Sister Margaret O'Connor, SNDdeN
(formerly Sister Thomas Margaret)
April 11, 1930 - February 15, 2021
“I am grateful to God for all my experiences as an SND educator,” Margaret wrote in 2000, as she looked back on 50 years in Notre Dame, “and for the many Sisters, students, families, and colleagues whose lives have touched mine through the years.”
The 1987 transcript of an oral history interview with Margaret explains how it all came about. Her parents were staunch parishioners at St. Joachim and Anne in Queens Village (NY). Her mother was close to the SNDs teaching there; in fact, the day she gave birth to Margaret (christened Patricia Elizabeth), Mrs. O’Connor had expected to be at the Sisters’ Open House. Patricia, the O’Connors’ only child, was warmly welcomed to First Grade by Sr. Magdalene Marie, who made a lasting impression on her: “She treated all of us like little ladies and gentlemen,” Margaret remembered. “It was a grand experience! I often told her later on that she was the big reason why I decided – in the first grade – that I wanted to be like [her] and become a Sister of Notre Dame!”
The more SNDs Patricia met, the more certain she became that Notre Dame was meant for her. She stayed in touch with SNDs long after her eighth-grade graduation, while completing high-school and working as a clerk/typist for a local insurance company. Then, when the time was ripe, she and her parents headed to Ilchester: “God bless my loving parents, who fully supported my vocation!” Her mother, she said, “adopted” the entire postulate. “Since I was an only child, she said that she had not lost me, but had gained a few more daughters. So then she had 20!” Like mother, like daughter. Margaret never” lost” her parents; instead, she delighted in gaining a host of new sisters - Sisters of Notre Dame on five continents!
Her band had the thrill of making first vows on Easter Sunday – April 5, 1953. Their first mission was to live at Trinity College on Mondays through Fridays, then return to Ilchester on weekends. At Trinity, they took accelerated courses in educational psychology, logic, and political science. All three teachers were SNDs. (Margaret especially remembered Sr. Joan Bland’s political science course being like “three classes in one”: Sr. Joan’s lectures, guest lectures, and “testing on footnotes!”). In June, when Trinity’s annual SND Summer School began, weekdays were spent living and taking classes alongside Sisters from all over the province. The experience was a “crash course” in Notre Dame life and mission!
Following summer school, Margaret’s band spent weekdays helping prepare dorm rooms for students’ return in the fall. “I don’t know how many books we moved,” Margaret told her interviewer, “but we washed every window in Main Building – and every transom and every mirror. We had everything sparkling!” More importantly, she remembered that “the Sisters made us feel that we were part of the Trinity community. Before we were to go back to Ilchester to get our missions, they had a big party for us – one of those big Trinity send-off picnics with skits and songs. We were all in tears leaving Trinity – We had a wonderful community experience there.”
It's clear from Margaret’s oral-history interview that for her, Notre Dame life was a life of community-in-mission. Her memories of her various assignments are always cast in community terms:
- She had high praise for Sr. Helena St. John, a “master teacher” at St. Catherine of Genoa in Brooklyn who mentored Margaret through her first two years of teaching there.
- Her account of being missioned back to Trinity in 1955 for full-time study is filled with fond memories of the nine other SNDs sent to Trinity the same year. The group often called themselves the Rainbow Class, she said, because they varied in age and experience, and were at different stages in their studies. It was their strong mutual support and sense of humor that got them through heavy course loads, innumerable tests, long papers, and daunting final exams. “My own eighth-grade teacher was there; she made things lively for all of us!”
- When Margaret was missioned to Norfolk Catholic High School in 1957, despite her freshly minted B.A. in math and science, she had only two years of classroom experience – at 8th-grade level! Small wonder that she never forgot her friend and mentor there: “Sister Roberta Marie was the best Sister to start out with. She had the experience, she was beautifully professional, and she was so helpful. She couldn’t share enough with me, and yet, she would respect you as a person. The youngsters loved her.”
Norfolk Catholic was a good match for Margaret’s attraction to community-in-mission. The school was co-ed, with about 450 students, many from military families. There was a strong sense of community among the priests, women religious and laypeople on the faculty, between faculty and students, and within the student body. Students were expected, even challenged, to share responsibility and exercise leadership. They elected Student Council representatives and officers each year, following vigorous campaigns on the part of candidates.
