Principal reflects on her 50 years as a nun

Sister Jean McGrath gets up at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, makes a cup of coffee, lights a candle and sits down at her kitchen table to pray.

She sits for half an hour or so, alone, collecting her thoughts the way a carpenter might assemble tools before heading to the job.

Then she's ready.

At 7, just before it explodes with kids, she walks into St. John Fisher Elementary School. She is the principal. And the last nun on staff.

Bandaging scratched elbows. Collecting lost teeth to send home in an envelope for the tooth fairy. Keeping a school financially afloat.

To hear McGrath tell it, it's unremarkable stuff, this stuff she has done for the past half-century.

"I am really rather boring," she warned before I went to visit her this week, "especially when compared to other religious women who have been martyred, walked picket lines or been at the pope's doorstep to petition for the right to be ordained."

To hear other people tell it, she is every bit their equal.

With her easy laugh, fierce heart and businesswoman's head, Sister Jean is the reason St. John Fisher remains one of the largest and most vibrant Catholic grade schools in Chicago.

Her accomplishments, coupled with her longevity, are why on Friday the street outside the school will be named in her honor and the alderman, Matt O'Shea, will hand her a City Council resolution, signed by the mayor, commemorating her 50 years as a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

But all that was still a secret from her when I went to see her earlier this week on a typical day, which means a day filled with the unpredictable.

"No two days the same," she said, sitting in her little office just off a hallway noisy with kids headed home.

She had interviewed candidates to replace the music teacher who suddenly quit to earn more money at a charter school; consoled a parent with two children in the hospital; had "a good cry" over a newspaper story on the recent death of a cousin who was also her best friend since childhood.

McGrath grew up a few blocks from St. John Fisher, the second of seven kids in a South Side neighborhood filled with Irish Catholics.

"Why would you throw your life away?" certain people asked when she decided to be a nun, and even she had always thought she'd get married and have kids.

"That's what we did in my family," she said.

It was the early '60s. Social change had begun to roil the country and the church. When a friend introduced McGrath to some sisters of the St. Joseph's congregation, she saw how to find her place in the revolution.

"I wanted to be somebody who could do good," she said, "who could make a difference."

She was still a religious novice, fresh out of Mother McAuley High School, when her father died. She was eager to come home and help her mother.

No, her mother said. Follow your vocation.

She began as a second-grade teacher, moved to teaching high school English, graduated to principal.

Meanwhile, nuns swapped their habits for ordinary clothes, became known as "women religious," and, in many cases, left their religious orders.

By McGrath's count, of the 63 women in the novitiate with her, only five are still sisters. When she arrived at St. John Fisher in 1986, there were 10 other nuns on staff. Today there are none.

"Should I be doing that too?" she asked herself as her friends left their religious lives to marry and have children.

She wondered, and she stayed, convinced that this was where she could matter, even though it "disappointed" her that the Catholic hierarchy often treated women as if they didn't matter.

"She's a very modern thinker," says her brother Dan McGrath, a former Tribune sports editor who is now president of Leo High School. "If women were to be ordained, she'd probably be first in line."

Sister Jean McGrath is 69. Ordination is probably not in her future.

And she thinks about the future as she watches her friends, the ex-nuns, have grandchildren.

"To whom do you belong?" she said.

Sitting in her office, the students gone, the hallways quiet, she contemplated the question, wondering what her life might have been like if she'd made the choice of the nuns who left. But she didn't. She had other things to do.

And so she belongs to the kids she has taught, the families she has counseled, the teachers she has guided.

As I was about to leave, she walked over to her desk and pulled out her calendar, a yellow book with a Mary Oliver poem paper-clipped to the front. She reads the poem every morning.

Now she read it aloud, repeating the final lines:

The gospel of light

is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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