Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Called: Sister Lourdes Kennedy, SSJ

Sister Lourdes Kennedy, SSJSister Lourdes Kennedy, SSJ
Hometown: Born in Scranton, Pa., raised in East Landsdowne, Pa.
Education: St. Cyril’s in East Landsdowne, Pa.; West Catholic High School; Chestnut Hill College; Providence College, Boston College
Current Assignment: Retired, in residence at St. Philip Convent in Lafayette Hill, Pa. Former Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Harrisburg

Tell me a bit about your childhood.

I was born in Scranton – my parents were from there – but we moved to Delaware County, outside of Philadelphia, before I started school. My aunts and uncles and the rest of the family remained in Scranton.

I’m a middle child, between and older brother and a younger sister. I loved school. Friends and people who know me wouldn’t be surprised that I was active in everything – sports, CYO.

My home had a strong faith. Both of my parents had siblings in religious life, so we had family devotional things. We had the Rosary, we had Advent practices. When people hear that, they might think “holy,” but I have to assure them that with the interactions with three siblings, we were a very normal family.

My home parish, and where I went to school, was St. Cyril’s in East Landsdowne, Delaware County. Unfortunately, now it’s closed. I went to West Catholic High School. My grade school was at the parish, and the high schools were regional, so we went from Delaware County to West Philadelphia.

My dad worked for Westinghouse as a machinist. My mom was a homemaker. One of the things I have marveled at in being a teacher – and so have my siblings – is that my parents were from large families, neither one of them had a high school diploma, both of them worked because they had a lot of kids after them in the family and they needed the money. When I went to college and looked at books in the attic, I could see that my dad was doing things that would have been early Calculus. My mother could write and manage things. Being an educator, I was amazed. My mom always minded that she didn’t have a high school diploma, but when she finished eighth grade, the doctors said somebody had to help my grandmother or she wouldn’t live to raise the rest of the family. What my mother could do – she could have the degrees that I have, plus more. I am incredibly proud of them.

When did you first start thinking about religious life?

When I was growing up, most little girls in second grade wanted to be Sisters, and so did I. But the thought left me, and later I thought I’d be a nurse. It was during high school that the invitation surfaced again, and by the time I was a senior, I felt it was time to find if this really was where God was inviting me to spend my life.

My mother was one of 11. She had a brother who was a priest and two sisters who were Sisters of Christian Charity. My dad had a sister who was an Immaculate Heart Sister. My grade school had Immaculate Heart Sisters. My high school had seven religious communities, four of which I had never seen before, including Sisters of St. Joseph.

I loved my aunts. There is nothing negative about them or their religious communities. However, it was a Sister of St. Joseph in my freshman year whose example really made me think about religious life. I couldn’t imagine why someone that attractive, that smart, that funny, kind and personable would waste her life being a nun. I was 14 at the time that I met her, and I had her again in my sophomore year. It was really through her that God nurtured this invitation.

It certainly wasn’t a surprise to my family when I considered entering. It was the example of somebody that you’d look at and think, “She could have done anything, been anything, had 15 boyfriends. Why would she choose to be a nun?”

Did you enter the convent right out of high school, and what was it like at the time?

Yes, that was in 1957. It was totally different than it is today. First of all, 72 of us entered the community together. Six or seven were college graduates, some had been lay teachers. But probably more than half of us came straight from high school.

On the other hand, because the world was different, I think there was more maturity even in the ones who came from high school. We had held part-time jobs and got around on our own and managed our money.

In entering, we would have group classes in Theology and prayer and religious life, whereas a woman entering now would have more personal instruction. We practiced religious life and did it as a group. We’re happy we had the support of a group of friends. There was lots of room for fun. We were college age, so we had to get some of that humor worked out, which meant we’d put on shows using minimal props that came from janitorial closets. The creativity was wonderful!

We formed lifelong friendships that are still there. We know we were blessed by having a group of people around our age who went through life’s adventures together.

I made my final vows in 1965. We were only 9 fewer in our group. Instead of 72, we were 63.

I went to Chestnut Hill, which is our community college, and then did grad school at Providence College and Boston College.

