Longtime teacher at local Catholic school dies

Sister Mary Leona Miller was first-grade fixture

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter


Updated: August 1, 2012, 7:55 PM

photoSister Mary Leona Miller

Funeral Mass

A funeral Mass for Sister Mary Leona Miller will be at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 20 at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 6600 Highland Drive. She will be buried at Mother Joseph Cemetery, near Interstate 5 and Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Sister Mary Leona Miller, whose decades of teaching included 35 years in Vancouver, died Tuesday in Seattle.

The 92-year-old nun recently celebrated 70 years with the Sisters of Providence.

She was a fixture in her first-grade classroom at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Vancouver.

Suzanne Roberti said her sons Marco and Anthony were taught by Sister Mary Leona more than 30 years ago.

“We’ve remained friends ever since,” Roberti said. “She knew that there were two things children can’t ask for but need: love and discipline.”

At the end of each school day, Roberti said, Anthony would be the last child to leave the classroom.

When Sister Mary Leona and Anthony were the only ones left in the room, Roberti said, “He would run up and give her a hug and say, ‘I love you!’”

Sister Mary Leona was honored several times during her 47-year teaching career, earning national recognition in 1975 as an outstanding educator. She also was honored in 1991 as a Clark County Woman of Achievement.

Her younger sister, who also is a member of the Providence order, said that Sister Mary Leona quickly found her classroom niche.

“She taught first grade for almost 50 years,” said Sister Virginia Miller. It reflected the work of Mother Joseph, the pioneering Providence nun who came to Vancouver in 1856.

“She compared it to Mother Joseph building the foundations of buildings,” Sister Virginia said. In her first-grade classroom, Sister Mary Leona “established the foundations of character.”

Jim Mains, one of her former pupils, said that Sister Mary Leona’s influence didn’t end when he left her classroom.

”I remember things over the years,” Mains said. “When I was a sixth- or seventh-grader and got in trouble, I always went to Sister Mary Leona.

“As I got older and got into ministry in my 20s, she was a huge catalyst for me. She said that faith is so much bigger than anything else, that God is bigger than any religion. She was a Catholic nun, but she felt that spirituality was so much bigger than a brand. It was about embracing people of all faiths.”

Sister Mary Leona, who grew up in Longview, started her teaching career in Tacoma in 1943 before she had formal training.

“She had a natural gift, and it was common then to not have a college education,” Sister Virginia Miller said.

As the educational system got more sophisticated, Sister Mary Leona did earn her degree — taking college courses over the span of 10 consecutive summers.

After 47 years in the classroom, Sister Mary Leona influenced a lot of lives. As one story tells it, a fundraising group at Our Lady of Lourdes considered capitalizing on that notion by selling bumper stickers. “Honk if you had Sister Mary Leona.”

In 2002, Sister Mary Leona was honored at a reception in Vancouver celebrating her 60th anniversary as a Providence nun.

She stood as long as she could, greeting old friends and former students, Suzanne Roberti. She finally sat down, and well-wishers started to line up for a chance to greet Sister Mary Leona.

Roberti recalled: “I told her it looked like the line for Santa Claus.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.