Sr. Theresa Kelly, R.S.M.
8 November 2007
2 hours, 28 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Theresa Kelly, (b. Brooklyn, NY, 1934), a retired educator and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Mid-Atlantic Community, is the youngest child of Michael Kelly (1889–1947), a New York City police officer and his wife, Mary (1897–1991), both immigrants from the townland of Carraghs in Ballinlough, Co. Roscommon, Ireland. She was raised in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where she attended St. John the Baptist grammar school on Lewis Avenue. After graduating from Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School in 1952 she started working for the pharmaceutical company Charles Pfizer (now Pfizer, Inc.), in the accounting department.
Daily contact with nuns of various orders and other religious figures in her childhood neighborhood and parish – as well as her brother James’ decision to become a priest – played a part in Theresa Kelly’s developing vocation. After five years with Pfizer, she joined the Sisters of Mercy in 1957. The Congregation was founded in Dublin in 1831 by Mother Catherine McAuley. The first Sisters of Mercy came from Ireland and arrived in New York in 1843 to work with the poor, sick, and uneducated who, at that time, were predominantly Irish immigrants.(1)
Sr. Theresa Kelly’s first assignment in April 1960 was to Queen of Angels parish school in Sunnyside, Queens. There she taught first grade in the morning session and art in the afternoon to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. In September of 1962 she was assigned to St. Patrick’s School on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, which was across the street from the Convent of Mercy, the Motherhouse of the Brooklyn Sisters of Mercy. There she taught fourth grade and, for seven years, served as the school librarian. Sr. Theresa was transferred to Our Lady of Refuge in East Flatbush, Brooklyn in 1969 where she spent 21 years, 18 as a junior high math teacher and three years as principal.
At the time of this interview, Sr. Theresa was the Events Coordinator at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a high school for girls in Syosset, New York built by the Sisters of Mercy in 1928.
Excerpt No. 1
Michael and Mary KellyDisc 1, 1:40–3:33
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1:
TK: I think, for my mother, for her to come to America, I guess she knew that if she came here there were possibilities – there were many home at that point, you know – so, therefore it would be good if one of them moved out and maybe was able, I guess, to – maybe make a living and send some money back home, which is what they all did once they got to America. They were always sending packages and money home. So I think that was it. For my father – my father knew that he was not getting the land. His father had told him that, even though he was the oldest, he was healthier than his brother. His father told him this. So he said, “Mike, I think maybe you should kind of move on, to America.”
LA: He probably knew that he could make his way maybe better than the brother.
TK: Unfortunately, he was a little older at that point. See, I guess he was thinking it was going to happen, and then all of a sudden I guess his dad told him this. So then he, he – I’m sure – did what he was asked to do and came on.
LA: You said your parents were brought up on the same street?
TK: Well, if you want to call it almost like that.
JR: But they came over separately?
TK: Yes, they did. They didn’t come together. No, no. And, for us, it would probably be like this street: Fifth Avenue [in Greenwich Village]. And you lived down here, and I lived three blocks up, and we would cross the street and go back and forth to each other’s house. I think that’s basically what it was. I mean, I saw it myself with my own eyes, and that would probably be the best way that I could explain it.
JR: Where in Ireland?
KG: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask.
TK: In Ireland. It was Castlerea. Ballinlough, Ballinlough was the little town that they lived in. Ballinlough.
Excerpt No. 2
VocationsDisc 1, 68:25–69:54
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2:
KG: So you would say being Irish played an important role in your decision in becoming a nun?
TK: Maybe. With the same surroundings, if I was German, I probably would’ve. You know? But the Irish had such a gift of faith, you know. I think they brought with them faith and laughter, and I think that’s what’s got them through all their hard times and rough days.
TK: You know, they often talk about the days when they came over on those ships and they were in steerage and it took them eight and ten and twelve days to come and they were all sick and all that. But, you know, I think they, they really – their stories and their laughter and their good sense of humor took them above the sad times in their life – and their faith, extremely great devotion, you know, to the Eucharist and to the Rosary and to the Blessed Mother. Yeah, you know, without a doubt. So, whether it’s Irish, you know, for me that made it happen, only because I am Irish, that’s the way it came with, you know it just went that way. And I guess it was – there was so much religion around us that, you know, to become a priest or a sister was certainly a wonderful thing, and it wasn’t – it wasn’t a difficult thing to do.
