Mary K. O’Brien, BVM (Jean Catherine) died Monday, Nov. 27, 2017, at Caritas Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Visitation will be from 10–11:15 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in the Marian Hall Chapel, followed by a Sharing of Memories at 11:15 a.m. Funeral liturgy will be at 1:30 p.m. Burial is in the Mount Carmel cemetery.
She was born in Chicago on Oct. 31, 1933, to John Philip and Katherine Gilmore O’Brien. She entered the BVM congregation Sept. 8, 1951, from Our Lady of Angels Parish, Chicago. She professed first vows on March 19, 1954, and final vows on July 16, 1959.
Sister Mary K. taught elementary school in Sioux City, Iowa; Bellerose, N.Y.; and Grayslake and Chicago, Ill. Also in Illinois, she was elementary school principal in Chicago and Wilmette, and served as elementary school resource person in Mundelein.
She was preceded in death by her parents. She is survived by a brother, John (Jack) P. (Mary Jean) O’Brien, Buffalo Grove, Ill.; a sister, Margaret (Peg) Connolly, Arlington Heights, Ill.; nieces; nephews; and the Sisters of Charity, BVM, with whom she shared life for 66 years.
Sister Mary K O’Brien, BVM (Jean Catherine)
Marian Hall, Dec. 4, 2017
Good afternoon and welcome to the celebration of life of our Sister Mary K. O’Brien.
Mary Katherine, the daughter of John Philip and Katherine Gilmore O’Brien, was born on Oct. 31, 1933, in Chicago. She joined her brother Jack and was followed by her sister Peg. Her father owned a grocery and meat market. Her mother cared for the children and the home, and at times helped at the store.
Mary K. knew the BVMs well from her years as a student at Our Lady of the Angels and St. Mary’s HS. She commented, “My original desire was wanting to be of service to people and to the church. The only way at the time was through a religious community. And I wanted to be a teacher, [so] I entered the [BVMs].” She entered the congregation on Sept. 8, 1951, received the name Jean Catherine upon her reception on March 19, 1952, professed her first vows on March 19, 1954, and lived 66 years as a BVM.
Mary K. taught first grade at Cathedral in Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Ferdinand and St. Dorothy in Chicago. She taught junior high at St. Gregory the Great in Bellerose, N.Y., and at St. Gilbert in Grayslake, Ill., before returning to St. Ferdinand where she later served as principal for nine years. In 1979, she moved to Wilmette, Ill., to accept a position as principal at St. Francis Xavier and remained there for 25 years. A good percentage of Wilmette families were financially comfortable. She strove to make students aware that not all children were so blessed.
Mary K. was a natural fit for a ministry in education. She loved and respected the students, faculty, staff and families and they held her in much esteem. She was innovative, sensitive to the needs of the students, and never was too busy to make a peanut butter sandwich for a student who forgot lunch. According to a friend and colleague, Mary K. “played her cards close to the vest,” but remained totally focused on the job at hand. While many Catholic schools were closing, she was making improvements in curriculum and building enrollment.
In honor of her 40th Jubilee, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish wrote, “During her time at St. Francis the school population has more than doubled. St. Francis is generally recognized as a superior school thanks to Sr. Mary K., her excellent faculty, and the support of the families . . . But she is the one who brings it all together and makes it work. Our parish is deeply indebted to Sister for her selfless dedication to our parish community and the young people in our school.”
Mary K. served as president of the Principals Association in the Archdiocese of Chicago and as a consultant for the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). In 1988, she received the Distinguished Principal Award from NCEA. She responded by saying, “My greatest accomplishment, I think, has been to personalize learning for students and to create an environment where children learn how to make choices and to own values rooted in the Catholic tradition.”
When asked what made a good principal, she replied, “Care about kids. Have the ability to work with people, model the behavior you want teachers or [students] to follow. Have the ability to listen, to work hard and long hours. Real creativeness is important.” Her advice to young people encouraged them to “know who they are, their talents, and their limitations [and] respect the rights of all people, their talents and limitations. Know that God is present in all of us.”
During her retirement years, Mary K. continued her strong commitment to Catholic education by volunteering as a resource person at St. Margaret Mary ES in Chicago. For many years, she remained in contact with former students, faculty, parents and pastors, including our presider, Rev. Wayne Watts. The wonderful working relationship and admiration between Mary K. and Bishop William McManus, which formed when he was pastor at St. Ferdinand, continued through his appointment as the director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Chicago and his consecration as Bishop of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Ind. In his final wishes, Bishop McManus requested that Mary K. be a lector at his funeral.
Of course, her relationships with her sister Peg, with whom she traveled often and far, her brother Jack, her nieces and nephews, and her friends meant the world to her. She greatly enjoyed many Friday night dinners with Peg and her BVM friends. She remained in contact with many of the Sisters of Providence with whom she lived in Wilmette. She truly was a dear and faithful friend to many.
Mary K. was proud to be a BVM and honored to have served on the BVM Trust and Stewardship Committees and on the Carmel Catholic HS Board of Directors. She was a member of the Sisters’ Development Network, a dedicated, but quiet, participant at congregational meetings, and a devoted cluster member, quite possibly with a perfect attendance record.
Being a very private person, Mary K. did not like to share her feelings or receive recognition for her achievements, but she certainly shared her knowledge and perceptions. Her philosophy was “to be as human as possible in the true sense of the word, with the added dimension of our Catholic faith. That includes praying, enjoying the beauty God has given us to enjoy, extending ourselves to other people in need or in fun, and living the Gospel so other people become more aware of it.”
As the two disciples encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, so did all those whose journey crossed paths with Mary. We celebration and rejoice for Mary K. as she enters eternal life, knowing that her spirit continues to walk with us.