaps more importantly, she made you realize that her business was ultimately your business.
She would have me thinking: “Am I sure I want to act a fool and misbehave in her class?” For consequences not only awaited in the form of detention and a call to my parents. There was a bigger price to pay, one that, at age 14, I couldn’t see or hear but most certainly could feel. My future was on the line. Sister St. George Skurla knew the power of silence. With her, at least sometimes, less was more.
Yet as tough as she was, you always knew Sister was “in it for you to win it.” She was focused squarely on your academic performance and your behavior. She cared about you, and she loved you. But indeed, she was tough love, and you knew it from when you first set foot at Daniel Murphy. There were a few other tough teachers, but none commanded your attention and awe like Sister St. George Skurla.
Sister mattered, in my life and in the lives of many of my classmates, because she made us realize that tomorrow is not promised. She forced a legion of testosterone-laden boys to see that women are creations of God, and they shouldn’t be looked upon as objects, no more that we would want our sisters or mothers to be perceived as such. She told legions of young men to take note that their "accountability was answer-ability.”
And she was able to convey and share a love born from an old-school mentality, through which she was able to say, “I'm genuinely interested in seeing to it that you come out of this school being both a scholar and gentleman — with a special emphasis on the latter.”
Her presence had no equal. She was the Queen of England, your own mother, and a vivacious Jedi knight all rolled up into one. And she was a mother to legions of young men. I'd like to tell her right now, on behalf of the class of '84, thank you.
Thank you so very much for allowing me to see that there was indeed a way to smile, approach and talk to a lady. Thank you, Sister, for teaching us so many of life's lessons at an early age, lessons that remain firmly imbedded.
Yes, we all know the difference between there, their and they're. I believe most of us know how to spell Wednesday. But perhaps the one lesson, the one phrase I try to incorporate into my life forever is, “Think, because it only hurts in the beginning.”
Sister St. George Skurla, we are all your sons of Daniel Murphy High School. Knights indeed, who one day look forward to experiencing your presence and your spiritual power in the next realm. You were an academic rock for the Lord, the church and your students. You were and remain our Gibraltar.
Robert Gagnier writes from Los Angeles.
Sister Saint George Skurla, CSJ
Born March 5, 1926 in San Diego to Croatian immigrant parents, Eva Elizabeth Skurla entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet on March 19, 1944, having decided in the second grade that she would become a nun.
After making temporary vows in 1946 and taking the name Saint George, she began teaching in elementary schools in California and Arizona, including Ascension and St. Anselm in Los Angeles, and made her final vows in 1949.
Sister Skurla then served for 18 years at Mount St. Mary's College in the English department. She also taught at St. Mary's Academy in Inglewood, Daniel Murphy High School in Los Angeles, and Queen of Angels Seminary High School in Mission Hills, before retiring from teaching.
The aunt of L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, she died in Los Angeles Feb. 9. Funeral Mass was celebrated Feb. 19 at Carondelet Center, Brentwood.