Sister Virginia Ann Unger

"I want what they have! I want to do what they do!" thought eight-year-old Virginia as she got to know the Dominican Sisters who taught her at school in Chicago. “Of course,” she says now, “I had no idea what that was, but something about them just captured my little heart in the 3rd grade.”

Her family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Virginia met her first Sister of Notre Dame de Namur at Mount Carmel School in Redwood City, Calif. “She was a delight! Wonderfully concerned about the students. Then going on to Notre Dame High School, Belmont, I met other Sisters who were just as concerned and delightful and I thought, ‘This is a good group.’”

Her thoughts of becoming a Sister came and went during high school but she says that the remarkable story of St. Julie and her collaboration with Francoise were a big draw. During her senior year of high school, as her mother was busy hemming a dress for Virginia's Senior Ball, Virginia announced, "I want to enter the convent!"

Surprised, her mother encouraged her to wait until she was 18. And Virginia also wanted to wait, to make sure that the decision was her own, and not too influenced by the Sisters themselves. So after graduation 17-year-old Virginia bided her time by working in San Francisco and learning more about the world. But the world did not dissuade or entice her and by February of the next year she entered the convent, knowing it was something she had to try.

That was 70 years ago.

Sister Virginia’s first mission was to Guadalupe School in Santa Barbara, Calif. and she describes it as, “a great place to start.” She lived in a large community of Sisters. Some were older, but many were young and energetic—which thankfully their Superior appreciated, within limits! Being in Santa Barbara was a wonderful learning experience as she worked for the first time with the Hispanic community. And it was there that she found the treasure of a friendship with a Sister with whom she remains close many decades later.

SNDdeN Sisters Virginia Unger and Jean Stoner during their time in administration at Notre Dame High School, San Jose.

For eight years, Sister Virginia taught grades five through eight, but her three years teaching math at Notre Dame High School, San Jose (NDSJ), stand out in her mind. As she recalls, "It was the best fit in every way. And I still keep in touch with some of the girls!" Sister Ann Carmel Badalamente shares, "Former students remember Sister Virginia Ann as a teacher who not only taught math but made it understandable and sometimes enjoyable! Sister's concern for each student gave them confidence in their academic endeavors." Sister Virginia later returned to NDSJ as principal, then president.

As a counselor at Quest House in San Francisco, she worked with women in crisis. Sister remembers helping a woman who had been repeatedly battered to plan her escape. Together, they snuck her children and a few belongings out of the house, praying that the abusive husband wouldn't notice what was happening. It wasn't an easy ministry, but as a counselor she felt privileged to enter into these women's lives and help them move forward.

Serving as novice director for three years was another amazing experience. She admired the maturity of the young women who entered the congregation in 1976, and their commitment to spiritual growth and ministry. Sister Virginia realizes that her own faith was deeply touched by them. She also enjoyed her years working with young people serving as Notre Dame Mission Volunteers.

Sister worked for three years as a pastoral associate in Stockton, California. She helped start groups that ministered to the diverse needs in the parish. A group for senior citizens proved very popular and continues today, providing social activities and companionship for older widows, widowers and singles. Sister Virginia also led grief support groups, and says, “I was touched by that—for people to share their stories and their lives with each other at that moment is just a real blessing.”

Virginia Unger, SNDdeN serves soup with Moreland Notre Dame School students during a service learning event.

While the Service Learning Coordinator at Moreland Notre Dame School in Watsonville, Calif., Sister loved bringing students to Loaves and Fishes to serve meals to homeless and low-income folks. Many of the students hadn't even realized that their small town had a homeless population. The reflection-action-reflection model of the service learning program helped the students process all they had seen and done. "Maybe for the first time the students realized how much they have," shares Sister.

Sister Virginia also served two terms as a member of the California Province Leadership Team. She recognizes the challenges and opportunities that women religious are facing at this time and prays for wisdom and courage to assist the Congregation in moving forward.

At this time in her life, Sister Virginia enjoys spending time with the other Sisters, “to be with women that I walked with through life, to celebrate with each other.”

Reflecting on her 70th Jubilee as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, Sister Virginia shares: “I’m most grateful for the blessings that were given to me in my ministries through joy and sorrow, thick and thin, success and failures…there was always the blessing of being part of this ministry, being part of work that we were able to do.

“And I’m also grateful for the people that have stood with me for many, many years—those that are close friends, coworkers, family members…I’m extremely grateful for those people in my life. I’m VERY grateful to be a member of a group of women who are in touch with the world and the needs of the world. I think this is the work that Julie did give us also.

“Being a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, it’s a call to stay awake and be involved, to be aware and to stay connected with each other and with the world around us. And each day calls for that commitment to do what we are vowed to do.”

Sister Virginia's Ministries

1955-57Teacher, Grades 5&6, Guadalupe School, Santa Barbara, Calif.
1957-59Teacher, Grade 5, St. Charles Elementary School, San Carlos, Calif.
1959-61Teacher, Grade 7, St. Charles Elementary School, San Carlos, Calif.
1961-62Teacher, Grade 7, Junipero Serra School, Carmel, Calif
1962-63Teacher, Grade 8, St. Dunstan School, Millbrae, Calif.
1963-66Teacher, Notre Dame High School, San Jose, Calif.
1966-70Administration, Sacred Heart Elementary School, Salinas, Calif.
1970-75Teacher/Counselor, St. Francis High School, Sacramento, Calif.
1975-76Pastoral Studies, St. Johns University, Ottawa, Canada
1976-79Novice Director, SNDdeN Provincial House, Saratoga and San Francisco, Calif.
1979-81Counselor, Quest House, San Francisco, Calif.
1981-82Pastoral Ministry, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, San Francisco, Calif.
1982-89Principal, Notre Dame High School, San Jose, Calif.
1989-92President, Notre Dame High School, San Jose, Calif.
1992-93Renewal Program, Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana
1993-96Pastoral Ministry, Presentation Parish, Stockton, Calif.
1997-99Notre Dame Mission Volunteers-Americorps Site Director, San Francisco Bay Area, Calif.
1997-98Counselor, St. Patrick School, San Jose, Calif.  
1999-2004Provincial Team Leader, SNDdeN Provincial House, Saratoga, Calif.
2006-11Service Learning Coordinator, Moreland Notre Dame School, Watsonville, Calif.
2011-14Provincial Team Leader, SNDdeN Province Center, Belmont, Calif.
2014-20Volunteer, Loaves and Fishes, Watsonville, Calif.