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On Second Thought

Nuns’ runs aren’t just fun runs

By Kevin Paul Dupont
September 4, 2011

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ROCHESTER, N.H. - The St. Charles Children’s Home is run by a group of Catholic nuns, the order of the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love, and make no mistake, these women put the emphasis on “run.’’ The good sisters have been running and running and running for the last 15 years, not really with an athletic goal in mind, or with eyes trained on a finish line or a championship mug.

Running is just what they do, every day, typically as early as 6:30 each morning, be it school day, weekend, or holiday. Decked out in their habits, including full-length white dresses fronted by powder-blue scapulars, they have scooted around Rochester’s roadways with the home’s resident kids virtually every day since 1996.

And it all started when a young girl named Rosie and a sister named Maximilian virtually stumbled upon a much-needed curative, the discovery that running together as a family has a delightful way of turning behavioral issues into forgotten bumps in the road.

“Until we began to run,’’ said Sister Maximilian, 44, fresh from leading some of her young charges on a 4-mile run the other morning, “we were looking for ways for the kids to work out some of their aggressive behavior.

“We were in a crisis. They were hurting each other, sometimes themselves, to the point we repeatedly had to restrain them. We called a family meeting and encouraged ideas, asking them, you know, ‘What can we do?’ ’’

Most of the suggestions centered on sports.

“We had suggestions to let them bounce it out, swing it out, throw it out, shoot it out, all the sports things you can imagine,’’ recalled Maximilian. “So we tried all of those and . . . not one of them worked.’’

The ruckus continued. The kids, boys and girls ages 3-12, couldn’t get along. Too much of the day was consumed by the good sisters having to break up quarrels, often by restraining some with two-armed bear hugs.

“We had a tough group,’’ recalled Sister Mary Agnes, who is in charge of the home’s annual fund-raising run, to be staged tomorrow morning at the Pease Tradeport in nearby Portsmouth, N.H. “Very aggressive. Very violent. We needed a way for the kids to solve their problems, in ways other than pounding one another’s faces in.’’

The turnaround came when Sister Maximilian began to take 7-year-old Rosie, whom she identified as the “ringleader,’’ for frequent walks. Whenever Maximilian sensed Rosie’s “barometer’’ on the rise, the two would head out on Grant Street and walk until Rosie’s pressure dropped.

The walks became more frequent and longer. They then turned into walks with a little bit of running, then running with a little bit of walking. After a while, Rosie and Maximilian were fixtures around town, the sprinting little kid and the accompanying nun, in full flowing habit.

“Running,’’ realized Sister Maximilian, “became this tool. Thankfully, an effective tool.’’

The mark of a true craftswoman, though, is not the tool itself but how she uses it. Once she finally sensed she had the goods in hand, Sister Maximilian proudly, though subtly, showcased her star athlete to the resident boys. In wide-eyed amazement, she told them what a great runner they had in their midst.

“Oh, I made a big deal out of it,’’ she said, “and it did two things. It built Rosie’s self-esteem, something so many of our kids need. And it also got the boys saying, ‘Oh well, she could never beat me!’

“All that little macho stuff begins early. And all I said to them was, ‘You know, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.’ ’’

In short order, Sister Maximilian, Rosie the runner, and a half-dozen or so of the St. Charles boys were headed to the local middle school’s outdoor track to sort out the running order. Round and round they went, with Rosie holding strong at the top of the pack, pressing on, unrelenting. By Mile 1, recalled Sister Maximilian, the only boy left in the race was Tony.

“The rest of boys,’’ she said, “were all on the grass moaning in pain. It was just Tony and Rosie, and they just kept going and going and going. Finally, I had to call an end to it, and Tony might have been ahead when I did. But I will tell you, the next day, Tony was walking funny - and Rosie was just fine.’’

Robbie Turner, now 22, was one of the boys left in the dust that day. He spent a large chunk of his childhood at the St. Charles home, along with his sister Destinee, and when contacted by phone recently, he chuckled over the distant memory of the great Rosie Run.

“Funny, when the whole running thing started, I don’t think any of us really wanted to run like that, you know, every day,’’ he said. “But then it became this thing to do. We all began to like it.

“I was just this little kid, 6 or 7, and I can’t tell you what it was like before we ran, or how it changed things in the home. I don’t think I was one of the problem kids. But I almost don’t remember any of my life before I got there. I can tell you it was a good place, and the sisters, I mean, they were all my mothers.’’

Turner and his sister arrived at the home with different surnames and eventually were adopted by the Turner family in Dover, N.H. In May, Robbie said, he graduated from the University of Southern New Hampshire with a degree in business administration.

He lives not far away, in Barrington, and is eagerly looking forward to running in tomorrow’s 5K fund-raiser. He still has some 30 medals that he won as a runner in his days at St. Charles, and fondly remembers how the sisters, who to this day run alongside their kids in many of the area road races, proudly displayed his medals on the St. Charles cafeteria walls.

“Monday will be the first time I’ve run in the race since I left there,’’ said Turner, who was in the field for the inaugural St. Charles fund-raiser in 1997. “So this is going to be good. I just hope I can keep up with Sister Maximilian.’’

Currently, there are nine children in residence at St. Charles and seven nuns. For the last 18 months or so, only Sister Maximilian has led kids on their daily runs, though Sister Mary Rose is about to come off the disabled list. If she prefers, Sister Maximilian can drop back to 4 miles a day instead of 8.

“What I want people to understand is the thing that made the difference for us,’’ she said. “Running is important, obviously, but it’s just the tool. What made the difference is that we ran together. Running taught us about family.

“Sure, Rosie and I could walk and walk and walk, and that was great. But when we all got out there - as we do to this day - then it became us, it became a family. We started to work together, rely on each other, and most important, not disappoint each other, be it out there running or working as a family inside the house.’’

The 15th St. Charles Children’s Home 5K run begins at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Cost is $20 for runners 13 or older, $10 for children 12 and under. Registration begins at 7:30, and entries are accepted right up to the opening gun. Other than the sisters, habits are optional.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com.