Short Features

Running with the Nuns
UNH students give a lift to the children of St. Charles.

Sister Maximilian left, and Sister Mary Agnes run with the children of St. Charles Children's home at a Portsmouth road race. Photo by George Barker

They run in the rain, they run along snowmobile trails, and they run in the muddy streets. They run up to four miles almost every day after school, and during the summer they compete in road races every month.

At first, the children at St. Charles Children's Home in Rochester, N.H., ran because the Roman Catholic nuns who care for them encouraged them to exercise. Now they run for the love of running. Sister Maximilian, their young and energetic leader, runs with them in full habit. On Wednesday afternoons, they are joined by students from the University of New Hampshire.

"It's good for the children to see the college students," Sister Maximilian says. "They bring an enthusiasm for life that's just so captivating. The students have big dreams about the future and without realizing it, they share some of them."

The children who arrive at St. Charles from troubled homes aren't accustomed to thinking about the future with hope, with personal aspirations. The nuns' nurturing helps them heal over time and reconcile with their families, if possible. But the nuns can't provide what the UNH students can-youthful optimism and not-so-long-ago memories of the joys and the turbulence of childhood.

The UNH connection with St. Charles began in 2000 with a call from Mary Beth Nazzaro, an associate chaplain at UNH, who is based at St. Thomas More Church in Durham. Nazzaro, a former track coach, was looking for volunteer activities for UNH students, and the church's pastor suggested working with the children at St. Charles.

"I asked Sister Maximilian what she needed," Nazzaro says. "She wanted to set up different groups so some could run farther, and she needed more people to listen to the kids." A few pairs of hands helped, too. Many of the younger children, longing for affection, want to hold hands as they run. "I've learned to run without my arms," Nazzaro says, laughing. "We fall a lot."

Front row: Pam Lilja '04, Sister Maximilian, Jackie Erdal '04, Tara Hansen; back row: Sister Mary Agnes, Danielle Adams '04, Lucia Nazzaro '01, grad student Elizabeth Caffrey, and the children. Photo by George Barker

The UNH volunteers agree to a background check by police and provide three references. Sister Maximilian interviews each one. This year, 19 UNH students visit the St. Charles Home regularly-five run with the children, and 13 come on Tuesday nights to help the children with homework or play learning games. One student does both.

"It's quite a commitment," says Nazzaro. "Even when there are papers and tests and finals, they still go to St. Charles. Continuity is important. Sister Maximilian was very clear about the fact that she didn't want any more fragmented relationships for these children because they have had enough of that in their lives."

Sarah Moynihan '04 has been working with the children for two years. "It's an incredibly moving experience," she says. "I have a more positive outlook on life since I started working with the kids. Some of them have come so far. This has become a big part of my life at UNH. And Sister Maximilian is the most selfless person I've ever met. She's inspiring."

Nazzaro agrees. "That call started what I now believe to be one of the most important relationships in my life. Sister Maximilian inspires, not just the children at St. Charles, but the UNH students and myself, with her faith, her energy and her love."

The running program at St. Charles began in 1997 when Sister Maximilian challenged a young girl to race her to a tree. The girl had been exhibiting some behavioral problems, and whenever she seemed to be struggling, Sister Maximilian would take her outside for a walk. One day, the idea of a challenge seemed appealing. The girl beat her to the tree and the next day, she wanted to run again.

Within two weeks, says Sister Maximilian, "I came home one day and I said, 'You won't believe this, but I just ran a mile.'" Smiling at the memory of that first mile, which she ran in Birkenstocks, she adds, "I was very athletic as a child, but I had been in a convent for 15 years."

p>Soon, all of the 21 children who could run-they range from 3 years old to 11-were practicing nearly every day, and the Eagles team was born. Sister Mary Rose took the children to Red's Shoe Barn and outfitted them with running shoes. Before long, they were wearing maroon running jackets emblazoned with their team logo and matching pants. With three of the nuns running at their side, the children draw a lot of attention at road races. And they love it. One wall in the St. Charles Home dining room is decorated with ribbons and shelves hold trophies.

"There are no children who carry more stress than children in placement," says Sister Maximilian, "and there's no sport that's more physically releasing than running. It helps them feel good about themselves." ~

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