GULFPORT -- As a young girl in Ireland, Sister Mary Kealy was very familiar with service within the Roman Catholic Church. After all, she had relatives who had taken vows. As she entered her teens and high school, the calling to also be involved in the church grew stronger.
So at age 18, she joined the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wexford and began a journey that eventually would take her thousands of miles from home, from Carlow, Ireland, to St. John Catholic Church in Gulfport.
Today marks exactly 50 years since Sister Kealy made her first profession of religious vows. She's celebrating the event in Ireland with family members and friends, but earlier this week, she took a few minutes to talk about her journey.
"I was born in rural Ireland to a farming family; I had four sisters and three brothers," she said. "I had a wonderfully happy childhood. There were a lot of children in the village, and we walked to school and back home with each other. I had three aunties who were nuns. I first thought about it in the fourth grade. My aunties were Sisters of Mercy, and I was considering that. By the end of high school, I began to think seriously about it."
About that time, a priest from Mississippi arrived in the area, looks for priests and nuns to make the move to the Deep South in the United States.
"He's the one who suggested the Presentation Sisters to me," she said. "I knew about the Sisters of Mercy but nothing about the Presentation Sisters."
Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded in Ireland in 1776 by Nano Nagle. The order, founded at a time when much of the Irish population was suffering, is involved in all forms of education as well as pastoral ministry, health care and social services.
'Simplicity and joy'
Sister Kealy said she was drawn by "the simplicity and joy of their lifestyle, their commitment to prayer and to the poor," she said. Through the years, the Presentation Sisters have offered prayer, love, food and shelter to those in need.
"I also read a small book at that time, 'Lantern Beams on the Lee,' the story of the founder, Nano Nagle. I was very inspired by her life of prayer and service," Sister Kealy said. She trained for three years in Wexford before making her first profession in July 1964. By August, "I got my first assignment, to Gulfport -- to St. John."
She also went to college in New Orleans to complete her teacher's training, and taught at St. John Elementary up to 1976.
"Oh, I go to church and I know grandmothers, mothers and children now," she said with a laugh. "I have so many happy memories from teaching there. It's a very family-centered school."
In 1976, she took a year off to study Scripture in Ireland. From there, she taught at St. Adelaide School in Highland, Calif., was in Denver for a period and was assigned to a location in Alabama. But Mississippi called again, and she returned to St. John, to stay, in 1981. She taught again, from 1981 to 2000, and then she began working within the parish.
"I work with RCIA, helping people who want to learn about being Catholic. Also with homebound people, with lectors and eucharistic ministers. I do hospital visitation and offer assistance to pastors and the parish staff -- wherever there's a need. And I'm part of a prayer group and Scripture study. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of as much as possible," she said. "With Father Uko, Deacon David Allen and (secretary) Teri Patton -- we're blessed with so many people here, and I'm blessed to be at St. John."
Change of habit
Over the years, her attire has changed a bit.
"In the beginning, Nano Nagin didn't wear a habit," Sister Kealy said. It was a way to be more approachable to those she ministered to. Eventualy a habit was adopted. "Our habit came later on. But after Vatican II, we were encouraged to go back to our founding. When I came, I had a full habit."
Perhaps her greatest fulfillment has been in education, especially in being a positive influence on her young pupils.
There are several students who, over the years, have returned to tell her that she gave them confidence and assurance to go on in their studies.
"There was one girl in particular. She was very timid, very shy. She needed a lot of encouragement. Now she's in Atlanta and doing very well. It's wonderful to see these children using the gifts they were blessed with," she said.