Sister Mary Ann Leahy, (formerly Sister Marie Anita)
When asked one day what advice she would give to those seeking life as a woman religious, Sister Mary Leahy said, “A great journey can unfold before you; prepare to be stretched – in prayer life, community life, in social action, in your potential – stretch all to the limit.” Mary was indeed a living example of someone willing and eager to be stretched, in her pursuit of learning, in her ministry, in her personal life, and as her great journey unfolded before her, she touched many lives, said Sister Janet Gilligan in her commentary for Sister Mary Ann Leahy, who passed away on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. She was 84 years old and had been a Sister of Providence for 67 years.
Sister Janet continued: Mary Ann Leahy was born in Chicago on Jan. 25, 1935, to Sheila Keating Leahy and Patrick Leahy. Both of her parents were from County Kerry in Ireland. Mary Ann had an older brother, Jack, and two sisters, Sheila and Margaret. She was especially close to Jack, and kept constantly in touch with him until his death this January. Although Sheila was four years younger than Mary, Mary took her everywhere with her and treated her as an equal. She was a wonderful aunt to her youngest sister Margaret’s two daughters, Ann and Sheila, and her sisters, her nieces, and her two great-nieces and great-nephew are here with us today. Of her childhood, Mary Ann said that “one of my great joys was joining with my parents, my sisters and brother, in the care of our own ‘green field,’ our yard and vegetable garden.
Mary was such a precocious child that her mother put her in first grade at Our Lady of Sorrows Elementary School when she was only 5 years old. She was an excellent student, and her sister Sheila remembers that Mary “would take me to the public library with her, she introduced me to books and to reading.” She was also a talented Irish step dancer, receiving many awards at Irish Fest. Mary loved Our Lady of Sorrows and the sisters who taught her, especially Sister Helen Rose, and when she graduated, she attended high school at Providence Juniorate at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Her classmates still remember her as a wonderful Irish dancer and lots of fun. She was extremely intelligent, but always willing to help others who had difficulty with math and science.
She graduated from high school in 1952, entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Providence on Jan. 7, 1952, and received the name Sister Marie Anita. She professed final vows on Aug. 15, 1959. She earned a bachelor’s degree in science from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1965. Always ready to stretch her mind and her abilities, she earned a master’s degree in science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. She earned another master’s degree in biology from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., in 1971, and a master’s degree in business administration from Rosary College (now Dominican University) in 1981.
She began her professional journey teaching in elementary and secondary schools for 18 years in Indiana, Illinois and Washington, D.C. Then, she served as coordinator of Secondary Schools in Saint Joseph Province in Chicago, and principal of St. Jerome School in Chicago. After earning an MBA, she was ready again to stretch herself and her potential and she moved into development work, first at Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Rolling Meadows, Ill., and then as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College from 1985-87. The next stop in her journey was Washington, D.C., where she served as Vice President for Development for the National Catholic Education Association, then as Vice President of Development at Georgetown University. In 1997, she became the National Director of the National Religious Retirement Office, an office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that coordinates fundraising for the retirement of members of all religious congregations.
There, she raised an all-time high of $31.4 million dollars for retired religious. In her role as fundraiser, she was of great help to congregations struggling financially and gave valuable assistance to congregations not knowing where to turn. Looking back over these years, Mary said “During my first 20 years of service in Catholic education, I saw myself as planter of the seed and tiller of the soil. For the last 18 years, working in the ministry of development, I have been energized by the imagery of harvesting the crop.”
Barbara A. Keebler, who replaced Sister Mary as communications director for the NCEA, said Sister Mary set up the organization’s first Marketing Communications Office. Barbara also said Sister Mary established the association’s Corporate Partners program.
“Sister Mary’s work at NCEA was a gift to the Church and to the country,” said Sister Catherine T. McNamee, CSJ, former NCEA president. “Sister Mary recognized early on the vital importance of engaging lay leaders to help preserve and strengthen Catholic education. She also knew that the bishops’ support for Catholic schools was essential to their future.”
Regarding Sister Mary’s time with the NRRO, Sister Stephanie Still, PBVM, Executive Director of the Office said “Sister Mary was instrumental in the early organization of NRRO. We are grateful for her service to the religious of the United States and for the legacy of the Retirement Fund for Religious that she helped create.”
Barbara said that during her three years as Executive Director of the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO), Sister Mary raised almost $95 million in the annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious, including more than $33 million in one year along – 1999 – a record amount that stands to this day.
She remained devoted to her own Congregation, writing that the bonds that united her to the Community have been willingly and gladly made stronger ever since the day she met her first Sister of Providence. Over the years, she worked with the Congregation Finance Committee, the Investment Advisory Committee and the Congregation Development Program.
Following her time with NCEA, Sister Mary continued her work to promote Catholic education as Associate Dean of Development at Georgetown University, serving the University from 1989-97.
