|Sister Catherine Phelps SNDdeN|
Trinity School Principal 1971-2018
Catherine Phelps was one disciple who clearly took those words to heart throughout her 66 years in the ministry of education – at St. Martin’s in Washington, DC; and at Maryvale, St. Ursula and Trinity School in the Baltimore area. Her SND teachers from 3rd grade through high school, she wrote, “had an extraordinary influence on me.” At the heart of that influence was the way they introduced young Betty Mae Phelps to their foundress, Blessed Julie. “She became an integral part of my life,” Catherine testified at the time of her Diamond Jubilee as an SND. That joyous statement was in no way an exaggeration. In fact, it is rewarding to discover how St Julie’s charism quietly inhabits the language used by professionals relatively unacquainted with our foundress to describe Catherine’s person and achievements. There is a remarkable resonance!
There is no doubt that Catherine excelled as a teacher and a principal. That excellence came to be highly regarded, not just by her ND sisters, but in the larger world of education as well - witness her induction into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame (2011). An article published by Baltimore’s Catholic Review Online at the time of that award begins as follows: “As president of Trinity School in Ellicott City, Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Catherine Phelps has never chased accolades.” The writer goes on to capture the vision and goals that drove Catherine’s pursuit of excellence: “My main joy and what motivates me is the children,” one quotation reads. She acknowledges the “hard work” involved, but stresses how “privileged” she feels “to be working with children in a school community” like Trinity: “It’s just a joy to see children blossom and grow every day.” “I know that I am in a position where I can create an environment that really makes children happy and helps them to thrive.” She expresses a similar understanding of her responsibilities vis-à-vis faculty and staff: “I certainly want to have that same environment for my teachers, where they can grow professionally and spiritually.”
One is reminded of St. Julie’s high regard for education as “the greatest work on earth,” her ardent desire to gather and educate children, her insistence on sound spiritual and professional formation for young women entering Notre Dame before they set foot in a classroom, and her adage: “Teach them what they need to know for life.”
Particularly with regard to education for life, the Review article emphasizes that, in Catherine’s mind, Trinity had a serious obligation to model and inculcate a strong sense of social responsibility, nurturing seeds of future leadership and service. According to the reporter, Sister Catherine wanted giving to others to become a way of life for Trinity students. Catherine’s Hall of Fame citation concurs, commending her promotion of a “culture of service” that she modeled in an exceptional way. Besides “challenging students and their families to see beyond themselves and focus on the needs of the community,” Catherine led by example. In 1973, she co-founded FISH OF HOWARD COUNTY, INC., an emergency help organization best defined by its motto, Neighbors Helping Neighbors. True to form, she didn’t just launch FISH; she invested in it for the long term, becoming a monthly FISH volunteer. She also initiated an Adopt-a-Grandparent program at St. Martin’s Home in Catonsville, to bring Trinity youngsters together with St. Martin’s “oldsters.” To help working parents, she began extended day programs, opened a preschool at Trinity and worked hard to raise funds for financial aid. She also developed JULIE PROGRAMS to provide special help for students with language-based learning differences—a reflection of her abiding desire that “the uniqueness of each student [be] recognized, accepted, and celebrated.”
Indeed, as the Hall of Fame citation declares, Catherine was a living “model of character and values for her employees and students” alike. The Catholic Review agrees: Catherine didn’t “believe she should be in her office, but amongst the children and staff,” taking her turn along with her teachers at carpool and lunchroom duty. She knew and loved “every member of the Trinity community.” And we SNDs know, of course, that all of this is exactly what St. Julie, who played such an integral part in Catherine’s life, would have wanted her to do! What a joy to imagine our foundress greeting Catherine at heaven’s door: “I saw you, my child, at Compiegne.”
The Hall of Fame citation emphasizes a number of professional awards. Under Catherine’s leadership, Trinity was one of the first seven Catholic elementary schools to earn accreditation from Middle States and the Association of Independent Maryland Schools. Twice, the US Department of Education conferred Blue Ribbon of Excellence awards on the school (1989; 1999). Catherine herself was honored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in 1989, and, three years later, was named Educator of the Year by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce (1992).
But there is more to say. All her Notre Dame life, Catherine was “busy about many things” with amazing energy; but she never lost sight of “the one thing necessary” (Cf. Luke 10: 38-42). Liturgy was one of her special loves, and her gifts of music and prayer were put to good use in our Masses and prayer services over the years (as well as at Trinity School). She was a community woman par excellence, from her postulate and novitiate years onward. Her service on provincial committees and boards was generously and professionally given. She had a special regard for SNDs who were ill or up in years. Who can forget the Christmas gifts, cards and picnic lunches she brought to Villa Julie for the fortunate SND who had been missioned by province leadership to pray for the needs of Trinity School in any given year? Or the way Catherine in her 70’s and 80’s continued sharing her gift of song at parties and liturgies alike – long after most people her age can still carry a tune (“even in a bucket,” some would say)! Or how, in one SND’s words, Catherine was “a perfect lady, from head to toe,” simply but attractively dressed, always gracious, always warm.
We cannot forget, either, where the gifts that flowered during Catherine’s adult life in Notre Dame had been planted and nurtured. She never forgot: “I owe all the good qualities I have to my parents, especially my faith and energy to my mother, and I am grateful for the continued love and support of my sisters and brother,” she wrote in 2009, the year she celebrated 60 years as an SND. Our hearts go out to Catherine’s two sisters, Linda and Paula.
Whatever our sense of loss – and it is profound – how can we complain that this valiant woman (Proverbs 31:10), at once Martha and Mary, has so suddenly and unexpectedly moved to a better place? St. Julie would have us remember that we can still meet her in the heart of Christ. And who of us would begrudge Catherine the fullness of joy that now is hers? She has indeed “chosen the better part,” and it will never be taken away from her!