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Sister Jeanette McCarthy

A Full Life of Gratitude

Whether teaching in Catholic high schools or doing Hispanic ministry in the Midwest or Texas or using her musical talents for worship or community, Sister Jeanette McCarthy has been heard exclaiming, “Fire up!”

Sister Jeanette’s energy and enthusiasm are very much what brand her – her way of being and doing. She can strike up a song on the guitar or walk you through her interesting scrapbooks and photo albums with great motivation while inviting you to share her many pastimes.

After some changes in her health over the past several years, Sister Jeanette demonstrates her tenacity to keep going and stay positive. “I don’t drive anymore, and that’s life,” she says, “but I like to do as many things as I can.”

Sister Jeanette’s intensity for life began as the eldest daughter of Don and Marion McCarthy in western Iowa. With her eight brothers and seven sisters, she grew up on a farm and attended Catholic schools and learned many life skills. 

It was through her large family that Sister first shared the Catholic faith. “My faith formation began when my oldest brother Leo and I were very young,”explains Sister. “Our family farmed near the very small town of St. Benedict, Iowa. There was a Catholic school and church. We attended grade school at St. Benedict. However, my parents wanted us to continue Catholic education through high school, so Dad bought us an old Ford car that we older siblings drove the 15 miles to St. Cecelia Academy in Algona.” 

Sister Jeanette was able to take piano lessons at St. Cecelia which helped her in later years to learn and play guitar and eventually to lead music at masses in Spanish. Presentation teachers, Sisters Matthew Cunningham, Redempta Collins, Alberta Lynch and Aloysius Rush helped her develop her musical and business skills. 

“After high school I continued working as a legal secretary until I entered the Sisters of the Presentation.” Higher education followed as she earned a bachelor’s degree from Clarke College in Dubuque and a master’s degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Such opportunities gave Sister Jeanette the expertise for becoming and excelling as a high school accounting and business teacher and a junior class advisor and yearbook moderator. “Some fellow teachers called me ‘Flash’ because I took photos while working on the high school yearbooks,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

“During the last eight years of teaching I worked at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City, Iowa,” Sister Jeanette shares. “During that time my hobby was playing guitar at the Spanish masses at the Cathedral. I found that this was an opportunity to improve my conversational Spanish while spending time with the Hispanic musicians and other parishioners and friends. I enjoyed this ministry very much.”

In the early 1990s Sister transitioned from the formal classroom. She applied to several dioceses in Texas where there were openings in Hispanic ministry. She worked at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Port Arthur, Texas, and St. Monica Parish in Cameron, Texas. 

“While I enjoyed the ministry in Texas, I found it far from home. After four years I learned of an opening for Hispanic ministry at St. Patrick in Dubuque, Iowa, so I applied and got the position,” she recounts. “It was an exciting job, because I also shared in the Hispanic ministry office of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.” There were many new Hispanics arriving in Dubuque at that time, finding work at dairy and livestock farms and at industries. 

“This was a delightful ministry that I was very passionate about doing!” remarks Sister Jeanette. “There was a great need to help the Hispanic families with their documents and with the sacramental preparation for their families. I continued to minister at St. Patrick for 13 years where there were many children to be baptized, couples to be prepared for marriage, girls to celebrate their 15-year birthdays (quinceañera) and teenagers to be confirmed. In addition, many individuals needed translation assistance with legal papers.” 

Sister’s enthusiasm and energy permeated many facets of her ministry as she would give many hours to accompany persons to appointments or participate in preparing for big feast days and celebrations such as Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Las Mañanitas. In 2008, she received an honorary doctor of law degree from Loras College, Dubuque, for her 10 years of dedication and work with Hispanic immigrants at St. Patrick Parish. 

Sister Jeanette gives much energy to keeping connected with her seven living siblings, extended family and friends. “I feel that it is important to keep the family bond and friendships, to keep sharing with letters, emails and phone calls,” says Sister. “Each year I attend a family reunion hosted by one of my family members at their location. In June 2015 we gathered in Dallas, Texas.” 

She has maintained many interests and hobbies – speaking Spanish, guitar, sewing, family genealogy, scrapbooking, photography, art work and traveling. “I definitely enjoyed and learned from my various travels,” she says. “Some places I had the opportunity to visit and spend time were Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. I also experienced many parish mission trips to Mexico (Guadalajara, Arteaga and Monterrey to name a few) and to El Salvador.”

Reflecting on her retirement years and how she still carries out Nano’s charism to make a difference, Sister Jeanette states, “I feel fortunate that I am able to live at Mount Loretto and to get to know our sisters in a new way.” Over several years she decorated the dining room and still gives her heart and soul to weekend musical gatherings in the Nagle Center infirmary. 

Sister Jeanette’s passion for life and people have translated into thankfulness. “I hold gratitude in my heart over the years in religious life. I am grateful for my family spirit, which I learned as a small child, for my years in teaching and, most especially, for the privilege to live in my Presentation community.”

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