delivered by Jane Keegan, RDC
When the White Plains Historical Society holds its annual dinner, they honor a special person each year with the title “Citizen Extraordinaire!” I think they would applaud us today for borrowing their idea so that we could designate Sr. Mary Caroline as “Educator Extraordinaire!” For indeed she was.
For over 50 years, Sr. Caroline taught all aspects of high school science to students at St. Mary’s in Katonah and John F. Kennedy Catholic in Somers and for a few years at Preston High School in the Bronx. Even after she retired from full time teaching at JFK, she used to spend the day in the school tutoring, a further illustration of her love for students and teaching.
Former students, teacher colleagues, and even the broader educational field would all agree with this designation. In one of her many awards, Sr. Caroline was named as one of two outstanding math and science teachers in the United States and Canada and with that she was granted a Shell Merritt Fellowship for Advanced Study at Cornell University.
After graduating from Notre Dame University with a Masters Degree in Chemistry, she constantly kept herself up-to-date on science. Through the years, she applied for and received grants from the National Science Foundation. One was for advanced study in physics at Fordham University. Another to Manhattan College and yet another to Iona College to study microbiology. She was an active member of the Catholic Science Teachers Association in the Archdiocese of New York, networking with other teachers in the field and assisting them where she could.
I did a little investigating and here’s what some of her students said:
“At St. Mary's Sr. Caroline was a Freshman homeroom teacher, who understood high school kids at all levels. She taught General Science, Biology, Physics and Chemistry and was a good teacher with a firm grasp of her subject matter. (Back in old St. Mary's days, I learned that her nickname among the students was "Moonface.")
“I found her friendly, quite reserved, but with a dry sense of humor beneath the reserve.”
“I’m very sorry to hear about Sr. Caroline’s passing. She was very good to me and stood up for me many times while at Kennedy. She surprised me on how many times she would stand by me with the administration. She was a very good teacher and smart! I know that God is welcoming her with open hands.”
Another example is seen in the small plaque that she brought with her to hang in her room at Cabrini. It was given to her by some Kennedy students. It reads: You’re a great teacher – in a hurtin’ subject. “I hate physics.” Tom and Chip 1973
And here’s what her fellow teachers said:
“Besides this big teaching load, she also oversaw the Student Council. Her patience, her unassuming attitude, and her willingness to compromise were noteworthy. Her lectures were interesting and she kept up her knowledge of science by getting grants. She was interested in her students and very understanding of their problems.”
“She was a real pro in teaching physics. She made it very challenging, but the kids got it!”
Let’s go back a bit and look at the early life of our scientific genius. She was born in Elmira, New York, in 1927, the younger of two children. Her parents named her Kathryn, although when her big brother Billy tried to say “baby sis”, his mangled version sounded like “Bobby” so that’s what the family called her.
She idolized her big brother who eventually became a priest. No one was more proud than Caroline when Billy was named as pastor of his parish, only to experience deep sorrow when he died suddenly a few days after his installation. Throughout her life, Sr. Caroline’s devotion to priests never wavered. Sometimes when we complained about Fr. Boldt, our priest principal at JFK, Caroline would sing his praises all the more. I think she saw her brother Billy in every priest.
Having lived with Sr. Caroline for over 20 years at JFK Convent, I’m going to share a few random stories from that time. As you may have realized by now, Sr. Caroline was one of the most intelligent women in our community. At the same time, she had some very child-like qualities. Chief among them was her love for candy and ice cream. (No offense intended, all you ice cream lovers!) If we ever went out on a shopping trip, or a visit to Good Counsel, invariably we had to stop at a Friendly’s so she could have an ice cream sundae. If we stopped for gas, she would spot a Friendly’s nearby.
Once at a house meeting, Caroline brought up the fact that we were spending too much money on a particular food item. She argued her point vehemently until someone in the group suggested that perhaps we should stop buying candy to cut down expenses. Suddenly Caroline dropped her crusade like a hot potato. She used to raid the candy closet as if it were her personal piggy bank.