Excerpt No. 3
Vatican IIDisc 2, 32:56–35:52
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3:
KG: What kind of impact did Vatican II have on the practice of religion and Catholic educations?
TK: Well, there were changes there, I’d have to say, because – certainly the religion that I was brought up with, and the practices that we went through at school, were not the same as were given to children after the Vatican. I think things were changed – like processions were limited or done away with; like when we were growing up we always had a Forty Hour procession,(2) we had a May procession, and they were always at the academy and high school. I mean, when we were novices, we would always be at the end of the May procession for the girls of Our Lady of Mercy Academy. I’m there now twelve years, they’ve never heard of – there’s no sign of a procession, you see. So, I think, things like that I don’t think were good. I think they tried – I think they thought things were too rigid and therefore they were going to relax them or take away the minutiae, and as a result I think sometimes we threw the baby with the water.
LA: It’s like they took the mystery away.
KG: Did you yourself ever think about leaving after Vatican II?
TK: Isn’t that funny? I didn’t. When I was a novice I did. But not when I was – not during those days, I didn’t.– I guess – even though people were going around me, and people in my own group left, I didn’t think to go, no, which was really – thank God.
LA: Did you have conversations in the convent?
TK: No, we didn’t. It’s funny, just like we don’t talk about the habit, you know, what we heard, or we do, or – I mean, people look at me: I can pass a fire truck, or men working on the road, and they bless themselves, and I say, “Now isn’t that what I’m really here for?”
TK: Not that they should be kneeling on their knees, but I do remind them there is a life far greater than the one we’re all in, with all its hard times, it’s all worth it all because someday we’ll all be together in that heavenly kingdom. And I think I’m reminding people that there is a God, there is something greater than what we all, any given day, could be struggling through. So that alone, is good for me to be wearing a habit for –
Excerpt No. 4
On being Irish-AmericanDisc 3, 6:12–7:09
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4:
KG: How – how do you define your Irish American identity?
TK: How do I define it?
KG: Yeah, yourself?
LA: Do you consider yourself Irish American?
TK: I kind of say Irish, you know, I guess more than American in a way, but, I don’t even, again –
LA: Do you not think about it?
TK: I don’t think about it. I really don’t think – I don’t think, you know, this part of me is American and this is Irish, you know. It’s kind of, all altogether.
LA: Unconscious almost.
TK: Unconscious. It really is. I know I’m certainly Irish. I know that. But I guess the gifts of America, and the greatness of America is certainly part of my inbred feeling of myself.
- Kristina Galati (KG)
- Linda Dowling Almeida (LA)
- Joseph Ready (JR)
- Michael and Mary Kelly on their wedding day, 12 April 1925. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- NYPD officer Michael Kelly, circa 1945. Photo by the Corso Photo Studio, 420 Knickerbocker Avenue Brooklyn, NY, courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- Theresa Kelly, beside St. John the Baptist school on Lewis Avenue, Brooklyn, circa 1942. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- With her sister, Mary Anne, on graduation day from St. John the Baptist, circa 1948. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- On a trip to Rye Beach, NY with classmates from Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School: Theresa Kelly (left), Monica Wood (top, now Sr. Monica, Librarian at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, NY) and Grace Dolan (right, now Mrs. Collum). Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- Sr. Theresa Kelly at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Syosset, NY, in April 1958. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- Teaching at St. Patrick’s school on Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, circa 1962. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- In Breezy Point, Queens just prior to leaving for Ireland with mother, Mary Kelly, and brother, Fr. James Kelly, C.M., 13 August 1973. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- With her mother on the 25th anniversary of her profession as a Sister of Mercy, Queens, NY, circa 1982. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- As Principal at Our Lady of Refuge school in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, circa 1987. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- With students at Our Lady of Refuge, June 1988. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- “Prom Night” portrait, Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Syosset, NY, spring 2006. Photo courtesy of Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM.
- Sr. Theresa Kelly, RSM, 8 November 2007. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, http://www.sistersofmercy.org/
- Forty Hours Devotion is a special period of continuous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. It typically begins with a Mass of Exposition and can be shared with other churches. Forty hours has special historical significance in the Catholic Church because Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and forty nights, and was resurrected forty hours after the crucifixion.