Sister Imelda: One woman’s sacrifice brings blessings

finney    When Incarnate Word Sister Imelda Moriarty boarded the plane for San Antonio at the end of WWII, she knew  she might not see her mother and her six siblings in County Kerry, Ireland, again.
    In those pre-Vatican II days, the congregation’s rules for missionary educators were  strict. Of course, there was no such thing as email or Skype, and Irish nuns teaching in the United States were restricted to writing one letter a month to their families back home.
    “I addressed my letter to my mother, and she wrote back immediately,” Sister Imelda said. “She would write frequently during the month to let me know how they were doing. My poor mother was devastated. It was as though she was leaving one of her children.”
    So, the letters from Mom piled up, dozens for every letter Sister Imelda could send.  Sister Imelda really didn’t have  lot to say because she didn’t have access to a newspaper, and in the convent, “things just don’t happen every day.”
    But what Sister Imelda did have was a clear sense of mission and purpose. She was a teacher – the vocation probably planted by her own mother, who was an avid reader and loved to tell the family about her latest literary discovery.
    “I got my love of books from my mother,” Sister Imelda said. “She was a wonderful mother.”
    For the last 67 years, Sister Imelda has become a mother to thousands of students, most prominently at St. Catherine of Siena in Metairie, where she taught math for five years and then served for 29 years as principal of the largest Catholic elementary school in the archdiocese.
    She just turned 88 last Monday – don’t tell anyone – but she still serves as an assistant in the school library and walks briskly around the neighborhood every day for 40 minutes. She got that from her upbringing in Ireland, too, where she walked three miles to and from school every day.
    “Except when it was raining,” Sister Imelda said.
    She gets a kick out of kids and their creature comforts these days. She can remember in the late ’40s being draped in the Incarnate Word sisters’ long black habit in the south Texas heat, where the air was as thick as the strange accents.
    “That was before Pope John came along,” she said, smiling. “It was hot. You didn’t even think of air conditioning. You just opened a window.”
    The other day, the air conditioning unit in one of the St. Catherine classrooms went out, and a boy raised his hand. “Don’t you have generators here?” he asked his teacher.
    She got the job as St. Catherine principal in 1975 because the nun who was running the school fell ill. Sister Imelda told her superior she wanted to continue teaching math because that was her first love.
    A week later, her superior called back with two choices: become a principal in San Antonio or become the principal at St. Catherine.
    “My choice was to stay with what I knew,” she said.
    Sister Imelda had a natural gift for school-building. She interviewed all prospective parents to explain what would be expected if their child was accepted. There were many hands needed in the Cooperative Club and the Men’s Club.
    She wasn’t a shrinking violet in asking for things for her children. In those days, bingo was such a big force that the Men’s Club had built up a $150,000 kitty, said Deacon Drea Capaci, whose kids attended St. Catherine.
    “Sister Imelda had some project she needed, and it was going to cost $28,000,” Deacon Capaci said. “She came to the meeting and told us about it, and then she said, ‘Can I expect the check tonight or will you give it to me on Monday morning?’”
    “I wasn’t a bashful person, but I didn’t want it for myself – I wanted it for the children,” Sister Imelda said.
    When Sister Imelda began teaching at St. Catherine in 1970, there were 17 Incarnate Word Sisters on staff. Today, she says, the lay teachers at the school are marvels of dedication and competence.
    “If your school builds up that community of parents and teachers working together for the good of the child, you will have a fabulous school,” she said. “These lay teachers are very committed to what they are doing.”
    On Dec. 6, Loyola University New Orleans bestowed on Sister Imelda its Integritas Vitae Award, the university’s highest honor, in recognition of high moral character and a commitment to selfless service.
    “This is like receiving an Oscar,” Sister Imelda told the black-tie crowd.
    Sixty-seven years ago, she left her family for a mission country.
    “I came to the United States with the intention of maybe never returning, so it was a sacrifice,” Sister Imelda said. “But it was just part of your vocation. The apostles were sent out by Christ. They were just to go and trust in God.”
    She changed many lives.
    “A parent called me one night and said she had asked her daughter when she came home, ‘Are you afraid of Sister Imelda?’” Sister Imelda said. “The girl said, ‘Yes, I’m afraid of Sister Imelda, but I just love her.’”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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