90-Year-old Nun ‘Roars’ for Women and Girls

September 24, 2020



By Sister Mary Reilly, as told to Catherine Walsh, Communications Specialist

Sister Mary with one of the girls from Sophia Academy.
The ease between a student and a sister in this photo makes it one of Sister Mary’s favorites. After attending Sophia Academy, the student won a scholarship to St. Mary Academy – Bay View High School. She is now a college sophomore. (Sophia Academy photo)

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.

Sr. Mary with Malala Yousafazai, a Nobel Prize Winner and International Advocate for women and girls.
Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, made a surprise visit to Sophia Academy in 2016. After she was nearly killed by the Taliban in 2012, Sophia students wrote her letters of support. “I was moved by Malala and all she had done by age 19,” muses Sister Mary. “I was cloistered in a convent at that age.” (Sophia Academy photo)

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.

Overcoming patriarchy

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.

The 2018 Women’s March in Providence included Sister Mary, whose tee-shirt says, “Mercy for Justice and Peace.” In June 2020, she attended Providence’s Black Lives Matter protest. “I’ve been going to protests all my life,” the nun says. “It’s important to me to be out there.”

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

Favorite prayer:

Favorite quote:

  • “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

Ministries co-founded:

Sister Mary Reilly with her Rhode Island Hall of Fame Award in 2019 for championing women and girls. With her are Dr. Patrick T. Conley of the Rhode Island Hall of Fame and Arlene Violet, Esq., a former Rhode Island attorney general and a former Sister of Mercy (and a Hall of Fame inductee).

Honors:

  • 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

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  1. Sheila Harrington,RSM

    And the story goes on…even at 90. So good to celebrate this faithful daughter of Kitty McAuley!


  2. Katie Mindling

    Reading this on Mercy day calls me to celebratory gratitude. What a joy to be in oneness with all who walk the path of mercy together.


  3. Kathy King

    Sister Mary Reilly has touched our lives in so many ways with her Mercy Spirit! 💙
    Many blessings for you Mary on this beautiful Mercy Day.🙏


  4. Rose Martin

    Mary,
    What a beautiful Mercy Day gift! I sat at your table at the last Chapter and had almost forgotten how thrilled and challenged I was in hearing about your journey in Mercy. Thank you for the reminder and for your amazing witness.


  5. Nancy

    A beautiful and Faith-filled legacy


  6. Nancy

    What a beautiful and faith filled legacy


  7. Patricia Cook, RSM

    Such a joy to read/savor this delightful article, Mary dear!

    You never ever cease to amaze me & I love you dearly for the “roaring” you have done.

    On this lovely Mercy Day, I greet and bless you for all that you are and do.

    Peace, Patty 💕


  8. Cathleen Cahill

    Yea Mary. You are a woman of Mercy.


  9. Beth Flannery, RSM

    Mary, thank you for your lifetime commitment to transformation:
    your own and promoting that of so many young women.

    “We must fit young women for earth…” Catherine McAuley

    What an inspiration as we celebrate Mercy around the globe!


  10. Stella M. Zarlenga,RSM

    Happy Mercy Day, Mary! Thank you for your Mercy life, example and inspiration!


  11. Sr Pat Oliver

    Mercy will go on in Sr Mary’s and Catherine McAuley’s spirit’


  12. Kathy Wade, Mercy Associate

    Thank you, Sister Mary, for showing us what “doing Kitty” really means!


  13. Mary Jo Baldus, RSM

    Thank you, Mary, for sharing your story and for the reminder: “We are doing Kitty!”
    You are an inspiration!


  14. Pat Colla

    Thank you, Mary, for sharing your story and continuing to walk in Catherine’s footsteps. Keep roaring!!!


  15. Dorothy KlineR.S.M.

    Mary Reilly,Your wonderful article and beautiful pictures really impressed me.THANKS!


  16. Cecilia

    What a beautiful way to begin this Mercy Day! Mary, you are an inspiration.


  17. Sheila Murphy

    Thank you Mary, your life of Mercy touched my heart…may we continue to be Mercy for our world …


  18. Louise Simon

    Sr. Mary, You are an inspiration to all of us as the face of Mercy!


  19. Corlita Bonnarens

    Mary,
    what a wonderful tribute to you and your work with girls and women. Catherine would be proud of you. congratulations.
    Corlita Bonnarens, RSM


  20. SR ROSEMARY BOESSEN RSM

    Thank you God for your faithfulness to Sr. Mary, it gives great Joy to my celebrating “Mercy” today! God Bless Us All!


  21. Marge Mineau

    Sister Mary – what an inspiration you are. Your spirit of compassion and generosity to lift up and empower all women will continue to bless all those whose lives you have touched. I was born the year you became a Sister of Mercy. And having been educated by the Sisters of Mercy, it is with joy that I am a Mercy Associate. May God always bless you.


