A Life Dedicated to Service
Sr. Mary Keefe, OP ’60
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, more than 1,800 people were killed and more than a million people were displaced from their homes. The damage to New Orleans was particularly severe, with an estimated 80 percent of the city flooded, and the city’s poorest citizens were the ones most gravely impacted.
It was Sr. Mary Keefe, OP ’60 who served as the face of the Catholic Church to the people of St. Bernard Civil Parish, visiting those in the local church parishes to offer both a sympathetic ear and tangible support, such as money for food, rent and utility bills that had been donated by sisters in her congregation and friends, and secured via grants. “We gave out more than $120,000 in aid,” she said.
But Sr. Mary wanted to do more. In 2009, working in conjunction with the St. Bernard Project, she organized “Nuns Build” and rallied some 100 volunteers to help rebuild houses in New Orleans. The volunteer group, comprised of sisters from many congregations of women religious across the country, their friends and relatives, took on unfamiliar construction tasks – such as hanging drywall and laying flooring – all aimed at helping families return home. “Some worked for one day, some for five days, and everyone did their best to help a family get back home,” she said.
Week-long Nuns Build events have continued each November since then, with Sr. Mary leading the charge until her retirement in June 2014.
Called to Serve
Born in South Dakota, Sr. Mary moved with her family to Oakland when she was a toddler. Her mother, Alice, was a devout Catholic who took her daughter to church regularly.
“When I was four years old, my mother and I were lighting a candle in Saint Elizabeth’s Church in Oakland when a sister walked by. I turned to my mother and said, ‘I want to be one of those.’ I never considered being anything else,” she said.
After graduating from St. Jarlath School, Sr. Mary enrolled at O’Dowd where she continued to explore her call to religious life. She decided to join the Adrian Dominicans because they were the congregation of nuns at O’Dowd. “The sisters were very helpful and kind as I prepared to leave home. I am most grateful to O’Dowd for an excellent education and for fostering my spiritual development,” she said.
Sr. Mary entered the convent at Adrian, Michigan, on September 8, 1960 and soon afterwards began studying at Siena Heights College (now University) in Adrian, where she eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in English.
Sr. Mary professed first temporary vows in August 1962, and over the next several years taught second and third grades in Michigan and Nevada.
When Sr. Mary professed her final vows five years later, she was given a ring belonging to former O’Dowd teacher Sr. Loretta Marie. Sr. Loretta had passed away shortly before Sr. Mary entered the convent.
In 1969, Sr. Mary was sent to Holy Cross School in Santa Cruz, where she taught third grade for six years. During this time, she attended San Jose State University during the summers and earned a master’s degree in Library Science.
In the spring of 1975, Sr. Mary accepted O’Dowd Principal Fr. Paul Waldie’s offer to be the school’s head librarian.
“By Christmas of my first year at O’Dowd I would have paid someone to let me teach third grade. I missed having my own class and the interaction with the children,” she said.
Though she enjoyed her time at O’Dowd (1975-79), Sr. Mary decided that she wasn’t cut out to work with teenagers.
She received permission from her regional superior to attend the Franciscan School in the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979 and subsequently earned a master’s degree in Theological Studies.
Moving into Administration
Sr. Mary worked as Director of Religious Education at Queen of Apostles Church in San Jose from 1981-1992, and considers this time the best ministry years of her life.
“The teachers in the religious education program were wonderful, as were those working in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process and the Adult Education team. They were dedicated to the service of people in whatever way God shows them and their enthusiasm and dedication was an inspiration to me,” she said.
One of the programs Sr. Mary most enjoyed was the “Catholics Coming Home” series which was geared for Catholics who were not coming to church.
“We had no expectation that anyone would come back to church on a regular basis. We just wanted to answer people’s questions. Some people were angry with a priest or sister or the church in general. Others wanted to come back but they just didn’t know how. We were there to welcome them home and help them with the steps they needed to take in order to come back. We never told them what to do, we helped them to do what they wanted to do,” she said.
Upon leaving Queen of Apostles, Sr. Mary took a year’s sabbatical and participated in a renewal program for women and men religious in California and studied at the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio, Texas. She finished her sabbatical by participating in the Lands of St. Dominic Pilgrimage to Spain, France and Italy.
She subsequently served for four years as the office manager for the Franciscan Workers in Salinas and eight years as Director of Religious Education at St. Pius X Church in Redwood City.
When it came time for her next transition, Sr. Mary was ready for something new. “I did not want to work in a parish. I had done that for 21 years. I was in good health and decided that I was willing to move far away if I was called to do that,” she said.
In response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Adrian Dominican congregation leadership invited sisters who were retired or between jobs to go to New Orleans for several months and help in any way they could. In April 2007, Sr. Mary was invited to visit New Orleans with a view to establishing a house for Adrian Dominicans there. During this visit she was so inspired that she decided to move to New Orleans to continue working with those in need on a permanent basis.
“My first job was to put together a brochure with helpful information to be given to the people as I visited them. I included organizations that were rebuilding houses and providing food, clothing, and health care,” she said.
Sister Mary and her fellow sisters made home visits to every house in the St. Bernard and Our Lady of Lourdes church parishes, assessing the needs of families and referring them to various agencies that could help them with rebuilding. She also conducted follow up visits, returning to homes where the need was greatest.
Most importantly, Sr. Mary listened – encouraging people to tell their Katrina stories and assuring them that God had not abandoned them.
In June 2014, Sr. Mary retired and moved to the Motherhouse in Adrian, Michigan. Reflecting on her life’s work, she says the most rewarding aspect of her ministry has been making the lives of others better. “I may have done this by smiling at a stranger or saying something in passing to a friend. It might have been a phone call or giving someone enough money to pay their mortgage for the month. I do what I can with what I have where I am,” she said. “I am grateful to God for all the experiences I have had and for the people I have met. I am grateful to all who share their lives with me and make my life a joy.”
Sr. Mary considers her sister, Karen Keefe Ashiku ’69, brother-in-law, Nick, and nieces, Monica and Maureen, to be among the greatest gifts God has given her. “My sister and her family are a very large part of my life and for this I am most grateful,” she said.