Heartbeat of the parish: St. Albert’s Sister Pat reflects on past 25 years before moving on to new challenges

MATT SCHICKLING / WIRE PHOTO Sister Pat Gannon spent more than 25 years at St. Albert the Great as director of religious education. Now, at age 67, she said it's time to move on.

Matt Schickling, the Wire

Five decades ago, Sister Pat Gannon was struggling with the same question some students at St. Albert the Great are now: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?

Making that decision wasn’t easy, but it came to her more naturally than most.

She grew up engulfed in the religious world, first by her family, then by attending St. Bernard School and St. Hubert High School in Northeast Philadelphia. Her then-thriving parish provided a home base for the community to grow, and religious leaders were viewed as pillars who supported that growth.

“There was a mystery about them that I just loved and I wanted to be part of that,” she said. “I also had the drive to teach.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, there were few, if any, lay teachers in Catholic schools. So entering the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1966 satisfied the three-part answer to that original question: she could teach, be a part of the leadership she admired as a child and put her faith front-and-center for the rest of her life.

Now, almost 50 years later, she’s standing at another major crossroads. After spending her first 15 years teaching first-graders in Catholic schools throughout the Philadelphia area, most notably at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Roxborough, she landed at St. Albert the Great as director of religious education. She spent 25 more years in the Lower Moreland parish and, at age 67, it’s time to move on again.

“You don’t realize it until you’re ready to leave somewhere, how you have affected people and the things you have done,” Sister Pat said. “Hopefully, most of the things I have started here will continue.”

Some of those things include running the parish CCD program for children in public schools, organizing retreats, providing guidance for students entering the sacraments, teaching about vocations, heading charitable causes and a long list of other duties. Recently, in the parish newsletter, these duties were listed and the total reached 25. The same newsletter called her the “heartbeat of the parish.”

Her new position as area delegate for the Sisters of Saint Joseph will not likely include the same kind of work. Instead, Sister Pat will function in more of an administrative capacity.

Working out of the motherhouse in Chestnut Hill, she will be the connection between the leadership and all of the sisters in the different convents, going out, speaking with them, having interviews and generally, delegating the objectives of the leadership.

“We’re trying to be more aware of people who are marginalized, a lot of social justice issues and spreading our spirituality,” she said.

Initiatives like this are essential for the Catholic Church to re-energize its waning influence, and people like Sister Pat are ideal candidates to carry that weight.

“She has helped thousands of kids over those years,” parishioner Jack Bonner said in an email. “My kids, grandkids and now a great granddaughter have benefited from her guidance.”

St. Albert the Great is in good shape compared to most, but other area schools are facing challenges. This is something Sister Pat can relate to personally. In 2009, St. Bernard’s School closed its doors, although the parish remains in operation. St. Hubert High School would have closed, too, if not for a hard-fought rally by students and alumnae in 2012.

Sister Pat hopes that as young people age and have children of their own, they come back to the Church and rediscover the same thing she found growing up.

“It was just something that you knew — going to church on Sunday,” she said. “Times were not as complicated as they are now.”

Even as many parishes try to hold on to members, she’s amazed by how many people come to Mass at St. Albert’s each Sunday and the outpouring of support she’s experienced as the news of her departure spread around the parish.

“I’m going to miss parish work, but I’m excited to be with the Sisters,” she said. “If it’s something that you love, it’s not hard to do.”

For information, visit www.sainttalthegreat.org.