Sister Maureen Lawrence McDermott, I.H.M., died Wednesday, Nov. 17. She was 65.
Although she had resigned Nov. 5 from her position as superintendent of secondary schools and chief academic officer for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, her death less than two weeks later shocked colleagues in the Office of Catholic Education and the archdiocesan administration.
Sister Maureen had been battling cancer, but the cause of death remains undetermined at this time. Funeral services are pending.
In a statement posted on Facebook Nov. 18, Archbishop Nelson Perez asked for prayers for the repose of Sister Maureen’s soul and God’s comfort for those mourning her passing.
The archbishop expressed gratitude “for the gift of Sister’s life and her tireless dedication to Catholic education,” he said.
“Her impact on countless students, families, faculty, staff, and administrators over the course of the past four decades was immensely positive. The mark she leaves behind is indelible and a testament to her love for Catholic education. May she rest in the peace of the Lord.”
Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees Catholic education in the archdiocese, wrote in a letter Oct. 29 that Sister Maureen had earlier this year shared her intention to step down but her decision to resign this month “was made due to health circumstances and came after much careful thought and prayer.”
Speaking with CatholicPhilly.com by phone Nov. 18, he said in the last few months Sister Maureen “was quite sick, as she continued treatments.”
Although she “worked right to the end, it was a shock to everybody” how quickly her health declined.
Working closely with Sister Maureen in the Office for Catholic Education for the past six years, Bishop Fitzgerald said she was “totally dedicated to the education of young people. She was brilliant in her professional leadership and also dedicated to the kids.”
He praised her witness as a consecrated religious, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for 42 years.
“She was a strong educational leader at a time of cultural change in education,” said Bishop Fitzgerald, referencing the partnership with Faith in Future Foundation, which manages aspects of the archdiocesan secondary schools. “She was instrumental in helping transform (the archdiocesan schools) to a model of governance, and positioned us for going forward.
“I was especially grateful for her leadership and friendship,” he said. “Her death is a real loss.”
Posts poured in on social media as friends learned the news of Sister Maureen’s passing.
A post on Bishop Shanahan High School’s Facebook page honored Sister Maureen, who served as principal of the archdiocesan high school in Downingtown for 14 years from 2001 to 2015.
“She dedicated her life to Catholic education, and in particular to the spiritual formation and personal development of all students,” the post read in part, followed by more than 100 comments and 500 interactions.
Sister Maureen “loved high school teenagers” and had a particular love for Bishop Shanahan and its students, said Bishop Fitzgerald. “She was totally devoted to them.”
Sister Maureen ministered in Catholic schools for some 40 years and had been associated with Catholic education her entire life.
She was a product of St. Gabriel School in South Philadelphia where she first encountered the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She went on to Archbishop Prendergast High School for Girls in Drexel Hill, then graduated from Immaculata University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
A year later she entered the I.H.M. order, and after professing her vows, engaged in the order’s charism for Catholic education. She first taught in elementary school classrooms beginning in 1982 then in Catholic secondary schools.
Along the way she earned a master’s degree in English from West Chester University and a Ph.D. in Catholic educational leadership from Fordham University.
In 2001 she was named principal of Bishop Shanahan High School where she served for 14 years until rising to lead the entire Catholic secondary school system as superintendent in 2015.
Since then she oversaw a high school system that has invited broad collaboration through the efforts of Faith in the Future Foundation, stabilized the rate of school enrollment decline, grown partnerships with Catholic colleges, faced the challenges of two high school closures and the immense difficulties with continuing Catholic education during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maureen McCullough attended Archbishop Prendergast with Sister Maureen, known then as Margie. McCullough was two years older, but she remembers Sister Maureen’s intelligence and drive even then, as she partnered with McCullough’s younger sister on the school’s debate team.
“She was a remarkable woman, a very smart person,” McCullough recalls of Sister Maureen.
Today McCullough leads the work of Catholic Relief Services in the Northeast U.S. region, and in that role she long interacted with Sister Maureen. Both served on the Board of Trustees for Immaculata University, where the Immaculate Heart sister was “a strategic thinker” who offered “comments (that) were insightful, with real vision,” McCullough said.
She gave high praise for her friend when as principal of Bishop Shanahan, Sister Maureen embraced CRS’ work with the area’s Catholic high schools. Shanahan in fact became the first of the “global high schools” addressing the issues of global poverty.
Sister Maureen displayed “her leadership and passion for global justice,” showing students “how they could put their faith into action in big and small ways,” McCullough said.
Employing her copious energy and strong personality on projects, Sister Maureen “was a force of nature for the good,” McCullough said. “She was good at inviting people (into a project). She could show people how they can contribute to building God’s kingdom. Her legacy and work in education had a big impact on people’s lives. She will be missed.”
Editor’s note: Below is a video — featuring Sister Maureen’s comments at the 16:30 mark through 19:45 — at the 2017 inauguration of an event spearheaded by her that engaged representatives from all the archdiocesan high schools and schools of special education to create food packages to be sent through Catholic Relief Services to the needy global poor. The initiative involving some 14,000 students was the first of its kind in the United States, and was dear to Sister Maureen.
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