... and counting
Sister Mary was born in Everett and began school at St. Joseph's there. The father of the family came from Cape Breton people. Their mother,who came from a French-Canadian family, grew up in Everett. Mary has one sister, Shirley. Their mother went back to work when the girls were young, and their maternal grandparents took care of Mary and Shirley.
When Mary was eight years old the family moved to Derby Road in Melrose, where the girls attended St. Mary's School, run by the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ). In those days St. Mary's also had a high school, from which Mary graduated. But the high school closed in 1972. When she was a student, Mary was active in sports and Girl Scouts.
What were the factors that influenced Mary to enter the Society of the Holy Child Jesus? She cared about God and she loved the nuns. They were kind and they were good educators. The nuns became her role model. Around 1935 there were thirty-five Sisters in the SHCJ from Melrose.
In 1953 Mary entered the Novitiate of the SHCJ in Rosemont, Pennsylvania where she stayed for three years as a postulant and novice. The novitiate includes the equivalent of a normal school. When the students finished that course of studies they had ninety credits, which was what New York State required. That enabled the sisters to teach in any of their schools in that state or in most other states, which required fewer credits.
In 1956 Mary made her first vows, after which she was missioned to St. Edwards School in Philadelphia. In those days the sisters did not have a choice of where to teach, although they do now. At St. Edwards she began by teaching in the first grade for three years, and then moved to the sixth grade and then to the eighth. When she taught first grade she was only twenty-one. She recalls about that time, “I was never so tired in my life”.
Her second assignment was at Hallahan High School, where she taught French to five classes of 50 girls each. It is a unique high school, with five different orders of sisters teaching, with each order being responsible for a discipline. During those years, Mary spent one summer as a student at the Georgetown School of Languages studying French.
In addition to teaching in Pennsylvania, Sister Mary has taught in California, Chicago, Long Island and Melrose. Her last assignment was the Oak Knoll School in Summit, New Jersey. She was asked to go there as the audio-visual (AV) Director. Sister Mary states that she is not afraid of technology and never has been. One of the parents at the school was going to give the school the equivalent of a TV station. Mary went to the U-Mass, School of Education, to learn about AV, after which she taught TV production at Oak Knoll. At Oak Knoll a local hospital had a TV station. Sister Mary and others went there every Sunday. A priest came and said mass, which Mary and her crew televised for the patients.
It was during this time in the 1970's that sisters changed from wearing habits to secular dress.
In the late 1960's, Mary started having back trouble. She has had many surgeries, the first of which was in California. Because of the back problems, she could not stand still. She realized that she would have to leave the classroom. Instead, she worked on AV and did not teach any particular class. She stayed with that assignment until 1977 when her dad became ill. She returned to Melrose to see him and later decided it was time for her to move on.
Mary attended Emmanuel College and in 1978 obtained a Master's degree in pastoral counseling. As a patient she had met a priest chaplain named Fr. Thomas Peacock who was very, very kind. Over the course of time she met many chaplains who were extremely good and some who were awful. That was one of the factors that influenced her to go into pastoral counseling. She became a chaplain with a clinical pastoral education, for which she had four hundred hours of clinical training. She did those hours at MGH, where she had a large variety of experiences. There she realized she really liked working in rehabilitation.
Then she looked for a job. By this time, sisters could choose what they wanted to do. She interviewed for positions. The sister at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital was leaving. Mary was hired by Spaulding as a chaplain. She lived at St. Mary's Convent in Melrose and commuted in to Boston.
She worked at Spaulding for twenty-three years and loved the work. She loved the breadth of the experiences; the fact that it was a non-Catholic hospital with 300 beds. For a while she was the only chaplain there, although there were priests who came to visit the Catholic patients. In 1982 Mary became head of the department. At the request of her boss she conducted a survey of similar hospitals throughout the country. From that survey, she learned that Spaulding was the only rehabilitation hospital in the United States that included oncology rehabilitation.
During her years at Spaulding, Mary belonged to the professional staff of the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge. It was part of a Boston consortium made up of nine divinity schools. The students had to do a field placement. Mary was one of the supervisors of their work at Spaulding. While she was at Spaulding Mary was supervisor for all the graduate students in the Boston Theological Institute. When she left she counted. She had had sixty-two graduate students with her, “doing great work” she said. As so many teachers have proclaimed, Mary told me, “Once a teacher, always a teacher”.
In 1982 the Society of the Child Jesus had to withdraw from St. Mary's because they didn't have enough sisters to staff the school. Mary got an apartment instead of living at the Convent.
As time went on, she was also able to hire a part-time Protestant chaplain, a Rabbi and an Imam who was on call. The beauty of it, Sister Mary says, was that she learned so much about other religions and acquired an appreciation of them and of their traditions. She developed an ecumenical outlook. The Imam was coming to speak to the nurses for an in-service course. When he arrived, he had just come from a funeral. His wife was with him, dressed in western clothing. She stood in back and said to him at one point, “But you forgot”. That incident taught Mary to go beyond stereotypes.
In time the Oncology Unit was moved to an empty floor at the Mass. Eye & Ear Hospital. One day Mary got a call to go to the unit where a Muslim had died. His family was with him. His son invited Sister Mary to come in and say a prayer.
When Mary left Spaulding, a lesbian nurse who was a psychiatric clinician, said, “You take people where they are.” The Rabbi told her she was a true mensch. It's a compliment meaning a very good person.
After retiring from Spaulding, Mary had a sabbatical year. She spent most of it at the Mercy Center, a retreat right on Long Island Sound. The Mercy Center, in Madison, Connecticut, was run by the Sisters of Mercy. The retreat participants could attend any of the workshops that were offered. Elder Hostel, for one, came there to give courses. Also during her sabbatical year, Sister Mary did some traveling. She saw southern California and San Diego with its zoo. A sister invited Mary to accompany her to Mexico. There they saw poverty “you'd never believe” and the utter “graciousness of the people”.
During her years of teaching Mary had ten days' vacation a year. Over her lifetime she has had two big vacations. For her Silver Jubilee in 1981 her sister Shirley took her to Bermuda. A few years later they took the beautiful train trip through Canada and on another occasion she went on a cruise along the coast of Maine.
Mary's sister Shirley worked for many years at Melrose City Hall and retired from there at about the same time as Mary retired from Spaulding. True to form, Mary was looking for some work to do in her retirement. She went to work for Father Ronaghan at St. Mary's. She took the skills she had learned from the three phases of her service: teaching, chaplaincy and pastoral counseling, and wrote her own job description.
Father Ronaghan hired Sister Mary as a pastoral associate. She was full time at first and now works on a part time basis. She has an office in the old convent on Herbert Street. Her job is described as a “generalist”. As such she assists with adult education, facilitates a women's spirituality group that meets at the Church, and coordinates a ministry to the sick and homebound. She is also in charge of the formation in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. This means that she coordinates and teaches people who are converting and coming into the Catholic Church.
Mary is on the School Board of St. Mary's School, but her work is primarily with adults. There are no set hours. Sister Mary sums up her “retirement” job in these words: “If nothing else, you have to be flexible to do this”.
There were many changes in the Order from when she started. Around 1970 the government gave religious communities (priests and sisters) the opportunity to buy into Social Security. The person who functioned as the treasurer of the Order of Mary's community did that, thereby giving retired sisters some independence. The philosophical underpinning was “Retirement in Place” to keep sisters out in the community, an approach which kept the sisters young.
Looking into the future, Mary is aware of a retirement home in Rye,N.Y. when the time comes that sisters can no longer manage on their own. She certainly packed a great deal of service into her working years, and continues to do so.
June 3, 2011