Irish sisters left their mark in Essex and beyond
By George P. Matysek Jr.
Monsignor Albert T. Stallings was having no luck finding an order of religious sisters to staff his brand-new parish school. The founding pastor of St. Clare in Essex had contacted 85 orders of American nuns and 18 orders of Irish nuns, but they all turned him down.
Finally, after completing a novena to the Holy Spirit in 1957, the much-loved priest received a wire on Holy Thursday from the Irish Sisters of Mercy in Kells, Ireland. They agreed to send sisters to the “American mission,” and so began an unlikely Irish-American partnership that would last through the early 1980s.
As a St. Clare student in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had the privilege of being educated by these daughters of St. Patrick – devoted women with names like “Sister Scholastica,” “Sister Claude,” “Sister Claire” and “Sister Paul.”
Many of the students of my generation will remember the sisters most vividly for their uncanny skill with the paddle – disciplining unruly youngsters with a few quick and resounding thwacks to the behind.
More than that, however, I remember the sisters for their devotion to their students.
I recall Sister Scholastica sweeping me up in her arms and carrying me to the nurse’s office after I banged my head on the playground in first grade. I remember Sister Claire playing the organ during school liturgies. I can still see Sister Claude tapping her pointer on a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, reminding us that it is not the physical statue we honor, but the Mother of God it represents. Another lasting image in my mind is that of Sister Paul gamely swinging a bat while dressed in her black-and-white religious habit during the annual softball game between the faculty and eighth graders.
The good sisters brought their Irish heritage to a sliver of Baltimore heavily populated by children of Eastern European and Italian immigrants. They made sure all their students knew how to Irish dance – carefully taking class time to instruct children in the primary grades on the finer points of reels and jigs. Wearing kilts, my younger brother, Greg, and I were among scores of youngsters who performed on stage for elaborate St. Patrick’s Day productions coordinated by the sisters. It wasn’t uncommon for some of us to come home from school pronouncing words in a lilting Gaelic accent just as we were taught by the sisters.
The Irish Sisters of Mercy long ago left St. Clare, and the school was among 13 that closed two years ago in an archdiocesan consolidation plan. Yet, as another St. Patrick’s Day approaches, their legacy endures. I’m thankful to those Irish nuns for nurturing my Catholic faith, for providing a strong academic foundation and for being such a positive Christian witness. They and many like them made the Emerald Isle proud.
George P. Matysek Jr. is the assistant managing editor of the Catholic Review.