Known fondly to many as the “dancing nun,” Sister James Anne, IHM, born Nancy Feerick, is the daughter of Irish immigrants Anne (Caulfield) and James Feerick. She started Irish dancing when she was 7, studying with Sean Lavery School of Irish Dance in West Philadelphia for more than 10 years. She also played the violin, performing on the Will Regan’s Irish Hours, a long-running radio show that debuted before World War II on Philadelphia’s WDAS station. She also served as secretary of the old Irish Musicians Union in Southwest Philadelphia for two years.
Her home was always filled with music, recalls Helen DeGrand, who first convinced Sister James Anne to join the Mayo Association of Philadelphia, where Sister James Anne has served as chaplain for 20 years. “When I first came to this country from Ireland in 1968, some of the first people I met were the Feericks” says Mrs. DeGrand. “They were the party people. She was in the convent then, but [her brother] Jim would be playing the piano and [her brother] Mike would be playing the fiddle. We used to go to the Shamrock Club every weekend and we always saw them at some point.”
Director and teacher at the IHM Educational Center in Bryn Mawr, Sister James Anne has been a nun since 1960, and an educator and school principal in both the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Allentown Diocese. She often taught her students Irish dancing as a way to develop coordination and was, for many years, an Irish dance teacher at St. Anthony’s parish in Gray’s Ferry.
Being Irish is a fundamental part of her identity, She began marching in Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade, the second oldest in the country, in 1956. In 2008 she was named to the parade Ring of Honor and was its grand marshal—only the second woman at the time to achieve that honor—in 2011. She serves as chaplain to the parade board and she has been a parade judge since 1985.
“She is always impartial,” says fellow judge, Father Chris Walsh, pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort Church in Philadelphia. “She keeps Mike [parade director Michael Bradley] and I very honest. The one thing about her, in every aspect of her life, she strives for excellence and calls for excellence in others. I’ve heard this from people who’ve had her for a teacher and I’ve seen in myself in the way she judges dancers and groups. Even when we think a group is really good, she is quick to remind us that there are criteria for judging and there’s a theme. That means that even when her beloved Mayo Society is competing, if Cavan has a better float, she goes with Cavan.”
Those who know Sister James Anne are quick to talk about her warmth and spirituality. “She’s a woman of prayer and when you ask her to pray for something, she remembers and circles back. I’ve experienced it myself. Her humility and prayerfulness are a blessing to everyone she encounters,” says Father Walsh.
Sister James Anne arranges liturgy for the Mayo Society at Christmas and the feast of Our Lady of Knock. “It takes her days to put it together and everyone always comes away with a feeling of warmth,” says Eileen Conboy-Barilli, president of the Mayo Association. “It’s part of her spirit. She is always saying ‘God bless you,” offering her prayers for people. She’s there spiritually for everyone. She is so dedicated to her faith. She’s a rock. She’s such a part of Mayo that when she’s not at a meeting you don’t feel like it’s a meeting. We love her spirit and her youthfulness. I don’t know how old she is, but when she dances she’s such a kid. I guess working with children keeps you young. She’s truly our gift from God.”
“She is a caring, compassionate, genuine person,” says former Mayo Association President Sean McMenamin, who has known Sister James Anne since she taught in his parish, St. Martin’s, in Philadelphia. “When my late wife was sick, she always sent her nice cards. She does that for everyone … she’s a big spiritual influence. She’s a person who leads by example rather than big speeches and gets her point across. People have great respect for her.”
She’s especially valued by those who work with her. “Sister works with out K-3 students, helping them to read, write and learn English. She is extremely patient, diligent, and very caring,” says Sister Mary McNulty, IHM, principal of St. Francis De Sales School in Aston. “Her little students meet with great success and are conversing in no time.”
Sister James Anne is also “the epitome of a friend,” adds Helen DeGrande. “My son asked her to do the opening prayer at his retirement ceremony when he left the Navy. She had a busy weekend planned, but she said that by hook or by crook she’d get to Rhode Island to say the opening prayer and she did. It’s always a very emotional ceremony and they even put boxes of tissues at the ends of the seats. When she said her prayer, we were all in tears. There were grown men with tears in their eyes. And she started it all off!”
When his son Mickey suffered a fractured skull and brain injury in a fall, says St. Patrick’s Day Parade Director Michael Bradley, Sister James Anne “tutored him that summer to help get his brain kickstarted again. She was so patient with Mickey. I learned a lot about dealing with brain injuries and teaching from her.”
Sister James Anne is an exceptional person, says Father Walsh. “She really embodies the fullness and the best of Irish culture, in her love for dance and music, her love for the Catholic faith, and her desire to be a true sister to people and to care for them. Lots of people plug into one thing they like; she embraces it all and really lives it.”
Bradley, who has known Sister James Anne for 30 years, says she is “one of the kindest people I have ever met in my life.
“Mitch Album wrote a book called “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” One of the best five people I have met on this planet is Sister James Ann “Nancy” Feerick, IHM!” he says.