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Sisters show Saint Mary’s pride

Megan O'Neil | Thursday, September 29, 2005

She doesn’t wear short skirts.

She doesn’t shake pom-poms.

She will never do bounding handsprings across the court.

Nevertheless, Sister Viola Marie Byrnes is well known as Saint Mary’s most vibrant and vocal cheerleader.

In recent years the retired Sister of the Holy Cross has become a fixture on campus, riding around on an athletic department golf cart and cheering from the sidelines at home games.

With fewer and fewer Sisters filling positions at the College, the visibility of Byrnes and a few other Sisters at competitions has inspired student athletes and provided them with a portal to a past era.

A lifeline

One of nine children, Byrnes loved to play sports as a girl, particularly basketball, volleyball and baseball. The Logan, Utah native decided to join the Sisters of the Holy Cross as a young woman and arrived at Saint Mary’s in 1951 to take classes.

In 1954 she left the College and went out on mission, embarking on what would turn out to be a lifelong career of teaching. Assigned classes as large as 50 first or second graders, Byrnes worked in Catholic schools in California, Washington, Utah, Idaho and Texas.

Wherever she placed, she was always a big supporter of athletics.

“I went to the soccer, basketball and baseball games,” Byrnes said. “I was very active with the children.”

Suffering from poor health, Byrnes returned to Saint Mary’s in May 2001 to undergo an operation. It was while struggling to recover she met athletic director Lynn Kachmarik and began building a relationship with the College’s athletic department.

“A few years ago we needed to find a way for the fall sport athletes to eat over fall break and the dining hall was closed,” Kachmarik said.

Sister Louisita Welsh, assistant to vice president for mission and the volleyball team chaplain, suggested the student athletes dine with Sisters of the Holy Cross at the convent.

“It was a win-win situation for everybody,” Kachmarik said. “[The athletes] mixed and mingled with some of the Sisters.”

From that point on, Karchmarik said, Byrnes “just stuck.”

“I started doing what I call nun runs,” Kachmarik said. “I would take my golf cart over to the convent and I would pick up whatever nuns wanted to come to the basketball game or the volleyball game.”

Attending games regularly, Byrnes grew especially close to members of the soccer squad and became team chaplain.

“[The Sisters] want to be out serving, but health issues bring them back here,” Kachmarik said. “So it is kind of like a lifeline for Sister Viola – it keeps her young.”

Byrnes also credits her involvement with the athletics teams for energizing her physically, mentally and spiritually.

“[It’s] been a lifesaver,” Sister Viola said. “I would have gone nuts if I didn’t have anything to do.”

In good times and in bad

Despite serious health problems – including two knee replacements, two knee hip replacements and severe arthritis – Byrnes is always on the sidelines cheering on the Belles.

In May, Byrnes had successful open-heart surgery only to be diagnosed with breast cancer four weeks later. She spent the summer undergoing 30 radiation treatments. All of her focus, she said, was in recovering in time to attend the first home game this season.

“I will never forget bringing her over on the golf cart [to the first game] and she had her hands above her head saying ‘I’m here, I’m here.'” Kachmarik said. “I’ve never seen our team play so much as a team as that first win against Albion.”

Byrnes has also become legendary among athletes and coaches for braving terrible weather in order to watch teams compete.

“Last year it was this really cold, windy day,” said senior Maura Schoen, one of three soccer team captains. “It was so windy we thought she was going to blow over and she was still out there. We had some of our players stand behind her to make sure she didn’t fall over. Nothing will stop her.”

A strong presence

Senior and fellow soccer team captain Shannon Culbertson had never known a Sister before joining the Saint Mary’s team freshman year and meeting Byrnes. She said she was immediately struck by her enthusiasm for the College and for the athletes.

“I love it when the other teams see that we have a nun in full habit on the sidelines,” Culbertson said. “It is just priceless.”

Byrnes doesn’t restrict herself to just the sidelines, however. She joins the team on the field for their pre-game pump-up sessions.

“She’s usually in the huddle,” Culbertson said. “Sometimes people will forget she is there. Before the games sometimes people will get loud and kind of curse of whatever but she doesn’t get mad, she understands.”

Byrnes taught the team a rhyming prayer, so they could easily remember it, which they recite with her before every home game and without her when they compete away. She also likes to add a word or two about strategy.

“Last home game Sister Viola started the halftime speech and she said ‘You guys are playing so well, but the ball is only on one side of the field,'” Culbertson said. “We were all like, ‘We are being coached by a nun.’ It was the best halftime speech ever. I wish I had it on videotape or something.”

After a senior awards banquet one year, Kachmarik recalled, the parents of an athlete approached her and thanked her not for honoring their daughter with one of the major awards of the evening but for reintroducing the Sisters to the students.

Kachmarik said that gesture was “a huge statement” for her and affirmed her belief that the Sisters have an important role to play in the athletic department and at the College.

A spiritual mother

Sister Viola’s dedication to her faith and to her life’s work has been an inspiration to many of those involved with Saint Mary’s athletics.

As part of her work as soccer team chaplain, Sister Viola gave the name of one Saint Mary’s player to Sisters in the convent to pray for the team’s success.

At Christmastime members of the soccer team went door to door in the convent to sing carols and thank the Sisters for their support.

“Personally it has deepened my faith knowing that someone believes so strongly,” Culbertson said. “Praying is not something she takes lightly, it is really serious.”

Kachmarik said when she arrived at Saint Mary’s six years ago she was not a Catholic and had little interest in becoming one.

But little by little, Byrnes and fellow athletic enthusiast Sister Jean Little began to ask Kachmarik about her faith and whether she was interested in the joining the Church.

“I was in such awe of their lives and their commitment to God and their work,” Kachmarik said. “I started looking into it and then they became my sponsors.”

Her relationship with the Sisters of the Holy Cross has had a tremendous impact on her faith life, Kachmarik said.

“I think Sister Viola and Sister Jean are 100 percent of the reason I became Catholic,” Kachmarik said. “I am a completely different person because of my relationship with Sister Viola and Sister Jean and all the Sisters of the Holy Cross.”