By Sister Kathleen Leary, S.S.J.
Special to The CS&T

“Every day is a gift from God” for Sister James Anne, I.H.M., who considered it a special gift when she was unanimously voted to be the grand marshal for Philadelphia, 2011 St. Patrick’s Day parade. Only the third woman to hold this honor, she explained the theme for this year’s parade as, “St. Patrick, bless our religious sisters, who serve, inspire and educate.”

Having served as one of two judges of the parade for the past 25 years, Sister James is very proud of her Irish heritage. “From the time we were very young, I can remember our home being full of people, music and dancing. My parents, Anne (Caulfield) and James Feerick, were born in Ireland and very proud of their heritage,” she said.

“However, my father taught us that life in this country is just like every day – it is a gift from God. He worked hard to become an American citizen. He would say, ‘I love Ireland but if I am going to live here I will do what I need to do.’ He taught us to love and respect this country but to always remember to respect and love our Irish homeland.”

“When I taught I always shared the idea of that gift with my students,” said the administrator of the I.H.M. Educational Center in Bryn Mawr and former teacher and principal in both the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Allentown Diocese. “I explained that a gift is something you don’t have to wait for until Christmas or a special occasion.

“When we wake up each morning it is a gift and we should begin it by thanking God. I’d explain, ‘if you receive a nice gift and you decide you can’t wear it and put it away, by the time you get it out it isn’t going to fit you. If that happens, you’ve lost that gift. If you use it right away and think what you can do with it, it adds to your life,'” she said.

The recipient of many blessings and graces since entering the congregation of the Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1962, Sister James is the chaplain of the Mayo Society in Philadelphia and was recently awarded their Mary Henry Brady Award.

“My involvement in the Mayo Society has been a great spiritual experience for me,” she said. “They make so many sacrifices for so many Irish-born – both here and in Ireland. They are so good, so joyful and so very grateful to God for the blessings they have. They are a constant reminder to me to be grateful also.”

Having learned Irish dancing early, music and dance have always been a part of her years as a teacher. “I started Irish dancing at the age of 7 and played the violin. I was in the orchestra in West Catholic High School and performed on Will Regan’s Irish Hour on a few occasions,” she said..

“When I was first assigned to teach at St. Anthony Parish in Grey’s Ferry, they had a weekly Irish night and I asked if they’d like me to teach Irish dancing.” That was in the early 1960s and the shoes have never been put away. Both adults and children have been tapping away in evening classes from Reading to Philadelphia to Secane and Bryn Mawr and in every parade and many a Ceili (an Irish party of song, dance and storytelling).

Her blessings aren’t limited to her involvement in her Irish heritage, however. “I taught first grade for 22 years; prepared students for the sacraments and taught religious education classes,” she said. “I implemented a program for children with learning differences, realizing that each child is a unique creation of God and he or she deserves to have all that is necessary to succeed in life.

“Children have always been very special to me and I try to give them the message of Jesus as He gifts me with every day.”

Sister Kathleen Leary, S.S.J., is the archdiocesan Coordinator for Vocations to Consecrated Life.