A Teacher’s Heart: Sister Mary McCaffrey’s Joy-Filled Years Guiding Others

With more than 75 years of religious life, one sister offers educational life lessons.

Sister Mary McCaffrey of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities
Sister Mary McCaffrey of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities (photo: Alex Malecki photo)

This year, Sister Mary McCaffrey reluctantly left teaching at Kennedy Catholic Preparatory High School in Somers, New York, at the end of January. Unlike her always-eager and animated self, she unenthusiastically decided to leave, as a health issue forced her retirement. She was 92.

Having turned 93, Sister Mary remains the witty and lively conversationalist she has always been. In September, she will celebrate 76 years with her congregation, recently renamed the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. By training a teacher, along the way she has also worn the hats of principal, hospital administrator and superior general of the congregation that once had hundreds of sisters.

She reminisced with the Register about life lessons.

When did she decide to become a nun? “You’re not going to believe it,” she told the Register with a joy that is characteristic of her conversation, “but I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything else. Ever since I started school in first grade, at 5 years old, I always wanted to be a nun.” That was when she was growing up in an Irish-Catholic family and attending St. Catherine’s in Pelham, New York. With good humor in her voice, she added, “I never really told anybody till after high school because I also wanted to have a good time.”

Then, in 1947 at age 17, the earliest she could be accepted, Mary McCaffrey entered the Sisters of St. Francis of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin. It was one of the different communities that developed from the original, founded by St. John Neumann in Philadelphia. Catholic history fact: St. Marianne Cope was in one of the congregations. In 2004, five separate communities joined together under the new name of Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. 

“I’m in this community the second-longest of the entire community,” she said.

After being professed, she was assigned to Immaculate Conception School in Tuckahoe, New York. “I started out with 45 third-grade boys,” she recalled. “Then I moved up to the fifth grade for two or three years, then the sixth and then I was sent to high school.”

Sister Mary always liked variation. In high school she taught theology and English. Over the years she even taught creative writing, typing and psychology. 

“I have a fruit-salad mind,” she explained, “so I liked a variety. I didn’t want to be the same all the time. Some want to have all sophomores so they only have one prep. I wanted every single grade because years are very different. It makes a big difference in high school.”

She described how “each class is so different. The freshmen are like deer in front of a car, wide-eyed, and everything is so wonderful. Sophomore year, they think they know it all, more than the teachers. And then junior year was the best year because they still had another year. They knew everybody, and they were all in every activity in the school. I’ve always taught in very active high schools, where they had lots of extracurricular activity.”

Naturally, she remembers funny incidents. 

“One I find funniest [was when] this boy was not paying attention and falling asleep. So I said something to him, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Sounds just like my mother.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that something. And how old is your mother?’ And he was very sheepish and said, ‘Sister, she’s old.’ I said, ‘Well, how old is old?’ ‘Sister, she’s 57.’ At that point, I was about 90.”

Sister Mary’s 45-plus years of teaching became “bookends” to two other positions she held. At age 41, she was elected the congregation’s assistant superior general. “They said, ‘We have a child running the community now!’” she said with a chuckle. “Because most of the time they were up in their 60s. And that was considered a young one. And then all of a sudden, they elected me. I couldn't get out [of it].” Because the position was not full time, she was simultaneously teaching.

“She has a keen insight into teenagers, which is good for a teacher,” her nephew Neil McCaffrey said, “but beyond that she had a breadth of skills that most of us don’t get to enjoy.”

One of those skills came in handy when the school closed and the congregation then sent her to Columbia University in 1973 for a degree in hospital administration, after which she became administrator of St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“St. Francis is where I thought I would be for life,” even though it would be away from teaching, Sister Mary said. “I was satisfied — this is what God wants me to do, whether I like it or not.” But another unexpected surprise came after three years in hospital administration.

When she was 47, and although she still preferred to teach, she was elected as the congregation’s superior general in 1977, a full-time position. “The way I figured,” she explained, “it has to be God’s will. Everything is, right? If it isn’t his directive will, at least it is his permissive will that I got elected.”

She was reelected for the maximum two terms and then “went back to the ranks. When I went back, I could go back to teaching, which I really loved. I didn’t have to go back to hospital work,” she said. But return she did. She reasoned, “I went back to hospitals because I felt they spent an awful lot of money educating me.” Her administrative work took her to St. Francis Hospital in Beacon, New York. In all, she spent 19 years in hospitals.

“After I got to be 67, I said, ‘I really would like to go back to high-school teaching for my last career.’ By that time, nuns were kind of stating what they wanted to do,” Sister Mary said. Her superior gave her permission, but “she didn’t think I’d get a job in a place at 67. But I got hired right away. I couldn’t wait to get back in teaching, to get back to high school,” she recalled.

Father Mark Vaillancourt, the president/principal of Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School in Somers, told the Register Sister Mary applied to be an English teacher in 1998, but there was an opening in theology. The principal at the time hired her. She taught “Theology I” and “II” her first year, then “Theology IV,” became head of the theology department and also became the English department chairwoman for five years.

“For more than two decades, Sister Mary McCaffrey has been the mainstay of our Catholic Kennedy Catholic spiritual-life program, from teaching theology in the classroom, running retreats, from students lecturing at Mass and helping our students meet their community-service commitments,” he said. “Sister Mary has been a guardian angel of the program.”

Over those years, he got to know her well. “She has a deep love for our Catholic faith,” the priest said. That faith surely grew as she began attending daily Mass while she was a student in grammar school and then while “serving God, our Lord Savior Jesus Christ, for 75 years.”

Father Vaillancourt said he always found Sister Mary “very erudite, very articulate” and having “a very wry sense of humor, very witty.” She was always “very humble,” he added. “She’s a very capable person, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously.” He continued, “She had a way with the kids, able to figure them out and relate to them. Even being in her 90s she was still able to communicate with the kids. They looked up to her with great reverence and respect.”

Nephew Neil McCaffrey recalled how his aunt “would go to all the student events, whether a basketball game, a football game, concert or a play.” One year, he recalled, he and his wife, Maureen, sent her hand warmers so she could use them at the hockey games. “She said to me, ‘It's important. Not all the teachers can come to all the games; they have families and whatnot. But I can, and it’s important to be a presence for the kids.’ And she was right.”

That support was noticed by the principal, too. Father Vaillancourt said she was always “supportive of what I wanted in spiritual life or things that I thought were important. She would tell me what she thought, but she would always do what I asked her to do.”

“I spent the rest of my days at Kennedy, which I loved,” Sister Mary said, reflecting on that time with joy evident in her voice. She described the happy family atmosphere she found not only among the teachers but also students.

“I would really very much love to be back in high school,” she said. Only reluctantly did she stop teaching because, she explained, “I’m fine from the neck up. But I don’t walk too well. So I can’t go back. You talk about God knowing what he was doing. I retired on Jan. 27. I waited till the end of the exams in January. I didn’t really want to retire, but I knew that I wasn’t physically able. On the day after, I wound up in the hospital. Talk about timing!”

Today, living with two other sisters at a Franciscan home in Peekskill, New York, her joyful, lively heart still would prefer to be in front of a class, helping youth “shape lives and put them on the right road for Our Lord.”

That she certainly has. When she sees former students, she recalled, “They say, “Oh, Sister, I remember you used to tell us stories.’ They would remember the story and then what I wanted to tell them about it, the lesson about it. And I knew them well as soon as they said their name.”