Margaret and Roberta arrived in Norfolk at a critical time. “We were Northerners with the Southerners,” she told her interviewer, “and they were still very much into Dixie.” Virginia had adopted a policy of “passive resistance” to the federal mandate for desegregation of schools (Margaret called it “massive” resistance!). If a black youngster applied to an all-white public school, the school had to close rather than desegregate. By 1959, all of Norfolk’s public high schools had closed.
Despite bomb threats, Norfolk Catholic High’s faculty and student body continued its policy of integration. “It worked out fine,” Margaret said, even though, for some students, “it was the first time they had met blacks; gradually they found out that we are the same.” Sports and activities were especially helpful for breaking down prejudice. Edward R. Murrow and his CBS crew spent a whole day at NCHS observing, interviewing students, and filming for a special program about Virginia’s resistance to desegregation. With particular satisfaction, Margaret noted that by 1962, NCHS students had elected an outstanding black youngster as their Student Council President--an excellent student and athlete involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities. “I remember students saying, ‘Whom have we got to follow him?’ He was so great!”
In 1970, Margaret, now an experienced secondary-school teacher, was missioned to Philadelphia’s Archbishop Ryan High School for Girls. Five years later, she was grateful to be missioned back to New York, where her father was seriously ill. She taught math at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, the largest independent Catholic School in the U.S., with nearly 3,000 students. Margaret insisted that despite its size, the school was not “an assembly line” or “factory.” St. Francis was a vibrant, co-ed, integrated school operated by Franciscan brothers, many of whom were on the faculty. They made a point of “going to the people,” she said, using activities a way of getting to know their students and include students’ families in school events. It was also “like a League of Nations,” Margaret emphasized, with Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos. Jamaicans, Haitians, all kinds of Hispanics. All the peoples coming to New York – we have some of them all!” She was delighted by a lay faculty member’s remark: “We are not a school trying to be a community; we are a community trying to be a school.” Community-in-mission!
Margaret’s local SND community at St. Julie Convent in Westbury shared “prayer and outreach” with the surrounding faith community, “hopefully bringing us all closer to the good God,” she said. She was also able to reach out in supportive ways to her aging parents in their last years.
Three years after retiring from St. Francis Prep, Margaret, who was experiencing memory problems, moved from Westbury to her final community-in-mission at Mount Notre Dame Health Center, where she shared in the Sisters’ ministry of prayer, entered into activities with enthusiasm, and remained ever grateful to be a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. As she had written at the time of her Golden Jubilee:
“Ah, how good God is! I praise and thank Him for my vocation to Notre Dame!
I praise and thank Him for His fidelity throughout my life!”
- Born Patricia Elizabeth O’Connor - April 11, 1930, Queens Village, NY
- Baptized April 27, 1930 - Sts. Joachim & Anne Church, Queens Village
- Parents: Thomas William O’Connor and Margaret E. Friedel
- Entered Notre Dame August 6, 1950, Ilchester, MD
- First profession: April 5, 1953
- Final Vows: July 30, 1958
- St. Joachim & Anne Parish School
- Bishop McDonnell Memorial High School, Brooklyn, NY – 1944-48
- B.A. – Trinity College, Washington, DC 1957 (Math, Physics)
- M.T.S. – The Catholic University of America, 1964 (Math, Physics)
- Parochial School Teaching
- 1953-1955: Teacher Grade 8, St. Catherine of Genoa, Brooklyn, NY
Secondary School Teaching
- 1957-1970: Teacher of Social Studies & Math, Norfolk Catholic High School, Norfolk, VA
- 1970-1975: Science Teacher, Archbishop Ryan High Girls School, Philadelphia, PA
- 1975-2010: Math Teacher, St. Francis Prep, Queens, NY
Ministry of Prayer
- 2010-2013: St. Julie Convent, Westbury, NY
- March 21, 2013 – Feb. 15, 2021: Mt. Notre Dame Health Center, Reading, Ohio
Prepared by Mary Ann Cook, SND, drawing on
the transcript of Sr. Mary Reilly’s 1987 oral-history interview