Nun's 35 years of walking school's halls coming to an end

August 01, 2006|By JULIE SCHARPER | JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTER

Before she will say anything else about her life, there is one point that Sister Mary Earle Doohan needs to make.

"Anything I've ever done good in the past 60 years is the work of God," says Doohan, who is about to retire after 35 years working and living at Archbishop Keough High School and Seton Keough High School in Catonsville.

At 78, she walks more slowly as she crosses the street to attend daily Mass at St. Agnes Hospital or St. Elizabeth's nursing home. But when the name of an alumna is mentioned, her brown eyes light up as she describes the way the woman walked the halls decades ago.

Moving to Boston

Now Doohan is preparing to walk these hallways, with their faint scent of books and sugary perfume, for the last time before she moves to Boston to begin her retirement next month.

When she started as a guidance counselor at Archbishop Keough in 1971, the girls wore their hair long and straight and changed from their uniforms to bell bottoms after school. "They were like the people of the '70s. I enjoyed them," Doohan says of those students. "I had learned to just enjoy kids."

In a yearbook photo from that time, a laughing Doohan leans forward, a dark tendril of hair curling out from under her veil.

Later, she was assigned to handle discipline. "I was in charge of the breakfast club," she says chuckling, pressing her hand to her mouth. "I tried to protect the kids. I was pro-kid. Sometimes, I would kind of fight with the teachers."

When Archbishop Keough and Seton High School merged in 1988 and became Seton Keough, Doohan took over the admissions office and struggled to blend two groups of students and teachers.

"It took all your talents in trying to bring about unity because you know that, if it failed, it would destroy an institution for teaching girls," says Doohan. "Girls are women of the future, and that's very important. Women have much more influence than they realize, and they have always had that."

Eventually, she took over alumnae relations and helped graduates from all three schools plan reunions. She has kept working more than a decade after most people retire, although she has whittled back her hours and duties over the years. Most recently, she has combed death notices for the names of alumnae and sent Mass cards and condolences to their families.

`Self-effacing'

"Mary Earle is incredibly self-effacing," says Marge Kenney, an English teacher at the school since 1972. "Her role has always been to make the kids - I say kids and I mean both the girls and alums in their 40s and 50s - the center of attention. The kids rise to her challenge all the time because she means so much to them."

Delores McGowan, a music teacher at the school, has given Doohan piano lessons.

"She's my best student," says McGowan, adding that their chats about school, life or faith sometimes take up the entire lesson time. McGowan marvels seeing Doohan, who never learned to drive, walk to Mass in harsh cold and heat.

"If I stayed here, I'd probably have to go into assisted living because I can't keep the walking up," says Doohan, a tall woman with thick gray hair.

When she started at the school, she jogged around the fields while the girls were at sports practice. Now, she says, she is on the verge of needing a hip replacement and suffers from other ailments.

Next month, Doohan will move to a small apartment in Boston with another nun who took her vows with the School Sisters of Notre Dame the same time that she did.

She calls it "the veranda of assisted living" but says that both of them are committed to taking care of each other and staying independent as long as possible.

"Neither one of us cooks, so we're going to learn how to cook," Doohan says.

She also plans to explore the city on the city's subway, practice the piano, volunteer at a middle school, keep in touch with her many family members in Boston, read and study Scripture.

Doohan joined the order just after finishing high school in Boston. She was quickly sent to Baltimore to teach eighth grade. "I was 19, and there were kids in the class who were 15," she says.

Born Agnes France Doohan, she decided to take her mother's name, Mary, and father's name, Earle, when she professed her vows a year later. It was a surprise to her parents, particularly to her father, who had cancer.

When the priest gave Doohan her new name, her father jumped out of his chair and shouted, " 'Mame, did you hear that?'" she recalls.

He died while she was in the novitiate, a year in which she had to refrain from talking most of the time. "It was a very hard time to be silent," Doohan says.

Later, her superiors assigned her to other Maryland schools and a poor community in Georgia.

She asked to remain with the poor, but leaders of the order decided that she was needed at Keough. She doesn't regret their decision.

`A good thing'

"Today, everyone chooses what they want to do," she says. "I was just thrown into all of these things. And to tell you the truth, it was a good thing. I did all sorts of things I never would have done otherwise."

But there is a touch of sadness in her voice when she considers leaving these tidy hallways with their rows of salmon-colored lockers.

"There's a whole part of me that will always be here," she says.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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