Sister Mary Kealy knew she wanted to be a sister since she was a young girl in Ireland.
She grew up in a big family — five sisters and three brothers. She remembers nuns coming to her rural school when she was in the fourth grade. Plus, her aunts were also sisters. It felt right, even for a young girl.
“I thought, ‘I’d like to do that,’” Kealy said.
She joined the convent when she was 18 and gave her vows to join the Presentation Sisters, a religious institute of the Catholic Church founded in Cork. She was sent to the United States for her first assignment at 22.
Fifty-five years later, she told her story in a small dining room of the St. John the Evangelical Catholic Church in Gulfport.
She sat at the table where she’s shared breakfast with other church staff before starting each day on the Coast. St. John’s is where she’s ending her time in the U.S. as a sister, the place where her journey started.
“I came here in 1964, where I spent my first couple years at St. John’s elementary school,” Kealy said. “I didn’t complete my college in Ireland so I spent three years in New Orleans at St. Mary’s Dominican College.”
Kealy then came back and taught at St. John’s Elementary until 1976 before going on to study in Ireland for a year. She was then assigned to California, Denver and then back south to Robertsdale, Alabama, before returning back to Gulfport where she taught fourth grade for 19 years before retiring to work in the parish.
A recent Friday night mass served as a special celebration to commemorate Kealy’s retirement from the parish. Church members, friends, past students and others whose lives she touched along the way filled the pews of the church.
“As I look around the church, I see all the expressions of love for you, sister,” church member Melvin Ray said in his welcome to the congregation after singing bars of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”
Most Rev. Louis Kihneman, III, the Bishop of Biloxi, gave the homily for the mass. He spoke of how the presentation sisters and Sister Kealy have touched hundreds of lives in their years of service.
He asked those who were taught by Kealy to raise their hands, and many did. Some of the former students she hadn’t seen for years, but she still knew their names.
“I am deeply touched by your life of service,” Kihneman said. “The sisters in my life have been a tremendous blessing, They have been a revelation of the love of Jesus Christ. In the good times and bad, in sickness and in health, until we meet Him again.”
The church then presented gifts to Kealy, items to remember her time on the Coast when she returns to Ireland. The gifts included books, a T-shirt blanket from St. John Elementary, photos and a lantern representing the founder of the Presentation Sisters. Even a New Orleans Saints T-shirt made the gifts to remind her “what good football is.”
What Kealy said she would miss most about the Coast isn’t just those memories or the sunsets along the beaches of Mississippi, it will be the people she’s met along the way.
“I love the Gulf Coast, I love the people of Mississippi,” Kealy said. “I feel honored and privileged to have the opportunity to have lived here for this many years.
“I’ve done a lot shredding, discarding and a lot of getting rid of stuff. The friendships, love and faith we’ve shared, the joys and sorrows we’ve experienced together, these things will come with me forever. They’ll never leave me. You’ll always be in my heart.”
This past week, she left the Coast for Ireland, where she will be assigned to Nano Nagle Place, where their founder Neno Nagle started her work and the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary started in 1775.
“It’s always been in my heart and a longing to go back and spend a little time there” Kealy said. When she was asked by her superior to go there, she knew it was right.
“I felt a warm feeling, I felt like it was God calling me to be there, and that excited me. I know the God that has always been with me in Gulfport will be with me there too.”