Sister Catherine M. Hennessy, MSC
Sister Catherine Marie “Kay” Hennessy, MSC
1937 - 2015
On November 21, 1937, Michael Hennessy and Deborah Murphy Hennessy, a young Irish couple from County Galway, welcomed the first of their four children, Catherine Marie, into the world. Kay, as she was called most of her life, was born at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan.
A real New Yorker, Kay attended Ascension Elementary School and graduated from Blessed Sacrament High School. Prior to becoming a religious, Kay was trained at Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and worked for a while as a secretary. She also studied at Seton Hall University and entered the Marianites of Holy Cross at Our Lady of Princeton on February 18, 1959. When she received the religious habit on August 25 of that same year, she was given the religious name Sr. Mary of St. James the Greater, a name Kay had asked for in honor of one of the priests who had influenced her vocation.
She made temporary profession on September 5, 1961 and pronounced perpetual vows on September 5, 1964 at Our Lady of Princeton, the provincial house of the Province of the North in New Jersey. Sister’s first years of teaching (1961 to 1971) were in the elementary schools of Our Lady of Sorrows, Mercerville, New Jersey; St. Louis Academy, Staten Island, NY; St. Mary’s, Ridgefield, CT; and St. Joseph, Rosebank, NY.
To further her education, Kay studied at Fordham University, New York, in 1971 and 1972. When she moved to secondary teaching in 1972, Kay taught chemistry at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, New Jersey. She was a strict disciplinarian but her strictness was balanced with great compassion and concern for her students and their families. She would assist any student struggling with academics or any life issue. She took the time to listen with the “ears of the heart.”
When the Moreau Vice-Province (originally referred to as the “Region”) was active, Sr. Kay was one of its leaders and as such, was a part of the Marianite “General Council” which met periodically. At the Marianite Congregational Chapter of 1977, Sister was elected Congregational Assistant to Sr. Vivian Coulon. As part of the congregational administration, one of Kay’s special roles was as Mission Coordinator, a task which led her to become familiar with our foreign missions of the time.
When she left office in 1981, Sister pursued her studies at Fordham University and earned a Master’s degree in theology. She also received a master’s in counseling from Manhattan College in New York, where she served from 1984 to 1995.
A woman of deep prayer, Kay had special devotion to both Father Founder and Mother Mary of the Seven Dolors, and to our Holy Cross heritage. She even wrote a paper on the history of the Solitude which she delivered at the Holy Cross History Conference in 1987.
In 1995 Sister Kay joined the staff of King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, as Director of Volunteer Services. Together with student volunteers, she made several mission trips to poorer areas of the United States. She was also involved in the Women of Holy Cross, East Coast Convergence for Justice, women’s rights and care for the marginal of society.
Kay enjoyed life; her laughter would echo through the halls. She was an avid reader and also had a fantastic memory – for facts, dates, birthdays, feasts. Those who lived with her recall that each day she would remind everyone around her, “Today is the feast of Saint . . . . .”
Very proud of her Irish heritage, Kay loved to share the history and stories of Ireland, and she knew just about every possible Irish song by heart. She was also a good dancer, especially with the Irish jig and step-dancing.
Sister Kay gave us all a great example of patient endurance throughout her long bout with Parkinson’s disease which began to affect her in 1992. She would offer her sufferings for others and in particular for the needs of the Congregation.
As the Parkinson’s disease progressed, the community decided that a move to New Orleans and St. Joseph Convent might benefit Kay since there were doctors at the LSU Medical Center specializing in treatment of Parkinson’s. So Kay spent the next ten years with her Marianite sisters in New Orleans at St. Joseph’s and later at Prompt Succor in Opelousas. For a couple of those years she lived at Mary Joseph Home in New Orleans, a nursing home right next to Our Lady of Holy Cross Convent.
Her final move was to McAuley Health Care Center in Watchung, New Jersey where she would spend the last years of her life. Even there, Kay participated in group activities until she became totally incapacitated. Sr. Catherine passed away peacefully on Thursday, January 22, 2015 at McAuley Health Care Center. While funeral plans were being discussed, the frigid winter weather that was approaching caused funeral services to be delayed. Kay’s body was buried in the Marianite cemetery at Our Lady of Princeton the day after her death.
Sr. Bernadette Larson tells us, “When I put the announcement of her death on Facebook for the alums of St. John Vianney, I received many responses. The main thread was how good a teacher she was and how she kept encouraging her students to do their best.”
The memorial Mass for Kay was held on April 14, 2015, in the chapel at McAuley Health Care Center. Sr. Pat Schladebeck gave the opening comments on behalf of the MSCs. Kay’s cousin, Fr. Bill Sweeney, was the celebrant and Fr. Tom Looney, CSC, representative of King’s College, gave a short reflection on Kay’s dedication to the Cross, to Holy Cross, and to the Marianites. All were very blessed and could feel Kay with them during the ceremony. She would have been so pleased with the effort that was put into the Mass to make it a celebration. Joining the Marianites and the Sisters of Mercy were Kay’s sisters, Helen and Mary, along with other members of her family. Everyone felt so uplifted by the Mass and some twenty people, including all the Marianites, continued the celebration with lunch at the Scotch Plains Diner.