School Spirit – Sister Kathleen at the heart of St. Patrick’s School
Back in 1964, when Sister Kathleen Fitzgerald, who was then called Sister Assumpta, was reassigned from her post teaching at St. Bernard’s on 14th Street in New York City, she told her mother she was being moved to Bedford. “Bedford, Massachusetts?” her mother asked. “No,” replied Sister Kathleen, who was raised in the South Bronx, “but somewhere ‘up there.’”
“Up there” turned out to be right here. It couldn’t have been more foreign to Sister Kathleen, who says her idea of the country stopped at the northern tip of the Bronx. When the young Sister of Charity arrived for her new teaching assignment at St. Patrick’s School in the heart of Bedford Village, she likes to say that she couldn’t sleep for the first month. “I was used to hearing beer bottles breaking and yells of ‘help’ all night,” she says of life in the city. “I couldn’t get used to the katydids and the quiet.”
Fifty-five years later, she has become acclimated to the pace and the peace that comes from living in the country while teaching two generations of students at the small Catholic school. She is lovingly referred to as “the spirit of the school,” “a saint,” and a pretty darn good mini-golfer. She has been known, on occasion, to dance the Macarena and try her hand at “Y-M-C-A.”
Sister Kathleen is renowned for recalling the names and faces of nearly all the children she has taught, along with many pertinent details of their lives. When she sees them again after ten or 20 or 40 years, she will pepper long-lost students with questions that include intricate life details she has remembered for decades.
And her former students also remember her. A man recently approached her in St. Patrick’s church following Mass. “Do you teach at St. Patrick’s School?,” he asked her. “Do you know Sister Assumpta?”
“You’re talking to her!” she replied, adding, “You’re the little redhead who sat in the corner of my first grade class.”
“He came back,” she says, proudly. “I told him, ‘This is your home, you can always come back.’”
The students may come and go and come back again, but Sister Kathleen and the lessons she seeks to impart to students remain a constant. Whether teaching first grade in the 1960s or religion to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders today—or computers to the littlest ones, “We work to help children be the best they can be,” she says. “To see that they are unique. Every tree is different. Every blade of grass is different. Every child is different, yet made in the image and likeness of God.”
Importantly, “we have to teach our children ‘to whom much is given, much will be required,’” she adds, quoting the Gospel of Luke. “We have to make them aware of what they have and to share these gifts with others.”
But time has not stood still for Sister Kathleen, who recognizes that children today face different challenges than those of 50 years past. TV, advertising, social media, technology, these are all areas that influence students today and which she hopes to help them navigate. She doesn’t shy away from discussing timely topics with her students, especially when they steer the conversation with their questions. A typical religion class with Sister could include a range of topics, from “Inflategate” when that was in the news, to pornography, to abortion. Topics are rarely off the table if children have questions.
“Today’s children are honest and forthright and say what they mean,” she says. “We have to change the way we think about children today. We have to make them ready for the world they will live in and make them ready for all the technology they have. Which is why it is important to teach them that they are loved and special.”
She feels her students today are challenged in ways she could not have imagined, even having lived through the turbulent 1960s. “I don’t think I could live in this world today, not like you do,” she tells her students.
While it may have been hard for her to get used to the quietude outside of the city, it is not something she would ever trade. “My life here, I wouldn’t change for a million dollars,” she says. “It has been a joy to teach and go into this school every day.”
She has no plans to stop being the school’s spiritual center. “I will retire when the Lord tells me,” she says. “If he gives me health and joy, then I will be here.”