90-Year-old Nun ‘Roars’ for Women and Girls
September 24, 2020
By Sister Mary Reilly, as told to Catherine Walsh, Communications Specialist
I am a 90-year-old nun who has spent my life working to empower women and girls, especially those who are poor. The song for my burial will be “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy. Its’ opening line—”I am woman, hear me roar!”—inspires me. For as the song also says, “It’s wisdom born of pain.”
Over my 72 years as a Sister of Mercy, I have been transformed into a feminist. I was one of nine children raised by Irish-born parents in South Providence, Rhode Island. We didn’t have much, but nothing prepared me for the poverty I saw in Central America in the 1960s.
Serving as a teacher and principal for six years in Honduras and Belize developed in me a feminist consciousness. I saw women stand up to abusive husbands in a macho culture. I saw Indigenous girls become more confident as they learned about their bodies; they grew in appreciation for themselves right before your eyes.
When I came back to South Providence and began working at St. Michael’s Parish in 1970, I was shocked by the poverty of the teenage mothers who wanted their babies baptized. I visited them in their homes. Some of these young moms couldn’t read past grade 2. I was angry that a country as rich as ours had created an underclass of people whom no one cared about.
From ministry to advocacy
But my years at St. Michael’s also gave me hope. It was the 1970’s and many of us were excited by the Church’s recommitment to social justice, as called for by Vatican II. We moved from ministry to advocacy. All sorts of faith-filled activism began in this era. (See sidebar.)
It’s amazing how one ministry in your life threads into another. Deborah Thompson, a sister who later became a Mercy Associate and has since died, joined me at St. Michael’s, and we began teaching basic literacy to four young moms in 1980. As we helped these women learn to read their bills, leases, notes from their kids’ teachers and music to sing at Church, their fears of inadequacy and illiteracy subsided. They became more confident and more moms showed up, as did volunteers, who became tutors. That was the beginning of Dorcas Place Adult and Family Literacy Center, now Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the largest adult learning center in the state. (Dorcas, an early Christian woman in the Bible, helped people in poverty.)
I was 50 at the time, about the same age as Catherine “Kitty” McAuley when she founded the Sisters of Mercy. We struggled for funding for Dorcas Place, as adult education was a new concept and the state agencies wouldn’t help us. (They did later.) But I’d say to Deborah, “We’re doing Kitty!” Catherine was about helping young women. She personified one of my favorite sayings: “The rising of the woman is the rising of the race.”
‘Age of idealism’
During my 19 years at Dorcas Place, I learned that nearly every woman there had experienced violence in her life. That influence, along with the UN’s Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, which stressed the education and development of the girl child, made me realize we had to start younger. We had to reach girls at the “age of idealism” when they enter adolescence.
So, in collaboration with a group of passionate women, I founded Sophia Academy, a non-denominational middle school for low-income girls, in 2001. Sophia means wisdom and the school’s motto is “Reflecting Wisdom in the Girl.”
The Sophia community is about empowerment and social justice. The girls get it! In non-pandemic times, they work together in “circles of learning” in the classroom; they understand that coming together makes them stronger.
During the pandemic, Sophia has had a 97 percent attendance rate. (Our school has 64 students from diverse backgrounds.) We have fabulous teachers and staff and they really responded. Three times last spring they went out to the girls’ homes with groceries and Visa gift cards, and once I went with them. It was moving to see how encouraging everyone was of each other.
I believe that Sophia Academy reflects feminism at its best, which is mutuality, cooperation, and supportive relationships. This feminism is the opposite of patriarchy, which is about power.
Although we have a long way to go to overcome patriarchy, I’m hopeful because I’ve seen so much progress in my lifetime. I never thought I’d live to see so many women running for Congress and (hopefully) a woman vice president. Even in the Church, more and more people of faith understand that God isn’t a “He” or even a “She,” but Spirit who is Love.
Over the years I have learned that people want to be part of something good, something life-giving, something bigger than themselves that broadens their world. Dorcas Place and Sophia Academy are the work not of one or two persons but of many.
I have been blessed to work with so many wonderful women and girls.
Highlights of Sister Mary Reilly’s Life
- “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela
Born: December 18, 1929
Entered the Sisters of Mercy: 1948
- McAuley House, part of McAuley Ministries
- Good Friday Walk for Hunger and Homelessness
- Dorcas Place Adult and Family Literacy Center, now Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island
- Sophia Academy
- Rhode Island Adult Education Commission
- Named Sophia Academy’s “Woman of Wisdom” – 2020
- Inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame – 2019
- Honorary degrees – Salve Regina University, URI (University of Rhode Island)
- YWCA Woman of Achievement – 2016