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Students such as Christian Jordan, left, Sandy Chen, Kate VonDeBur and Joe Bernardi, really look up to Sister Katherine O’Connor.
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Sister Katherine: Simply inspiring
SHG president leads school with prayer, study, community, service
By John Moody

In Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1961, America's youngest and only Catholic president inspired a generation with powerful words that cut through the bitter winds of the day and on through the winds of time. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was 43 years old when he placed his hand on his family Bible standing before Chief Justice Earl Warren and the nation. He took the oath of office beneath the dramatic backdrop of the columns of the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol and faced west toward the rest of the country when he began his speech.

That same day in Woodstock, Ill., at Marian Central Catholic High School, a 14-year-old freshman heard the words he spoke, and like many of her generation, she remembered them well.

What may be Kennedy's most iconic line, "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country," is what comes to mind when Katherine O'Connor speaks of that day and that time. She was moved.

"Kennedy was a real inspiration. I liked the whole idea of service," O'Connor, president of Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, says. "We were a Catholic family. It was a truly proud moment for all of us Irish Catholics to have a one of our own elected president."

At that time, O'Connor's friends were enthralled with pop stars like Elvis and Fabian, but the new president got her attention.

"I was just awestruck by him," she recalls. "My ideal was President Kennedy. He spoke with such passion and generated hope for what all of us could do to make our country and world a better place."

Her high school principal, Sister Elizabeth Ann, also was a Kennedy fan.

"She had a friend or family member who was a Secret Service agent," O'Connor says, "and they gave me a photograph of President Kennedy, which I really cherished."

She was born May 9, 1946, in Chicago, the youngest of John and Leona O'Connor's three children. John was a U.S. Postal Service supervisor at the downtown Chicago post office. Her mother taught school once the kids were pretty much grown. Both parents had bachelor's degrees. They met at DePaul University.

"They went together for 10 years before they married," O'Connor says.

Her mother had made a promise to her own dying father that she wouldn't marry until her youngest brother graduated from high school. She was good to her word and got married in her early 30s.

The O'Connors moved out to Crystal Lake when their baby girl was about 8; she considers that her hometown. Her brothers are Jack, 68, a resident of Indianapolis and Tom, 65, who lives in Madison, Wis. Her parents are both gone now.

By the time her high school days were coming to an end, O'Connor already knew what she wanted to do with her life. So, just a matter of weeks after graduation, she came to Springfield in August 1964 to join the Dominican Sisters.

It was a very mature decision for such a young person, or as O'Connor describes it, "It was a peaceful feeling." And, obviously, it was the right decision, but her parents, as devout as they were, were not all that thrilled with the idea.

"They thought I should go to college. I was pretty independent, and I was going to go, and I was going to go now," she says. "I didn't tell them until it was close to time to go."

There was a youth group traveling to Europe that summer, and her folks made sure she was part of it.

"Dad thought this would change me, but it didn't," she says.

The Dominicans were a natural choice for her. She had been taught by them in grade school and liked what she saw.

"They were very joyful, and I liked their spirit," she says.

So, she has spent the past 45 years in service to others, and she chose to give her life to young people. She made her final or perpetual vows in 1971, and her first assignment was at Our Lady of Grace in Chicago.

"Religious life is a way of loving, a way of life more than just a profession," she says. "Having a ministry is part of that - mine is education."

She chose as her name Sister Gilmary, Gaelic for servant of Mary.

"I was reading a book when I was a novice, and I loved the name," she says. "I was devoted to Mary."

From 1965 to 1984, she was Sister Gilmary. When she changed back to her baptismal name, she did not do so lightly. Her clothing changed some time ago, too. She wore the traditional habit and veil until about 15 years ago. She still prefers the simple colors of black and white for her work attire.

Her career has taken her to several assignments in the Springfield Diocese, several more in the Chicago area, including four years as principal at her home parish, where she went to school, St. Thomas the Apostle in Crystal Lake. She also spent a few years as a principal in Brawley, Calif.

Sister Philip Neri has taught at SHG for 10 years, but she's known O'Connor since the 1960s.

"I've known her since she was a kid in high school when I was teaching in Crystal Lake," Neri says. "She has a great personality, a happy person, very generous with her time, with her talents and that's still true today.

"She just wears herself out trying to support the kids. I think the kids love her because they know she has their interest at heart. They have to know that you are sincere in caring about them; kids are very perceptive."

O'Connor's work at SHG as president involves vision, strategic planning, capital budgeting and advancing the mission of the school, sort of like a CEO, a term she loathes. The school has been a Dominican high school since 1988 when Sacred Heart and Griffin merged into one, making "two good schools better," O'Connor says. She's been on the job since 2005.

She has a team she works with, who all bring their expertise to the table. O'Connor brings her years of experience in education, her own education (she's earned a couple of master's degrees along the way), her passion for Catholic education and working with people and her "gift for letting people do their jobs."

The school is excellent, she says because of the faculty, parents and students themselves.

"There is a culture of excellence here; they care about each other," she says of SHG kids.

And, they excel in academics at the next level, too.

"Many times they end up saying they tutor in the dorms," she says. "One alum, who is a former valedictorian, e-mailed to say that he had learned how to learn here."

Her worry for the future involves the thinning numbers of those entering religious life. Getting quality lay teachers in those vacant spots (where no salary was paid) to work for the wages that parochial schools can offer is a concern. It could drive the cost of Catholic education higher.

"You don't want (SHG) to be only for the elite," O'Connor says.

Her commute to school is a quick walk from her quarters nearby. Eight nuns live together there, praying together at the start of each day at 6 a.m. and at day's end in their chapel. They share a common meal together each evening as well.

She lives simply, following the 800-year-old Dominican tradition and its four pillars of prayer, study, community and service. She's a reader, tending toward novels and biographies. She's a walker, and she likes music and National Public Radio. She loves people. You can see that in her easy manner with others and her hearty laugh. And, of course, she's a person of prayer, attending Mass daily.

"We are witnesses to simplicity with our vow of poverty," she says. "We live simply so that others can simply live."

She has a collection of crosses in her office and mementoes from Africa, Peru, and of course, Ireland. She has an image of a pair of human hands joined together - one is black and one is white.

She keeps a well-known rendering of Jesus in her office. It is called, "Jesus Laughing," and it's one of her favorites.

"I think Jesus laughed," she says. And, she doesn't believe he's there to be called on only when we struggle. "He is with us even when we're happy."


Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )

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