Catechist to the catechists

Sr. Mary Elizabeth Kelleher, OP, former director of catechist formation for the Archdiocesan Catechetical Office, died on April 25 after a brief illness. She was 82 years old and was in the 64th year of her religious life as a Sister of St. Dominic of the Holy Cross. Amityville, N.Y.  She had retired as full time director in 2003 but continued to work with her colleagues on a part-time basis as a director of special projects. Special doesn’t begin to describe her projects

For example, while our office’s responsibilities and needs have expanded, our space hasn’t. Sr. Mary Elizabeth took on a huge task, that of finding a way to re-work the space so that everything and everyone fit. Somehow she did it. As recently as this past February, she was preparing liturgical celebrations with her faultless knowledge and superb taste.

However, her greatest legacy lies in the catechist formation process she built beginning in 1986, when she left the regional catechetical office she had founded in Sullivan County and came to the Catholic Center to direct catechist formation for all of the archdiocese.

If you are a certified catechist or have been one during the last 25 years, Sr. Mary Elizabeth helped you achieve your qualification with her Level One and Level Two courses. Any parish catechist who completes those levels will be better equipped theologically, spiritually and pedagogically to hand on the faith to children, youth and adults.  In fact, Sr. Mary Elizabeth created such a great and timeless curriculum that it is still being followed.

When she first began the catechist formation program, there was just one way to run the classes – “live” and in sites all over the 10 counties and 4,400 square miles of the archdiocese. She not only developed the curriculum outlines with a team of experts, she also recruited excellent teachers for the classes and set up the schedules year after year. These classes have been a godsend for our parish catechists because they are available all year ’round and are offered free.

Sr. Mary Elizabeth also was a key member of the team who worked with vicar of education Bishop (later Cardinal) Edward Egan in the late 1980s to produce the Guidelines for Catechesis for children in kindergarten to sixth grade, and for those in grades seven and eight. Just before the millennium, she updated the Guidelines to reflect input from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At Sr. Mary Elizabeth’s funeral last Friday, Cardinal Egan recalled working with her and left the distinct impression she had managed him very nicely.

However, among the greatest of Sr. Mary Elizabeth’s many gifts was her ability to understand that the programs, the guidelines, the beautiful ceremonies and certificates were not hers alone. When she retired and turned her responsibilities over to Mrs. Nancy Doran, she never looked back or questioned her successor’s actions. Instead, she applauded when Nancy made catechist formation available on line.

That is the sign of a truly great woman of the Church. All that brilliance and all those achievements were never about her. They were about the catechetical mission.

Generations from now, Catholics of New York will still benefit from Sr. Mary Elizabeth’s dedication. Maybe they will never know their benefactor’s name – it seems to happen that way with religious sisters – but with God’s help the formation programs, the guidelines and the sense of mission that marked her life will go on providing the spiritual, theological and pedagogical knowledge so vital to handing on the faith with excellence.

Pray for us, Sr. Mary Elizabeth, until we meet you, pray with you and laugh with you again.

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