Did you choose Lourdes as your religious name?

No, it’s my baptismal name. My religious name was Charles de Lourdes, after my father, Charles. My mother had great devotion to Our Lady. My mother’s name was Mary. My father had a sister named Mary. His three brothers who were married ahead of him all married Marys, and they all named their first girl Mary. In that family, they were Mary A., Mary L., Mary K. because there were so many Marys. My mom couldn’t name me Mary too, because it was too many.

When I was a little girl, I didn’t appreciate having such a different name, so I used to say to my mom, “Didn’t you ever hear of Maureen or something like that?” But when I got older, I came to love it, and I’m really happy that it is my baptismal name. My sister is Marita, because my mother heard of that later. If she had had nine girls, I’m sure there would have been Maureen and Fatima, etc.

Tell me about some of the places you’ve served.

 I’ve been in Philadelphia and surrounding areas, Washington, Baltimore, north Jersey and Harrisburg. I’ve loved teaching, but I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve done: teaching, administration, director of religious education and pastoral care.

It’s always a privilege to be a part of parish community and share life with the staff and their parents. They all have stories, and I love stories. I always felt at home and loved what I did.

Up until going to Harrisburg, I always got a letter or a list from the motherhouse that you were going to a new assignment; you didn’t apply for anything. If I did that then, I would still be teaching because I loved it so much. Each assignment I went to, the community saw your potential, so you went and you did it. I’m happy that each assignment I liked and I would have kept on doing it.

In the Diocese of Harrisburg, you served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools.

I came in 1989, and it was my only assignment there.

It’s always good to have done the jobs that you’re overseeing, when you come to administration. I see that as I observe health care workers. If you start as a PCA and become a CNA, then an LPN and then an RN, you know everything below. When I would advise people getting a degree, I’d encourage them to get double majors, because you bring everything to the next level and that makes you more able to coach people or help them. I don’t know what I’d bring, for example, if I walked in to a school as a principal but hadn’t been in education before.

Did that previous experience benefit the relationship you had with principals and teachers when you served in the Education Department?

Definitely. I used to tell the new teachers, “Ok, you’ve met the pastor and the principal, and they are the leadership. Your two best friends in a school are the secretary and the maintenance man. You will be more successful because they can help you out.” Yes, I have graduate degrees in education, but if I didn’t know to lick your finger and put it on the stopper at the boys’ bathroom door to keep it from slamming, it’s going to drive me nuts all afternoon because of a banging door. Nobody teaches you that stuff in grad school!

What are your fondest memories of the Diocese of Harrisburg?

I came to this Diocese and its 15 counties that I knew nothing about. I had not been stationed west of Philadelphia before. I inherited a precious deck of index cards with directions to every school. I clung to them. Interestingly, after a while, I didn’t need them anymore. I’d get up in the morning and I’d say to myself, “Am I going up 81 or 11, am I going down 283 or 15, or am I going across the river?”

I loved being with the teachers in the workshops at the Diocesan Center. I enjoyed working with the new teachers in the induction program and encouraging them in their gifts. Most people don’t see their own gifts; they need somebody else to see and to show them.

It was joyful for me to watch one of my inductees grow into a strong teacher and become a principal while I was there. The mission will continue if fine young people pick up the spirit of Catholic education and want to continue it.

School visits were fun because the kids are there. There was a kindergartener at St. Joan of Arc in Hershey who, when I asked if I could join their class, said, “No, no, you’re too old. You’re even older than college.”

Once, there was a visit to Corpus Christi in Chambersburg that I had to cancel a couple times because of snow, and I said to the second-graders when I finally got there, “What can I do, that I don’t have to keep canceling my visits?” They brainstormed, and one of them said, “Get a school bus that pushes heat out the front, and put dune-buggy tires on it.” It’s that kind of stuff with kids that I loved.

Seeing St. Monica in Sunbury become one of the ten national schools recognized for technology at that time, in the early days of technology, was a great thing. I also got to see the different parishes and areas have their distinct religious celebrations. I used to say I felt like the Pony Express going out, and I was always so welcomed when I got there.

