Sister James Anne and friends.
There was never any question that Sister James Anne Feerick would grow up with pride in her Irish heritage. The 2011 Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade grand marshal recalls her childhood in Cobbs Creek:
“My father was from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, and my mother was born here, but her parents were from Foxford, in County Mayo. When we were kids (there were six), my father would tell us stories about Ireland, and on Sundays we would go over to my grandparents’ house, and they would tell us about Ireland. As kids, we were fascinated by the history that our parents had. We grew in love with the music and everything about Ireland.”
As if growing up in the household of James J. and Anna (Caulfield) Feerick were not enough in itself to inspire that love of Ireland, the broader Irish community also was a profound influence. Sister James Anne recalls house parties, sometimes at her own house and sometimes at a neighbor’s, in which Irish emigres would congregate. “They would get together and talk about their homeland. Musicians would come and bring their violins and accordions, and some would sing songs. Our parents would dance. It was just something we were accustomed to. We saw our parents having fun and enjoying each other, and it just grew on us.”
Born Anne Marie Feerick, this lifelong Catholic school educator and member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.) recalls a childhood surrounded by the warmth of family and friends. Her family belonged to Transfiguration of Our Lord parish at 56th and Cedar in Cobbs Creek, and she attended the parish school. Transfiguration was a close-knit parish, mostly Irish and Italian. It was, she says, the center of community life in those days.
“I loved my schooling there,” she says. “I remember it being a happy time. I remember the sisters being very interested in what we were doing. We had the support of a lot of people, neighborhood people, your classmates and everything.
“After school, you’d go to your friends’ houses and ask if they wanted to play ball. There was no planning of activities. You just did it. That was our happiness—just being able to be with each other and share and learn. It was wonderful.”
That’s not to say there were no planned activities and, indeed, Sister James Anne had plenty to keep her occupied. Early on, she began to learn violin and later piano. Her parents loved all kinds of music, and this passion they successfully imparted to Sister James Anne.
Those who know Sister today can attest to her love of Irish dancing. That too is a passion acquired in childhood. She began taking Irish dance lessons when she was 7 at the nearby home of Sean Lavery, from Donegal. Every Friday night, she recalls, kids from throughout the city would converge upon his house to learn dance. Classes were from 5 to 9 p.m. Lessons were 50 cents. Those Friday nights at Sean Lavery’s house further reinforced her sense of Irishness.
“His home was packed on a Friday night,” she says. “For us, it was another connection. We would go to various competitions together and we would rent a bus. Our parents would go with us. And on the bus, you’d hear more stories of Ireland, and the music. It was just another way of keeping alive the Irish culture.”
As important as Irish cultural identity was, her parents also instilled in her the importance and significance of being an American. Immigrants to America don’t take citizenship for granted, and her father was no exception. Sister James Anne’s father studied for three years to become a citizenship, and it meant the world to him when he took the oath of allegiance. “He never wanted to forget where he came from, but he was proud to be an American.”
Catholic faith also mattered deeply. Like many of the Irish Catholic households in the neighborhood, hers proudly displayed pictures of the Holy Father and the Sacred Heart and a statue of the Blessed Mother. On Sundays, the Feericks attended Mass as a family. It was not simply an obligation to be fulfilled. In the Feerick family, faith was essential and deeply nourishing. Though they couldn’t have known it, they—together with the good example of her teachers at school—were laying the foundation for a life wholly devoted to God and service.
In her senior year in high school—she attended West Catholic Girls High School, class of ‘62—Anne Marie Feerick decided to enter religious life.
“I just think my parents were an inspiration to me,” Sister James Anne says. “Through good times and bad, they held on to their faith. And through some of the sisters that taught me, I just saw something special in them that hit me. I was already accepted to college but it was just something I wanted. There was just something special about what the sisters showed me—their kindness, their caring, their patience and their wanting to make us the best we could be. But still, I would say that the first example was my parents.”
As a member of the I.H.M. order, Sister James Anne became a teacher, serving in many capacities, including principal. With her own teachers as an example, she says, there really wasn’t any question that education was her calling.
“I liked teaching,” she says. “When I was in high school, I helped the dance teacher teach the younger kids. I also taught C.C.D. as a junior and senior in high school. I just always enjoyed the idea of being able to teach someone. It’s just the grace of God that speaks to you when you least expect it. I knew that if it didn’t work out, I would be able to pursue something else, but I really had to see if it was for me. And here I am 50 years later.”
Teaching has never been easy, and as a field it undergoes constant change. Teachers need to be up to the challenge; Sister James Anne was.
“When I first started teaching, I had 105 first graders. I remember teaching back then was very simple. Every school was doing the same thing; you did a lot of phonics and reading. Each grade covered a certain area, and you never skipped ahead. And then, later on, as they came in with the new math and the new reading I kind of got into it. It’s always good to learn something new. It was a big change, and it’s been changing ever since.”
Sister James Anne is still solidly involved in education, as director and teacher at the I.H.M. Educational Center in Bryn Mawr.
Of course, total immersion in he world of the I.H.M.s did not mean she left her heritage behind. For one thing, Sister has often taught Irish dance to students. It’s a way of developing coordination—and the kids like it. And she has continued to dance. At the recent Mayo Association Ball, were she was honored with the President’s Award, she was on her feet all night. (She is also chaplain of the Mayo Association.)
Also near and dear to her heart is the Philly St. Patrick’s Day parade, where she has been judge for 25 years.
According to parade director Michael Bradley, Sister James Anne has always been one of the parade’s unsung heroes.
“In my mind, she always does something to the best of her ability and she never looks for any credit,” Bradley says. There are a lot of people who want to stand in front and get recognition. But Sister’s been behind the scene for all these years and no one knows it. Well, I know it.”
Bradley also notes that Sister was the unanimous choice for 2011 grand marshal—the first unanimous choice in years.
Kathy McGee Burns, president of the St. Patrick’s Day Observance Association, echoes Bradley’s sentiments: “In my first year of presidency of this great parade, having Sister James Anne as grand marshal is like icing on the cake. Spiritually, she has been the chaplain of the Mayo Association for many years and as an Immaculate Heart of Mary nun, has been a positive influence on many a student. Emotionally she is a sincere, loving being who is kind and unselfish to all. Her Irishness she wears proudly on her beautiful face and in her involvement with dance, family and organizations. I am thrilled to count her as my friend.”
For Sister’s part, being named as grand marshal was a bolt out of the blue, and an honor for which she is very grateful. “I never considered myself as being a grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade at all,” she says. “My cousins and family, they’re all excited. And I know my mother and father will be very happy up in heaven.”