By John Loftus
Sister Maureen McGarrity wasn’t late for dinner last Wednesday.
“I’m usually late,” she said last week, but she knew she couldn’t be tardy May 14. It was too important a day, and she knew the other sisters of her congregation would be waiting for her.
Sister Maureen, Holy Family University’s provost, was named the private Catholic school’s fifth president last Wednesday, and she knew the dinner would be a celebration. On July 1, she will succeed Sister Francesca Onley, the university’s fourth president who announced her June retirement earlier this year. Sister Francesca served as Holy Family’s president for 32 years.
Sister Maureen, too, has a long history with the school and has, she said in a May 16 interview, seen it evolve over the years. Holy Family is her alma mater, and she joined the faculty as a biology teacher in 1976.
“Even at that time, we were starting to undergo change,” she said. Back in the nation’s bicentennial year, she said, Holy Family was a liberal arts college. However, the school’s nursing and other professional programs started to take on momentum, she said.
The small Torresdale commuter college founded by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in 1954 had grown into a university by 2002. Holy Family now has three campuses -— Northeast Philly, Newtown and Bensalem. The school’s undergraduate and graduate student population is now about 3,000 and its students come from all over the world. The school’s students were almost all Catholic when Sister Maureen started teaching there, she said, and Catholicism remains predominant. However, a quarter of the private university’s students now are of other faiths, she said.
The school has blue-collar roots, too.
“Fifty percent of the students are their families’ first generation in college,” she said.
Sister Maureen, 68, is from Kensington and attended school at Ascension parish before going to high school at Nazareth Academy in Torresdale. She later taught there, too. She has a master’s degree in biology and a doctorate in microbiology with a specialty in immunology.
Although Sister Maureen assumed administrative posts over the years — among them, vice president for academic affairs and provost — she continued teaching until about eight years ago when the demands on her time became too great for her to continue in the classroom. And, there are plenty of demands on her time. She has a small sign on a bookshelf in her office that should be familiar to anyone whose professional life is busy: “Let me drop everything and work on your problem.”
Sister Maureen’s working day begins about 8 a.m., she said, and continues until midnight with time out for dinner with the other Holy Family sisters, many of whom didn’t know she was a candidate to take the university’s reins when Sister Francesca retires June 30.
In January, when Sister Francesca announced her retirement, a search committee was set up to find her successor. Preference was to be given to a Holy Family sister.
Teaching biology had given Sister Maureen plenty of good memories and an odd one, too. Sister Maureen’s students once paid someone to dress as a birthday cake and come into the biology lab and sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Sister said such singers are trained to put on a happy face, but that was tested as the costumed performer came into a lab with 30 dead cats on dissection tables.
“Her face curdled for just a second,” Sister Maureen said.
Over the years, students and their families have assumed what she calls a “consumer mentality.” They believe, she said, that their college educations are services they pay for, so they expect to pass because they paid.
Higher education is analogous to a health club membership, Sister Maureen said. Paid membership doesn’t guarantee good health. You have to use the exercise machines. You have to take advantage of the different opportunities membership provides. Similarly, students have to work out educationally.
She recalled a student who was forced to retake a class so she could graduate six months after she had expected to. The student initially was bitter about the school’s decision, Sister Maureen said, but later told her, “Nobody ever cared about me as Holy Family did.”
Sister Maureen’s intention for her presidency is to “continue the traditions that we have started and to build on them,” she said. “I want to be known for being in touch with the community … and to make decisions based on listening.”
She takes the university’s name seriously. It is about family, she said. Not everyone who comes to the university, she knows, has a strong sense of family.
“I want them to have it here,” she said. ••