Sr. Keleher, you took your vows 50 years ago. What do your vows mean to you all these years later?
It’s funny. About three days before the Jubilee itself, I got a little letter from one of the nuns who had made her vows with me. And she had written: “50 years from our first vows, amazing God.” I think it’s only the goodness and greatness of God that enables someone to live any life for 50 years, especially in the society we live in today. There’s not much support in society for fidelity to anything for 50 years. There’s not much support in society for commitments through thick and thin. All life has brightness and darkness as you go through it. I think there’s no “cheap happiness.” If you ultimately want to be happy, you have to live what you believe in and not quit at the first thing. Ultimately, there have to be some values that root your life or you will never become a mature or happy human being.
How does religious life and teaching intersect?
The Society was built on prayer and the interior life. The purpose is to make known the love of the heart of Jesus. And as Janet Erskine Stuart would say: “It is the life lived, and the things loved, and the ideals believed in, by which we tell one upon another.” In education, that was my main goal. I liked to learn, to share what I learned.
In your career, you were offered to teach on the college level, but you chose to teach high school. Why?
In high school you’re working with young people who are developing, developing themselves and their personality. And I wanted to educate at that early stage, help kids to like education, to like thinking, to be able to analyze, to be able to write.
To change the subject a little, you entered the Society just as Vatican II was taking place. How did that influence you?
A lot of developments of Vatican II came from looking at the Church from an historical point of view, rather than from a traditional point of view. So it made sense for me, and it was like coming home because I had majored in history. You could understand the whys and the hows, and you could separate the core from the non-essentials.
From your perspective, what are the most important tenets of the Christian faith?
I’d say the Gospels and the basic credo-documents of the Church. When Jesus Christ was asked this question, He said “love God” and “love your neighbor.” I think if we do that we’ll be fine.
How do you reconcile the changes in the Church and the issues people have with it today?
The Church is an institution, and the point of an institution is to conserve values so they change very slowly. And we have had in Western European/American society some of the greatest changes historically that have ever happened—and very, very rapidly. Integrating Church and society will come, but I don’t think it will come easily. I think we’re living in one of the hardest times to live in the Church. The more we focus on the Gospels, the more we can be united.
How have you changed and grown?
I think when you’ve lived long enough, you gain enough perspective in that the ups aren’t so up and the downs aren’t so down. I think I see things more as a development, more as a growth. I don’t know much more intellectually now than I did then. What has changed is what the knowledge I have means. I think the word is wisdom.
It’s not that you know a lot more, you get a whole lot wiser.
What has 91st Street meant to you?
One of my greatest joys at 91st Street has been the New York City kids themselves. Living in a city, kids are exposed to so much and are really open. They are very hardworking—you say ‘jump,’ and the kids say ‘how high.’ And no matter what their opinion, they always listen to others.
The tenure of your teaching career is amazing. Many people today change jobs and careers every few years.
I think teaching is different. I think if you take Steve Jobs, one of the things he said in his Stanford graduation address was that at the end, all the dots connect. And as he looked back on his life, he saw that many things that looked like roadblocks, ultimately all worked together to make him able to do what he did. I never thought in a million years that teaching was something I’d do, left to my own devices. But in retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen it. I’ve never been bored one day in my life. How many people can say they’ve never been bored? I teach PEOPLE. That’s a WONDERFUL job.