Sister Kathleen – St. Francis Xavier Honors Her 42-Year Tenure

by Marie Elena Giossi

Hundreds gathered with Sister Kathleen Sullivan, C.S.J., center, to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving in her honor at St. Frances Xavier Church, Park Slope, Oct. 16.

Hundreds of present and former students, teachers, friends and fellow Sisters of St. Joseph attended a special Mass of Thanksgiving and reception honoring Sister Kathleen Sullivan, C.S.J., former principal, at St. Francis Xavier parish, Park Slope, Oct. 16.

After over 60 years of service as a Catholic educator in the Brooklyn Diocese, including 42 years at St. Francis Xavier as a teacher and principal, Sister Kathleen retired last June.

“We come together to celebrate a beautiful moment … the service Sister Kathleen has given to our parish and school for over 40 years,” Father William Rueger, pastor, said as he welcomed parishioners and guests to the 12:15 p.m. Mass.

Among the guests were former Episcopal Vicar, Msgr. Kevin Noone, and former pastor, Msgr. John O’Brien, both concelebrants at Mass; Sister Mary Doyle, C.S.J., regional superior, Brentwood Sisters of St. Joseph; and Barbara McArdle, assistant superintendent, diocesan Catholic School Support Services Office.

While her teaching ministry has been entirely in Brooklyn, Sister Kathleen was born and raised in Queens. She attended St. Sebastian’s School and William Cullen Bryant H.S. She later earned her bachelor’s degree in education at St. John’s University and her master’s at Fordham University.

Having “always wanted to be a teacher and a religious Sister,” she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, in 1950. She spent the next two decades teaching first grade at Our Lady of Lourdes, Bushwick; St. Anthony, Greenpoint; and St. James Pro-Cathedral, Downtown Brooklyn.

“I loved every minute of it,” she said with a smile.

In 1969, she was assigned to teach first grade at St. Francis Xavier. Halfway through her second year, the principal fell ill and she was elevated to his chair.

At the time, the school had about 450 students but was struggling financially. She had no financial or managerial experience but she had the one quality needed for the job: total commitment to sharing Christ’s love with the children. With that, she turned the numbers around, maintained an enrollment of at least 500 students for nearly 35 years, and kept the school operating in the black.

The biggest challenge, she said, was working with parents, who “didn’t always realize that you want what’s best for their children.” Her greatest joy, besides working with the Sisters, Franciscan Brothers, lay faculty and staff, she said, was seeing former students return and hearing “how they’ve made it or how we changed their lives.”

Amid her accomplishments, she recognizes her humanity as well. “Was everything I did always right? No, but I always tried to do what was right,” she said.

Her forward-thinking initiatives included equipping the school with computers, starting a kindergarten, establishing a school advisory board and an alumni group, and partnering with St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights. She was also on the committee to choose the school’s first lay principal, Dorothy Taylor, who was appointed over the summer.

Though she wanted to work a few more years, “my body said it was time to retire,” shared Sister Kathleen, who has endured triple bypass heart surgery, colon cancer and two knee replacements. She will celebrate her 80th birthday on Oct. 31.

Not one to rest on her laurels, she continues to volunteer at the school. She also brings communion to patients at New York Methodist Hospital and serves on a principals’ alumni committee.

“Kathleen, as St. Matthew says today, these words apply to you: ‘Teacher, we know that you are a truthful woman and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status,’” Msgr. O’Brien said in his homily.

An old friend of Sister Kathleen, whom he first met at St. James School, when she wore a habit and was known as Sister Ambrosia, Msgr. O’Brien attested to the truth of that statement.

Moving People for Her Children
“You always did what was right for the children,” he said, recalling her knack for informing doctors and dentists that they were going to provide free services for the students — and they did. “She had a magic hand to move people to do things for her children,” he added.

James O’Connell, ’86, School Advisory Board president, also had the chance to address his favorite principal, who, as a child, he dubbed Sister Goldilocks because of her blonde curls and blue eyes. He assured her that the tree she planted in Park Slope has taken root and will continue to produce wonderful fruit.

Some of that wonderful fruit was evident at the reception that followed in the school hall, where former and current students lavished her with flowers and hugs. Pre-k through eighth graders paid tribute to her by singing songs, reciting some of her notable sayings and sharing stories. Father Rueger presented her with an award from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Donna Ward Andries, ’79, flew in from Florida to be with Sister Kathleen, who was her rock during a challenging childhood.

“In my life, she’s been more than a mother to me,” Andries said. “She helped cultivate me into the person I am today.”

When Andries couldn’t pay her high school tuition, Sister Kathleen promised the school that the teenager would make good on her debts. Sister Kathleen then found her a job at the Mercy Sisters Convent, where Andries worked to pay her high school tuition and put herself through nursing school. She has never forgotten Sister Kathleen’s kindness and keeps in touch with her to this day.

Visibly moved by the outpouring of love, Sister Kathleen recognized former and present teachers and staff with whom she worked and thanked all who touched her life.

She expressed her hope that she, too, “was able to touch some lives for the better.”

“I am so grateful to God for all the years he gave me at St. Francis Xavier School,” she said.

One thought on “Sister Kathleen – St. Francis Xavier Honors Her 42-Year Tenure

  1. The very definition of a selfless human being. Every parish in every town in every city of every country deserves a Sister Kathleen. The world would be a better place for it.