I was proud of the creativity that I saw in teachers, especially in schools with limited resources. They found ways to create good opportunities for their students. It was wonderful to be able to affirm teachers, principals, pastors, parents, grandparents, and sometimes offer suggestions. Obviously, you can tell that I loved it there. I was in the Diocese of Harrisburg for 14 years, until 2003. My bosses would have said, “Wasn’t it 114 years instead of 14?” But Msgr. Lawrence had white hair before he got me, and Father Quinlan isn’t bald yet!

Do you get to visit the Diocese often?

I have some people that I continue to exchange Christmas cards with, and I come back once a year to see my oncologist. I stay at Holy Name and see Sister Rita Smith there, and make a visit to see some of the Diocesan Center staff that I know.

What is your ministry now?

I retired about a year and a half ago. I had been doing pastoral care with our Sisters at our community retirement home. I delighted in working on the memory care floor. I was famous for my parties; always in costume, with music, and my crazy socks.

I now volunteer at the Villa, but because of the pandemic I can’t do some things. I used to take Communion to the hospital one day a week, and I helped in our parish school one day a week. I can’t do either one of those now. But I still help at the Villa in a more limited capacity. I recently went with one of my memory care folks to their doctor’s appointment. Working with them enables me to have fun, because they delight in things. What better thing can you do than that!

You’ve always had a good sense of humor, and like to dress up in costume for Halloween and other celebrations. Where does that stem from?

We certainly had a sense of humor in our family, especially my father, who was very dry. With my siblings, we can really do a number on each other with humor. It doesn’t take a lot of words, and there’s nothing like siblings to keep you humble.

Sometimes people will say “I could never wear a costume like that,” or “I can’t do all those silly things you do.” That doesn’t even enter my mind. I don’t care how crazy something is; it’s fun and people enjoy it.

It’s even more so around folks with dementia. One of the things I quickly saw is that you live in their world. You don’t try and straighten out their world. For example, if a 92-year-old Sister says she wants to get on the elevator and go down to visit her mother, I don’t tell her that her mother died 30 years ago. I jump on the elevator with her and say, “I’ve never met your mother, let’s go!” I go with her because I know she’s going to be tired by the time she gets to the front door. I’m not going to tell her no. She has run schools and done so much in her life, and now I’m going to tell her she can’t go to the front door? I go to the front door with her and say, “You know, it’s getting dark and the car isn’t here. Can you wait until tomorrow?” And she’ll be OK with that, and we’ll go back up to her room. You need to live in their world, wherever they are.

It’s great to have the experience of being with people at the end of their life and enjoying it. You give them connections and love.

There was an article in our community magazine on the liturgist and the sacristan that I rope in to do parties with me. It was Cinco de Mayo, and we had a party. The word the author used was “Joy.” They used pictures from the party, and we were dressed up, and that’s great! God meant for us to enjoy our days.

What advice might you give to a woman who is considering the call to religious life?

Three things strike me. The first is prayer. Take it to prayer, reflect on it and listen for what God has to say. The second is, find a spiritual guide or director you can talk to about the invitation and what you’re feeling.

Third, hang out with the nuns you’re considering you’d like to get to know better. I was talking with a friend of mine who I went to high school with and who was in my group in the convent. We were talking about this the other day. You have to spend time with people and feel the interaction, the spirit – nowadays, we call it charism. Does this feel like it’s right for you? I look at other religious communities and I have great admiration for what they do, but it wouldn’t fit for me. My friend said, “That’s what we did when we hung around in the activities office after school, or went to some event with the nuns, so we could get a feel for it.”

What hobbies do you enjoy?

Because my brother is committed to Father Chuck’s Challenge, which is a group that raises money to build homes in Nicaragua and Haiti, I’ve been involved in that. I’ve been fortunate to visit the villages in Nicaragua and Haiti on a mission trip. My contribution is stuffing the mailings and standing at the church door to give out the literature while he is preaching. It’s such an enriching and broadening thing. We have no idea of the poverty there.

I also crochet hats for the homeless, which go down to the Franciscan food kitchen in north Philadelphia. I like reading and walking, and getting together with friends when the pandemic lets us do that.

(Interview conducted by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

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