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Faith Conversations: Religious mentors inspired Fargo woman's theatrical career spanning five decades

Sandy Thiel, director/choreographer Patrick Kasper and student stage manager Skylar Allex watch the dress rehearsal of Shanley's "Godspell" production in March. Heidi Huus / Special to The Forum1 / 6
Sandy Thiel interacting with the director/choreographer, Patrick Kasper, while watching the dress rehearsal of Shanley's "Godspell" production in March. Heidi Huus / Special to The Forum2 / 6
Roxane Salonen, columnist3 / 6
Sandy Thiel is involved in the community in many different ways, including helping at events like the annual Shanley Dinner Auction fundraiser. Here, she pauses a moment with her colleague, Patrick Kasper, the night of the auction, April 29, with a statue of Saint John Paul II, patron saint of Shanley, which was auctioned that evening. Heidi Huus / Special to The Forum4 / 6
Sandy Thiel (production manager, prop master and stage manager of the March Shanley musical production, "Godspell") in the Shanley gym after opening night with Patrick Kasper, choreographer/director. A mother of two of the students in the musical, Mary Dosch, is in the background taking a photo. Heidi Huus / Special to The Forum5 / 6
Sandy Thiel interacting with the director/choreographer, Patrick Kasper, while watching the dress rehearsal of Shanley's "Godspell" production in March. Heidi Huus / Special to The Forum6 / 6

FARGO — When the Christian Brothers religious order came to teach at Shanley High School in 1964, Sandy Thiel found not only a new wardrobe — school uniforms marked by pleated skirts and "knee highs" — but also a calling.

"That first year, we did 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown,'" she says of the school's inaugural musical in 1967, her junior year.

At Brother Andrew's encouragement, Thiel says, she helped with props, and something stuck.

Later, while at Jamestown College studying German, Thiel returned seasonally to help with Shanley's spring musical, eventually relocating permanently here to work as an accountant.

But theater had captured her, and for almost all 51 years of Shanley musicals, Thiel has been there, costuming the students, designing sets and helping complete a vision.

"How I remember when people graduated is by recalling what musical they were in," Thiel says.

Eventually, volunteer work became paid, and evolved into assisting with costuming for public school productions as well.

Patrick Kasper, a Shanley graduate, knew Thiel first as a family friend, then a high school theater mentor, and now, a colleague.

"Sandy's been a mother to like 5,000 kids in the past 40 years," Kasper says, noting that only her hair length has changed.

"I've always respected Sandy. She's very committed to what she does," he says, adding that she's also brutally honest; a trait he appreciates. "I like the interactions with her, intellectually and personally as well."

But it's her relationship with the students and school, he says, that make her "a constant," the heart of the theater department.

Gwen Stark came to know Thiel through working together on productions at South High School.

"She remembers everything (from the shows), including who wore the blue dress in 1985," Stark says. "Everybody who came her way all these years has meant something to her. It's a mission for her, I think."

When the budget ran thin, Stark says, Thiel helped fill gaps with costume pieces from her own collection.

She admires how Thiel "embodies her faith" in all she does, from helping answer school phones, to selling tickets at athletic events. "She is always completely involved, helping wherever she can."

Thiel attributes her dedication and work ethic to the Presentation sisters from her earliest years.

"Even in first and second grade the nuns were so impactful to me about the life they were living," she says. "They worked so hard, and for little to no pay...all to impart the faith to others."

Thiel brings that now into her day job at the Dakota Boys Ranch Thrift Store, where she works as a manager.

"The Boys Ranch has a mission to help children and their families in the name of Christ. I kind of fell into it," she says, noting that she enjoys mingling with customers and employees there from all walks of life.

"You hear so many stories from immigrants, and other customers; it's a good feeling to be able to help them out," she says. "You can't do everything you want to do but I feel like I'm doing something."

In 2012, Thiel was bestowed the prestigious Shanley Deacon Award for her tireless commitment in various areas; an honor her father, Adam, also earned years earlier.

Explaining her motivation, she produces a folded paper bearing a quote from Mother Teresa: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

"She's that totally honest person with a squishy, soft heart and sentiment," Stark says. "'Oh, good and faithful servant;' that's what I think of when I think of Sandy.'"

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email