Obituary: Sisteer Concepta Stanko / Educator who helped the poor in Puerto Rico

April 20, 1918 - Aug. 30, 2012

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Dorothy Marie Stanko was eager to enter the religious life after high school. But it was a daunting assignment at age 31 -- finally agreeing after three requests to join a mission in Puerto Rico -- that became the backbone of her career as an educator.

Sister Concepta Stanko died Thursday of congestive heart failure in the infirmary of the mother house of the Sisters of Divine Providence in Allison Park. She was 94.

The second of 10 siblings who grew up in Johnstown, she was a hard worker and a disciplined student. She attained her bachelor's and master's degrees in education at Duquesne University before settling into what she thought would be a career as a teacher in Pittsburgh. She taught in Diocese schools from St. Basil in Carrick to St. Ambrose in Spring Hill to St. Norbert in Overbrook, where she was also a principal.

"In 1949, the superiors asked her to go to Puerto Rico and she said no because her mother had died the year before and she didn't want to leave her father," said Sister Maria Fest. "The third time she was asked to go, I think she finally was willing to step outside her comfort zone of family, friends, culture and language. I would describe her as a reluctant missionary who grew to embrace the life."

Except for a six-year hiatus when she returned to serve as the principal at St. Anne's School in Castle Shannon, Sister Concepta lived and taught in mission schools in Utuado, Arecibo and Orocovis, Puerto Rico.

"She loved it down there," said her brother, Bernard Stanko of Johnstown, who is eight years younger. "She was always happy. She always cared for everybody. When I was a kid we would visit her at the mother house. She was just a wonderful sister."

In her early years as a missionary, she was homesick and lived in sparse conditions without knowing Spanish. She eventually became fluent, teaching in schools five days a week and spending the sixth day in the countryside teaching the children of poor families.

"The parishes were poor where they were, and the people were poor but very generous," Sister Maria said. "They always offered food and brought things to the convent to help the sisters out, aware that the sisters were as poor as they were. She talked about how for the whole nine days before Christmas, people would sing through the streets.

"I think she was eager to go back," said Sister Maria, who had been a student at St. Anne's when Sister Concepta was the principal there. "She said that the thing that kept them going was the camaraderie of the sisters on the island. They were in the poorer areas and worked very hard."

She was 68 when she returned from Puerto Rico and was asked to direct St. Anne's day care program, a job she did for 11 years.

"She could have retired after that, but just to tell you what a faithful companion she was, she companioned with a sister we have who was experiencing early signs of Parkinson's disease. Sister Concepta did for her what she couldn't do."

In 2003, she began her retirement but was still looking out for her ill companion.

"When she was in the hospital, it was for an infection that she thought she'd be treated for and come back from. People asked her what she needed and she said, 'Stop in and see her [the sister with Parkinson's].' She was lucid to the very end."

Besides her brother Bernard, she is survived by brothers William Stanko of Johnstown and Joseph Stanko of Baltimore; and sisters Estelle Friant of Seattle and Susan Turmelle of Glen Burnie, Md.

Friends will be received Monday from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. and Tuesday from noon to 3:30 p.m. in the community room at Providence Heights, 9000 Babcock Blvd. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Mother of Divine Providence Chapel, 9000 Babcock Blvd.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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