Mary Patricia always thought of being a Sister. Her kindergarten class was in the convent dining room of the old mansion at St. Matthew’s in San Mateo. Later in elementary school, she would sneak back into the fascinating old building. She loved that place and remembers, “They loved me no matter what I did. It was as if I belonged there.”
Mary Pat did become a Sister and a teacher. She taught at Guadalupe Elementary School in Santa Barbara, and then moved into high school where she served in Alameda to Seattle and Belmont and taught subjects that ranged from business math to Latin and religion. It was a busy time, often with a very heavy teaching load.
Sr. Mary Pat’s life changed quickly after a phone call from Sr. Catherine McGrath: Would Sr. Mary Pat be interested in getting a degree in theology and teaching at the College of Notre Dame (now NDNU)? Yes! Soon she began her studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. After earning a PhD in the history of theology she returned to teach at the college.
Those were the years of “returning women.” Women who had left school, married, had children and now returned for degrees. Teaching women’s spirituality classes, she remembers telling the women to find “what’s important in your heart.” The younger students appreciated her classes too. “Whether the student has grown up in a religious family or not,” she says, “this is the age when she questions what is of value for her life” Sr. Mary Pat encouraged them to find their own heart-paths.
Sister touched the lives of many besides her students. Dr. Miriam L. Zimmerman, now Professor Emerita, NDNU, says, “She was a blessing to me for listening without judging. My “spiritual IQ” ratcheted up a few notches each day as I entered my office next to hers.” Through the paper-thin walls between offices Dr. Zimmerman heard the relief in students’ voices as they came for advice, academic help or emotional support. She remembers overhearing Sister help a student select courses to fit his demanding athletic schedule. “ ‘The course meets on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,’ Sister Mary Pat offered. The student pondered, and then decided, ‘I’ll take Wednesday.’ Without laughing, Sister patiently explained how university courses are scheduled.”
Retired from NDNU now, but still a teacher, Sr. Mary Pat says, “I’m loving my life.” She has learned Spanish and teaches it at Fair Oaks Senior Center in Redwood City where age makes no difference. One woman hobbled in on her walker saying that she thought she was too old to learn a new language. Sister pointed to a gentleman sitting there, “He’s 90.” “Well,” huffed this woman, “I’m 95.” Many people come from the more affluent neighborhoods and she is often asked why they want to learn Spanish – are they planning a trip to Spain? “No,” she explains, “they want to talk with their neighbors.”
Sister also teaches at the Catholic Worker English School in Redwood City. Director, Sr. Mary Jane Floyd, PBVM, says, “Sr. Mary Pat came to teach English, but she has done that and much more. She’ll come and ask, ‘What can I do?’” For months, she was “auntie” to a homeless little girl and guided her into a new school and into adolescence while she helped the girl’s family find resources so that they are no longer homeless. Another time after she sent a request for volunteer teachers to local parishes, the phone was ringing off the hook!
Sr. Mary Pat’s heart has opened to the diverse world of women in the long story of spirituality and the Church and the world of the immigrant that is at her doorstep in Redwood City. “Jubilee is a time of celebration, a time to stand up and celebrate women,” she says. “It is time to celebrate who we are as sisters and how far we have come these 50 years.”