CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WEEK: Nothing will keep St. Mary teacher from singing
January 23, 2020
Longtime teacher with cancer overwhelmed by school’s support
Peg Kallman heard a rustling in the hall outside her classroom as she prepared for Thanksgiving break last November at St. Mary School in Bellevue.
The math and music teacher looked up to see fourth grade students waiting with quilled paper hearts they had affectionately created. One by one, students placed their beautiful artwork in front of her with messages like: “Stay strong,” “We got you” and “Praying for you.”
The fifth and eighth grade classes followed, presenting her with a collage created from pictures taken after a recent all-school Mass where her pastor, coworkers and students prayed for her, along with a hand-made card signed by every student in the school. The front of the card read, “#cancer fighter.”
Kallman, a member of St. Mary Parish since 1973, has taught at the school for 20 years. Since her diagnosis of double breast cancer Nov. 8, she has been overwhelmed by the love and support she has received there.
She said her illness has provided “an amazing opportunity to get to see kids showing such compassion and kindness first hand.” “It is one thing coming from adults, it’s another thing from the kids – especially middle-schoolers,” she said.
Kallman first found a lump last Oct. 30, and saw her doctor the next day. Testing revealed six areas of concern, two on each breast and one under each arm, all of which were biopsied.
Nov. 8 found her back at the Bellevue Medical Center with family members waiting for the results. She recalls sitting between her brother, Matt Kallman, and her sister, Sue Daniel, and across from her brother, Paul Kallman. As her doctor said, “You have cancer,” her world stopped.
“Matt grabbed my hand and I could feel my sister breathe in really sharply, and when I looked up Paul’s eyes were full of tears,” she said. “It was a shock just to hear it the first time.”
FOCUS ON PRAYER
All six biopsy sites were cancerous. Her doctor scheduled scans to determine whether the cancer had spread. Kallman felt overwhelmed by the possibilities. So she immediately turned to her faith and her faith community. She called every praying person she knew and asked them to pray for a miracle.
“My miracle is that I will be able to do what I need to do,” she said. “I can keep teaching and have a life that is not all about cancer.”
She also renewed her own commitment to prayer. Now, she said, “I pray all the time. Before I would pray when I needed to pray about something, but it wasn’t all day long,” she said.
“People have been sending me music,” she added, which helps her in her prayer. “I listen to a lot of inspirational and uplifting music, which helps a lot.”
Her diagnosis also led Kallman to begin looking at other areas of her spiritual life. Though she had sung at every communal reconciliation service at St. Mary since college, she had not personally received the sacrament of reconciliation for some time.
She approached St. Mary’s pastor, Father Lydell Lape, and set up an appointment. After receiving the sacrament, she noticed a shift.
“I felt like a huge impediment was removed,” said Kallman. “It was something that was keeping me from fully participating in a lot of deep prayer … . Like when people were praying for me, I felt unworthy. Confession helped me feel more worthy.”
In addition to being pastor of St. Mary, Father Lape is chaplain for the Father Flanagan League Society of Devotion, an Omaha-based organization dedicated to teaching people about the heroic virtue and sanctity of Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, and helping to promote his cause for canonization through prayer and devotion.
“Prayer is powerful. I believe in the power of prayer,” said Father Lape, “Miracles do happen.”
On Nov. 20, Kallman cantored for St. Mary’s all-school Mass. After the closing blessing, Father Lape explained his role as chaplain of the league, the canonization process and the importance of miracles in that process – one being needed for beatification, a second for declaration of sainthood. He told the community he saw no reason why Kallman could not be one of those miracles.
Father Lape invited Kallman to the front of the church. He asked the students to stand and extend their hands in blessing toward her. Father Lape handed Kallman Father Flanagan’s prayer book, and began to lead the community in prayer for a miracle.
“I love the opportunity this provides our students,” said Deacon Ted Menzel, who attended the Mass. “This is teaching the children the power of prayer, and it is extending beyond the school to their families. They are learning different ways to pray and how their prayer can make such a difference.”
After the blessing, Kallman led the congregation in “How Can I Keep From Singing.” Then she drove to the Hereditary Cancer Clinic at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Bellevue, where she underwent genetic testing to determine if a gene mutation was causing her cancer.
On Nov. 25 Kallman was diagnosed with stage two, grade three, invasive ductal carcinoma, starting in the ducts of the breast. Before Christmas she learned further scans showed the cancer had not spread. She began chemotherapy Dec. 23.
Hearing the cancer had not spread past the breast and original lymph nodes was a relief to Kallman. “It was quite a Christmas gift,” she said. If the cancer had spread, the diagnosis would have changed to stage four, treatable but incurable. Because the scan showed that the cancer remained confined, it remains at stage two.
Her doctors plan bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments through March 30, and will decide next steps after they see the results of those treatments. Surgery is a likely possibility, Kallman said.
Throughout her treatment Kallman, who has 11 siblings, has received an outpouring of support from her family. Siblings and their spouses have accompanied her to every test, appointment and chemotherapy treatment.
“I am not alone in this,” said Kallman of her family. “They are there whenever I need something. I walk into these meetings with my own team.”
Deacon Ted and Cindy Menzel have known Kallman for over 30 years. It was Cindy, after participating with Kallman in various music ministries at the church, who encouraged her to apply for the teaching position she now holds. She is now like family to the Menzels, as well as their travel companion.
“Peg will give you the shirt off her back and then some,” said Cindy, who also teaches at St. Mary. “She does it quietly, without any thought of recognition. She has been incredibly generous with the church community, with her finances, time and talent.”
“To receive is a very different role for her,” Cindy said. “What has been beautiful is the realization on her part of how much people admire and love her and what an impact she has had on students’ lives.”
St. Mary’s faculty pray for and with Kallman regularly. Trish Wallinger, St. Mary’s principal, appreciates what God is doing in their faith community among instructors, students and staff.
“It’s really brought home what our mission is, to nurture hearts and minds,” she said.
Kallman agrees. She treasures all the love people have given her, especially the students.
“It’s amazing because the students say they are praying for you,” she said through tears. “Some of them say things like: Keep on fighting, stay strong, we will get through this together, you will win, you can do this, you will make it through, stay in the fight, never give up.”
Wallinger appreciates the opportunity to put the school’s Catholic values and education into action.
“We’ve really been able to put into practice what we’ve been taught,” she said. “We have learned all the catechesis, different ways to pray, and now we are living it. The Spirit is moving.”