Father Robert Lawton, SJ, former Dean at Georgetown, commented “Mary was a wonderful person and a great fundraiser. She saw fundraising as God’s work. She raised money for causes that were instruments of God’s care for people. And she treated everyone with love and respect, not because of the money they could give, but because they were daughters and sons of God.”
In spite of her demanding work, Mary always had time for her family and friends, especially for her nieces. Mary was a devoted aunt. When they were young, she often babysat her two nieces, Ann and Sheila. One weekend, when 4-year-old Ann wanted more snacks, Mary, seeing this as a teachable moment, told Ann she would have to explain in writing why she should get more snacks. So poor little 4-year-old Ann proceeded to print out her rationale. Mary treasured this remarkable document and had it framed as a gift for Ann upon Ann’s graduation from law school. She claimed it was Ann’s first brief.
Mary had many friends, some of them dating back to her years in the Juniorate. After reconnecting at a Juniorate reunion, the old ladies in her class re-enkindled their friendship as if they had never been separated. She traveled with friends and family to England and Ireland and on cruises. Therese Panfil, a lifelong friend of Mary’s, described her as someone who made many friends and stuck by her friends through thick and thin, someone who cared for the people she knew and loved and worked with.
At her Golden Jubilee, Mary commented that although she had lived through many external changes in the Congregation – habit, customs, forms of government, “interiorly – I mean the spirit of the Congregation – that makes us Sisters of Providence is quite the same. I feel the same dedication, vibrancy, courage and risk taking.” It is clear from the ways those who worked with Mary describe her that she was a living example of dedication, vibrancy, and courage.
Jean Wilkowski, a Woods graduate who was ambassador to Zambia, called her daring and dashing, writing that “Divine Providence in the form of high standards and sincere relations has been Mary’s gift to us all.”
Barbara also wrote that “Mary’s vision and vitality were infectious,” while also stating that Sister Mary had an experience when she was the only woman present in a meeting with 20 bishops and was unexpectedly called upon to lead the group in prayer.
“Without a note or hesitation, Mary paused a moment and then began a favorite prayer – the Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas: Grant me grace, O merciful God, to desire ardently all that is pleasing to you. To examine it prudently, to acknowledge it truthfully and to accomplish it perfectly for the praise and glory of your name,” Barbara said.
Those who worked with and for Mary remembered her for her support, encouragement, counsel, courage, efficiency, effectiveness, generous spirit, graciousness, openness, personal kindness, and her bright welcoming smile. She is described as loyal, clear-sighted, a strategic thinker, an example of dedication to religious life, and a great mentor.
In 2000, Mary retired but continued work as a development consultant as well as serving in her local parish in Florida. She gathered a group of women each week for centering prayer, helped with parish bookkeeping, and maintained contact with her many friends. She returned to the Motherhouse in 2018, where she committed herself totally to the ministry of prayer.
In her last few years, Mary was stretched in ways she would not have chosen, as she endured physical and emotional pain and suffering, losing her beloved brother Jack just a few months ago. With her sisters Sheila and Meg by her side, she died a beautiful and peaceful death on April 30. A bishop with whom she worked once wrote of her that “Mary’s soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; her spirit rejoices in her life as a disciple of Christ.”
We can be confident now that she is rejoicing with the God she served so faithfully and that her spirit is dancing again in the green fields of eternity.
Sister Mary was a diligent worker, totally committed to whatever ministry she was given. This commitment, along with a sincere interest in others, made her successful in all her endeavors.
Sister Mary is survived by her sisters: Sheila Rusakauff of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., and Margaret Frederick of Libertyville, Ill. She was preceded in death by brother John (Jack) Leahy.
Funeral services for Sister Mary took place on Friday, May 17, in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.
A Wake took place at 9 a.m., followed by Mass of Christian Burial, with Reverend Daniel R. Hopcus presiding. Burial was in the cemetery of the Sisters of Providence. The DeBaun Funeral Homes and Crematory assisted with arrangements.
Memorial contributions in Sister Mary Ann’s honor may be made to the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
We welcome you to share your memories of Sister Mary in the comment section below.
Sister Mary Ann Leahy (formerly Sister Marie Anita)
In Illinois: Teacher, Mother Theodore Guerin High School, River Grove (1968-71); Coordinator of Secondary Schools, St. Joseph Providence, Chicago (1971-73); St. Genevieve, Chicago (1972-73); Principal, St. Jerome, Chicago (1973-79); Finance Director/Development, Sacred Heart of Mary Parish, Rolling Meadows (1980-85).
In Indiana: Teacher, St. Margaret, Terre Haute (1954-55); Teacher, Assumption, Evansville (1957-58); Teacher, St. John the Baptist, Whiting (1958-65); Teacher, Central Catholic High School, Fort Wayne (1965-67); Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (1985-87).
In Washington, D.C.: Vice President for Development, St. Ann, NCEA (1955-57); Director of Development, Georgetown University (1989-95); Associate Dean for Development, Georgetown University (1995-97); National Director, NRRO (1997-2000).
In Florida: Parish Ministry, St. Peter and Paul Parish, Bradenton (2011-18).
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