By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Sister Kathleen Leary celebrates 60 years as a Sister of St. Joseph this year, and it’s a singular accomplishment that would flabbergast some of her teachers at Notre Dame High School in Moylan way back when. This was the kid who garnered more detentions than anyone in her freshman class and the same kid who was caught reading a romance novel in class inside her biology book (a literary taste, by the way, she has never quite overcome).
She was the youngest of the 10 children of Daniel and Jenny (Cauley) Leary, and her determination to enter religious life traces all the way back to first grade at St. Michael School in Chester. She so loved Sister Regina Gervase who taught her in first grade that she decided then and there she wanted to be a St. Joseph sister just like Sister Regina. In fact, years later she taught Sister Gervase’s grand niece at St. Hubert High School.
By the end of high school, Sister Kathleen wasn’t entirely sure about religious life, but she was determined to try it for a couple years and leave before profession to meet the man of her dreams, if the convent wasn’t her true calling.
If classmates asked what she was doing after high school, she would just say, “I’m going to Chestnut Hill College,” which really wasn’t a complete fib.
She entered the St. Joseph Sisters in a class of 61 candidates in the fall of 1951 and most of them, like herself, were straight out of high school. From day one she felt right at home, thanks in part to Mother Marie Estelle, the loving novice mistress, who taught them all to bless themselves before every undertaking, no matter how small, a practice Sister Kathleen continues to this day. Even so, “I was petrified with the thought I would have to learn Latin,” she remembers.
As was the practice then, in religion she took a new name, Michael Daniel, a tip of the hat to her beloved parish and father, and after formation began a career as a teacher. She taught in every grade at various elementary schools before moving on to high school, teaching business courses and serving as athletic director and guidance counselor for another two decades at Archbishop Prendergast, Little Flower and twice at St Hubert’s.
Sister Kathleen then joined the staff of The Catholic Standard & Times as an assistant editor and feature writer, probably writing hundreds of profile columns such as this over a decade or so.
She loved the work but in 1996 moved on to become Coordinator for Vocations to Religious Life, a position she still holds. “It’s most rewarding to have an opportunity to go into high schools and meet with girls and discuss their prayer life and what they believe and don’t believe,” she said.
It is very unlikely she will encounter a group of 61 girls set to enter the convent as happened in her generation, but that doesn’t matter.
“I’m absolutely optimistic there are so many good young people out there,” Sister Kathleen said. “I encourage them to consider the Church. We need them.”
Whatever the vocation they are contemplating, but especially those considering the religious life, her advice in a nutshell: “Work as if everything depends on you, and pray as if everything depends on God. Live life, every golden minute of it, and love life, every God-given second of it.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.