  22. Camilla F Martocchia, Mercy Associate

    Thank you Sister Mary for your wonderful, inspiring life. You are a true daughter of Catherine and an inspiration to all. Happy Mercy Day.


  23. Michelle Gorman RSM,

    Thank you, Mary, for your inspiring story of mercy and compassion and action. You give us hope to continue on the path regardless of the obstacles. Happy Mercy day!


  24. Karhy Schongar

    Wonderful story of Mercy made real!
    Happy Mercy Day!


  25. Caroline Tweedy, RSM

    What an inspiration! YOU ROCK Mary.


  26. D. Gilmore

    Happy Mercy Day! Thank you for the – can do Spirit that you bring to the world!


  27. Mary Daly rsm

    Thank you, Mary ! ! !


  28. Carol Jussaume, RSM

    Thanks for always being an inspiration for us to do better, Mary!


  29. Anne Marie Miller

    Thank you Mary, what a joyful and inspiring story of your life in Mercy being lived faithfully, well and full. What a gift to all of us on this Mercy Day.


  30. Mary F Costello RSM

    Thank you Mary for your wonderful life. You are a gem that continues to brighten our world. Happy Mercy day to a very special woman of Mercy.
    Peace and love,
    Mary Costello RSM


  31. Jackie Ann Moreau

    Your life is inspiring and full of hope, positive energy. Loved it!


  32. Maura Farrell

    You inspire me, Mary, with your wisdom, love, ingenuity, and humor!


  33. Claudia traub

    Sister Mary, my mentor, teacher, friend. You have changed the last six years for me in many ways And it is always your strength, commitment, unwavering ideologies and actions that I admire and keep so very close to my heart. Thank you for everything. In peace love claudia


  34. Kathleen McClelland, RSM

    Mary, thank you for sharing your inspiring story. I’m so glad to know about you and what you have accomplished. Your story gives me much needed hope!


  35. Anne connolly

    What a joy it is to be a sister of mercy… with you!


  36. Sr Celeste Marie Nuttman

    Thank you, Mary, for the life that made the fantastic story you shared. What an inspiration of noticing women in need and giving loving service and changing the system!


  37. Barbara Collins

    thank you, the joy i felt reading of your dedication to living life to the Mercy Calling will remain with me…somehow in the whirl of living life i have to be reminded of me of the values i learned at Sacred Heart in Belmont, North Carolina. the Sisters of Mercy did a good job and your story was the booster shot i needed.
    God bless and thanks again


  38. Richard Mary Burke

    Dearest Mary,
    You bring to LIFE the spirit and charism of Catherine and all those with whom she ministered and those to/for whom each person committed individual gifts and talents! Thank you for your journey to a Life of emerging Wisdom!
    Blessings to you and all those whose lives you have enriched. We are proud to be your Sisters.
    Richard Mary Burke


  39. Sister Eileen Good, CND

    What a remarkable woman! I feel privileged to have crossed paths with her in Providence. The day I was mistaken for her years ago, I was humbled!! Thank you Mary for your tireless commitment to THE WOMAN.


  40. Jane Bower

    Mary, what a gift you are to all of us! Catherine must take such delight in you!


  41. Fran Repka

    What an inspiration you are, Mary!
    You are Mercy in every sense of the word.


  42. Anne McGill

    What a wonderful story! Sister Mary, thank you for inspiring young girls and women everywhere. Reading this in Omaha, NE makes me even more proud to be a Mercy girl, woman of Mercy, and part of the Mercy community.


  43. Martha Larsen

    What a wonderful life!! You make Catherine proud.


  44. Brenda Peddigrew, RSM(NL)

    Your life is a shining lamp that will never go out! You will continue light the lamps of women and girls long after you can know… Thank you, thank you!


  45. Mary Jo Sheehy

    What a joy to read your powerful story Mary and congratulations on your witness to Mercy and Kitty’s great spirit. Thank you for your inspiration, courage, sharing and going to listen to “I am a woman – here me roar” now, who knows what might happen?? Great to be part of the Global Mercy family. Alleluia.
    Love, Light and Peace.
    Mary Jo Sheehy.


  46. Noel Keller RSM

    Catherine McAuley smiles when she hears your name!


  47. Marie Noel Keller, RSM

    Catherine McAuley likes, delights, and dances with you! God too….


  48. Sr. Tina Geiger

    I first met Sr. Mary at Dorcas Place where I was a candidate volunteer. I marveled at Mary and Deborah’s compassionate presence creating a spirit of welcome and hospitality to every single person. I’ve been inspired by her and Deborah ever since. Rest in Peace, Deborah; Mary simply won’t rest till all experience Justice and then PEACE. Thank you for helping open my heart, eyes, and mind…. Love you. S. Tina Geiger, RSM


  49. Barb Giehl

    WOW!!!! WOW!!!! WOW!!!!
    Some people spend their life ASKing ‘What Would Catherine do’…
    You have clearly figured out the answer!!!
    I hope I get to meet you some day!