Caroline delighted in visits from her cousin Anthony, his wife Bonnie and their daughter, Lisa. When Anthony purchased a carousel, her child-like side was especially ecstatic. I think she pictured herself riding up and down on the painted horses.
She could also outfox us. At another house meeting, we had a discussion about whether we had to get dressed for early morning prayers in the Chapel or could come to prayers in our robes and pajamas. It was decided that a vote needed to be taken. Caroline agreed to the vote but only if the outcome was unanimous. Needless to say, she voted no and the idea was squashed. About a year later, she suggested we vote again and this time it was unanimous! She had eventually come around.
One of my favorite stories involves a trip to Weston Priory in Vermont, where we would share in prayer and liturgy with the Benedictine Monks who live there. Six of us—Sr. Caroline, Annette, Janet, Ellen Curry, Betty Anne Asaro and I— decided to spend the week of our February break visiting the Priory. I found lodging for us at a motel in Ludlow, about a 20 minute ride over Terrible Mountain. When we left New York, it was a mild February day and drizzling. After ice cream stops in Connecticut and Massachusetts, we finally got to Vermont and checked in. At the motel we were given the only room left—a third floor walk-up room for 6! We made arrangements to be back for dinner and then left to attend Vespers at the Priory. As we proceeded over the mountain, we kept exclaiming how pretty the trees looked—all glistening and shiny. It never dawned on us to realize the trees were frozen and coated with ice.
After Vespers, the windshield was now coated with ice, if not the whole car. After a lot of scraping, we started driving back up the mountain to our motel. We hadn’t gone very far on the now-icy road when the car fishtailed into a snowbank. The car was Sr. Janet’s family car, a big old Thunderbird, big enough to fit all 6 of us. Sr. Janet immediately becomes like a drill sergeant and starts barking orders—“Ellen, get out of the car and start shoveling.” Answer: “I would Janet, but I can’t open the car door.” Caroline, who had recently started wearing slacks, is moaning that her pant legs are filling up with snow. Sr. Annette, who had been the only survivor in a fatal car accident years before, is ashen and not speaking. She and Caroline then start trudging up the mountain through the sleet to get help, while Janet, Ellen, Betty Anne and I start digging out the car.
About 20 minutes later, a truck suddenly arrives. The driver never speaks but he attaches a long heavy chain to our rear bumper and pulls the car out of the ditch. He then departs but we can’t leave without Caroline and Annette. Ellen and I start up the hill, icy sleet blasting us in the face, as we search for the two nuns. We stop at the first house we find with its lights on and we knock at the door. When the door opens, what do we see but Caroline and Annette sitting by the fire drinking wine. Annette is chatting in French with the woman who lives there. The husband was the one who pulled the car out after he heard the story from Annette – he was so silent with us because he didn’t speak English.
I wish I could say that it all went smoothly after that, but it didn’t. We slid into another snow bank, though a smaller one, and finally realized we were never going to go up over the mountain—it was a solid sheet of ice! Fortunately, we were able to turn the car around and drive back to the Priory.
One of the monks found us in the Visitors Center and called the motel for us. (This was the “before cell phones” era.) Annette who was determined not to set foot in a car again that night, was ready to sleep on the floor when the manager of the motel arrived in a huge heavy-duty truck. Annette and Caroline hopped in the truck with him while us young ‘uns rode in the Thunderbird that he towed behind his truck. The manager was also the chef and he prepared a nice dinner for us after we got back safely to the motel. By then it was about 10:00 pm.
Overnight, Caroline developed a cold and had to stay in bed. Even though our room was on the third floor, the manager’s wife was very attentive to Caroline bringing her soups and snacks for the next two days. We never went to the Priory again in Winter.
Through the years as I have visited Weston Priory, I can’t help but remember this bizarre experience. The Benedictine monks have gotten older, as we have. God has called some of the monks home just as he calls us. And God’s call home is why we are here today— as we remember and celebrate the inspiring life and dedication of our beloved Sister Mary Caroline Thomas. The God she loved so faithfully now speaks these tender words, “Well done, dear good and faithful servant. Come and rest in my embrace.”