Meet Sister Judy Flahavan

Since she was a high school freshman, Judy wanted to be a Sister. Her faith was richly nourished by her parents and at school. “My father was a San Francisco firefighter and, for him, religion was very real,” she says. She went to Notre Dame Elementary and High School in San Francisco where she learned from Sisters for whom religion was also very real. She still remembers Sr. Teresa Ann Leahy, her sixth grade teacher, saying something directly out of the catechism, but the way she said it made a lasting, deep impression on her: “At Mass Jesus offers himself to his Father, who accepts the offering and returns Jesus to us in Holy Communion.”  Later, in high school, she found herself saying, “I want to give my life to God.”

Sr. Judy’s first years in ministry were busy. She was always teaching a new grade in a new place–Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Saratoga and Carmel in California, and Des Moines, Washington and Honolulu, Hawaii. She taught religion at Holy Family School in Honolulu for four years.

Thirty years ago she was in a new place one more time–St. Columbkille School, Los Angeles–and in a new role, this time, as principal. There, sharing her love of children and teaching in the challenging south-central neighborhood, she hit her stride. For 10 years she created a loving, safe environment for the children. Given a sabbatical year, she spent it at a Maryknoll language school in Bolivia and then with Sisters of Notre Dame in Peru. She was immersed, not only in the Spanish language, but in the lives of the poor. She will not forget the tiny shacks in Peru, nothing but sand outside, no roads, no gardens, and a small girl hobbling on one leg and crutches in the sand. Another time she came upon a woman and her small daughter. They were pushing a wheelbarrow. In the wheelbarrow was the dead baby they were taking to be buried.

Always a teacher, Sr. Judy especially appreciated being able to teach at the Fe y Alegria School where Sr. Liane Delsuc was principal. “There were no textbooks, so teachers would write everything on blackboards and the children would copy it all down. That is how they learned–and they did learn!” She learned, too, how  to teach with next to nothing! Returning to Los Angeles, she spent several successful years as principal at Ascension School, a school with very poor children and few resources.

For the past 13 years, Sr. Judy has been principal of Nativity School, a neighboring school to St. Columbkille. “I am blessed here with a wonderful faculty, cooperative and supportive parents, and kids who love coming to school. I just love it.”  The teachers at Nativity love it–and her–too. Antonio Felix says, “I truly believe that Sr. Judy is a blessing for everyone at Nativity. When she first came, there was next to nothing in the school’s bank account and no telling what the future of Nativity could be. Now Nativity is a model for Catholic inner-city schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese. She has nourished the school the way a mother cares for her child.” Another teacher, Esther Garcia, agrees, “It seems as if her selflessness, dedication and love can make anything happen.”

Sr. Judy admits that the kids at Nativity have an opportunity others in the neighborhood sadly just don’t have. Practically every eighth grader goes on to college. Most of their parents don’t have nearly that level of education, or the funds to afford a quality Catholic high school education for their children. “An alumnus and group of Nativity friends, encouraged by Sr. Judy, provide graduates with scholarships for Catholic high schools when they can’t afford the tuition,” explains teacher John Beltrano.

A few years ago Sister was encouraged to undertake the administration of Notre Dame School, Santa Barbara. Sr. Judy considered that it was God’s providence bringing her back to the school where she first taught, and marvels that she represents the Sisters of Notre Dame who have ministered at Notre Dame School since 1906.

As she celebrates her 50 years as a Sister of Notre Dame, she says, “I am so grateful for the life God has called me to.”