Wednesday, May 09, 2001

Nun's characters make her one, too

She defies pain to delight children

        VILLA HILLS — Once upon a time, a nun was asked to teach children about hand-washing.

        She said to herself, “Hand-washing? You've got to be kidding.”

        But Sister Esther O'Hara loved a challenge, so she went to the school with her friend Dottie Dunn, the nurse who had gotten her into this mess.

        The children gathered expectantly at Sister Esther's feet. As she opened her box of puppets, she whispered a prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit, and come quick!”

[photo] Sister Esther O'Hara and puppets Daisy (left) and Vernie entertain Elizabeth Combs at a party for her seventh birthday.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        The Holy Spirit obliged.

        Sister Esther pulled out a puppet by the name of Witch Hazel. In her customary shriek, Witch Hazel told the children to never, ever wash their hands, because dirty hands would make them sick and then they would have to go to the hospital.

        Witch Hazel cackled with evil glee. “Ah-hahahaahaaahaaaaaaa!”

        The children howled. They laughed and laughed, Ms. Dunn recalled.

        And that's how they learned to wash their hands.

Balloons, puppets

        This is a classic Sister Esther story. She's Greater Cincinnati's only balloon-twisting, puppet-voicing, storytelling nun, and she's a True Character.

        Gail Blair of Cold Spring nominated her for this column, part of a series on unusual personalities in the Tristate.

        The women met 20 years ago at the Blue Marble children's bookstore in Fort Thomas.

        “I have seen her perform for many, many children and have seen the children's loving response to her,” Ms. Blair says. “It is magical.”

        Sister Esther indeed has a knack. At 71 and wracked with pain from various ailments, she still performs at private and public schools in the region. She volunteers at the Cincinnati Zoo and the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, where she bonds with troubled boys.

        And she does birthday parties. With little more than her voice, her puppets and her balloons, she captivates kids raised on computers, video games and the World Wrestling Federation.

        “When I'm with kids, I'm in my glory,” Sister Esther says.

        They get no preachy sermons, no pat moralizing about right and wrong. Her stories always have messages, but they're wrapped in the sassy dialogue and silly characters that children love.

        “Elizabeth came home quoting the stories. I couldn't believe it,” said Connie Combs of Fort Mitchell, whose 7-year-old daughter met Sister Esther at Blessed Sacrament School.

Vernie and friends

        A Benedictine nun since 1947, Sister Esther grew up in Erlanger and taught school until 1988, when health problems forced her to retire.

        She has always told stories. She hates to read and never memorizes a script; if necessary, she maps out her tales as comic strips, drawing stick figures to represent the action.

        Her first puppet, Vernie the Penguin, was made for her years ago as a gentle joke: He matches her black-and-white veil.

        “Let's see ... how old is Vernie? Vernie's getting pretty old, and he looks it,” Sister Esther said on a recent afternoon.

        “Here, while I'm talking about him ... ”

        She pulls a picture from her wallet. It's a professional portrait of herself surrounded by the gang: Vernie, Daisy the Mouse, Witch Hazel, Aunt Nellie the Old Lady and Joy the Little Girl.

        “They're my five kids,” Sister Esther says, eyes twinkling. “I tell people I have five kids, and they're out in the trunk of the car.”

        Also in her trunk are assorted props for enthralling real children. She has a snakeskin from the zoo, a turtle shell and a feather. Once she met a blind boy at a picnic. Through the softness of the feather, she introduced him to birds.

Sharing joy

        At the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, Sister Esther has a special friend who shares her love of entertaining.

        Every year, she helps with the home's fireworks festival at Devou Park. Last year, pain in one of her arms kept her from making balloon animals at the event.

        A 15-year-old boy from the home offered to help. Development Director Tricia Fries took him to St. Walburg Monastery, where Sister Esther patiently showed him the ropes.

        “He was just really touched that she was in pain and still helping us,” Ms. Fries recalled.

        Like many youngsters at the home, the boy had been abused and removed from his parents. He and Sister Esther became fast friends, and she visits him still.

        “He really likes to see the happy faces when he makes a balloon animal,” Ms. Fries aid, “and she taught him how to do that.”

Teaching others

        The pain in Sister Esther's body sometimes brings her to the verge of tears. An ailment related to muscular dystrophy causes pain in her right side, and colon surgery several years ago left her with severe abdominal pain.

        “When I'm with kids, I can kind of forget about it,” she says.

        On a recent afternoon, she brought out Vernie, Daisy, Joy and Witch Hazel at a birthday party for Elizabeth Combs, the 7-year-old from Fort Mitchell.

        Sitting cross-legged on the floor, 12 little girls listened raptly as Sister Esther told about a silly boy named Jack, who won a princess' heart by making her laugh.

        Then Vernie the Penguin led everyone in a scratchy rendition of “Happy Birthday.” For the grand finale, Sister Esther showed the girls how to make balloon dogs.

        Faces flushed with concentration, they twisted carefully until ears, feet and tails emerged. For a few minutes, the living room was quiet, but for the squeaking of the balloons and murmurs of “I need help,” from the girls.

        Sister Esther stood patiently in their midst. Almost to herself, she said, “One of these days, one of you kids is going to be taking my place.”

        It won't be easy.


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