By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Immaculate Heart Sister Mary James McCaffrey, a classroom teacher for 28 years and now a director of religious education for 20, was an unlikely candidate for the convent when growing up.

The middle of five children of James and Esther McCaffrey, or as she puts it, “the meat between the bread,” she was a ringleader when they were up to mischief.

Her dad was chauffeur to the Archbishops of Philadelphia for 44 years, and she grew up in a house on the grounds of their residence.

In her younger years the Archbishop was Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, who was rather stern, and the kids weren’t allowed near the “big house,” as they called it. “You can’t go any closer than the big pine tree,” their mother warned. Of course, they ignored that and after dark would sneak up closer and watch and giggle as the old cardinal sat by a lamp, smoking and reading the paper.

There was an unlocked cellar window, where they would sometimes sneak in to swipe Cokes stored in the basement, or if no one was around just explore the residence.

Cardinal John O’Hara, the next occupant, was genial. He would occasionally come and have a cup of coffee in the kitchen with their mother, and even offer to entertain the kids for a few hours in the “big house” while she did her housework.

We all grow up. In about sixth grade, Barbara, as she was then known, began to think of a religious vocation. “Don’t tell anyone else; pray over it and I’ll pray; come back when you are a senior in high school,” advised Father Charles Nelson at St. Barbara Parish.

She did just that, and in her senior year she chose the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary because of the example of Immaculate Heart Sister Vincentia, her homeroom teacher at West Catholic.

Her astonished family couldn’t believe it when she finally told them her intention.

“I’ll drink an egg in a beer the day you go in,” Uncle Frank said. On her entry date, she made him do it too.

“I’m losing one of the flowers of my garden,” Cardinal O’Hara said.

The fact is she loved religious life from the beginning and still does. As she fully expected, she was assigned to teaching and spent almost three decades teaching in parochial schools in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey, mostly first grade.

She was taken aback when her superior asked her to go to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary for a master’s degree in theology. After obtaining her degree she was given a choice, be a principal or a director of religious education (DRE). She chose DRE because she loves teaching and no subject is more important than religion.

In this capacity she’s served at SS. Simon and Jude, West Chester; St. Eleanor, Collegeville; Queen of Peace, Ardsley; and for the last seven years at Our Lady of Charity, Brookhaven.

She coordinates PREP with its 36 volunteer teachers and 225 children. She also coordinates religion programs for the almost 200 children in the school, prepares Masses and services for them, coordinates RCIA programs and even conducts adult Bible study.

Sister Mary James loves interaction with the school children on a daily basis, and is thrilled in her capacity. She is connected with the entire parish, not just children and parents. Her aim?

“I hope to reflect gentleness, the compassion and love of Christ,” she said. “My own spirituality has grown through this work.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.