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Sister Stephen changed my life in the fourth grade. Now, she’s in her 90s and teaching (in person) during a pandemic.
As we well know, the pandemic has upended the lives of us all and brought great suffering to many, especially those who lack resources or who were already living on the margins. Children have had to face their own particular challenges with almost all schools around the nation going fully remote for the final months of the last academic year and many remaining this way or offering only part-time in-person instruction since the fall. School administrators have had to be incredibly resourceful meeting these unprecedented challenges.
As a principal myself, I have looked for wisdom and guidance from other administrators, especially my peers in the Jesuit network of schools. But the person who has given me the most inspiration and hope is my own elementary school principal, Mary Stephen Healey, R.D.C. For me, Sister Stephen has been the face of the much-vaunted “frontline hero” for the way she has continued to lead and serve the students, faculty and families at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School in Elmsford, N.Y., even during a pandemic.
My hero-worship of Sister Stephen (and I do not use that term casually) began decades before my witness of her leadership during the pandemic. It goes back to 1978 when I was a third grader in the local public school and struggling academically and socially. My parents decided that I needed a more structured and smaller academic environment. I applied to transfer to a nearby Catholic elementary school, but there were already 37 students about to enter the fourth grade. Sister Stephen had wanted to cap the class at 35, but she made an exception for me. She took a risk on a kid who needed some help. And my life changed dramatically because of that.
From being a kid who did not like school, I now loved it, especially because of the fourth-grade teacher who made sure all her students felt both loved and cared for while also providing a strong academic environment with order and structure. As I moved up the grades at Mt. Carmel, I found this to be true with my other teachers and classes. Along with so many other graduates of the school, I now realize that so much of our success at Mt. Carmel was thanks to the person of Sister Stephen and her fierce commitment to the students in her care by providing a Catholic education that forms the whole person.
Over the years, I have learned that Sister Stephen has taken many chances to help kids at Mt. Carmel. It first began in 1966 when she was first named principal, and it continues today in 2021, her 55th year as in this same role. And her commitment to the students in her care has continued over the decades as the school has changed. For much of the school’s existence since its founding in 1929, it served mostly children and grandchildren of immigrants from Europe who lived in the small village of Elmsford in central Westchester County.
But like the rest of the greater New York City-area, Elsmford has changed much in recent decades. Now the student body of Mt. Carmel is much more diverse, enrolling children from families from various parts of the globe, including many from Latin America. As Sister Stephen so generously welcomed me more than four decades ago, she has continued to welcome this newest generation of students.
Sister Stephen’s career as an educator began early after her first profession as a religious. A native of the Bronx, Sister Stephen experienced in the fifth grade the death of her mother, leaving her father to raise her and her brother. When she was about to enter the seventh grade, her father decided to send her to enroll and live at the former Good Counsel Academy in White Plains, a school founded and run by the Religious of the Divine Compassion. This community of sisters had been founded in 1884 by a convert woman to minister to at-risk girls and young women in New York City. By the early 20th century, the sisters had expanded their work to include running schools while also caring for orphans or children whose families could not raise them at home. Sister Stephen stayed at Good Counsel through high school and entered the congregation soon after graduation.
Beginning her life as a teacher in the Bronx, Sister Stephen taught in a few other schools before arriving in Elmsford in the mid-1960s. At that time there were several other sisters living and working with her in the school. But by the early 1980s the number of sisters had dropped to three: Sister Stephen, Sister Joanne Fallon and Sister Margaret Keogan. (Sister Margaret sadly died in April 2020 of complications due to Covid while living in a nursing facility.) Sister Joanne continues to teach the fourth grade at Mt. Carmel, and amazingly her tenure at the school even predates Sister Stephen by a few years. Before Sister Margaret’s retirement from teaching in 2011, the three sisters had logged over 150 years of combined service to the children and families of Mt. Carmel School. And that commitment to service has not wavered one bit as the ethnic and racial population of the school changed nor with the coming of the pandemic.
Since schools in New York State were allowed to re-open last fall, Sister Stephen and her faculty had Mt. Carmel ready to welcome any and all children whose families wanted them to return to in-person learning. And once the children began arriving after Labor Day, Sisters Stephen and Joanne and the other faculty and staff have been there every day, in person, to teach and care for them.
As I hope you can now see, Sister Stephen has been my hero ever since I met her 40 years ago. And I know I am far from alone. As we celebrate religious women during National Sisters Week, I feel called to honor and give thanks to God for the several sisters who taught and formed me from elementary school through college. But because of the immense impact she made on me when I was a child in changing the future direction of my life, my highest honor and affection goes to my principal, Sister Mary Stephen.