My parents were Charles James Whittaker and Winifred Ellen Clohisy Whittaker. My father was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was a foreman for Haverhill Boxford Paper Co. My mother was born in Groverland, Massachusetts and was a stay at home mom. After my youngest brother was in college, she went to work for the Internal Revenue Service. I had three brothers and two sisters. In birth order, my brother, Paul James was first, then me, Grace Mary, followed by John Joseph, Ann Catherine, Clare Frances, and last, James Francis.
Paul James went to the Divine Word Seminary after high school to become a Brother. On December 29, 1949 the young men were going on a picnic across the seminary lake. The boat capsized. Two boys drowned. Paul was able to save one boy. After many efforts to save him, the stress was too much for Paul and he died from exhaustion.
I, Grace Mary, went to the SCN Novitiate on September 8, 1955. My sister, Ann Catherine, also came to the novitiate three years later. My brother John Joseph, called Jack, married and worked for Western Electric. He has three wonderful sons. He and his wife are very active in their parish. Clare married, had two daughters and three sons. Unfortunately, one daughter died at birth. James Francis was called Jim. He became a teacher, but decided later to work at the Internal Revenue Service. His greatest joy was being with people and helping them. In his later years, he helped to paint houses and drove the school bus.
One of my favorite childhood memories was of me sitting on the front porch steps with my brothers, Paul and Jack, waiting for my father to come home from work about three o’clock in the afternoon. My mother would not allow us to go out there earlier, for fear we would run out into the traffic. My father would always have candy in his pockets. As he came near the porch, he would call out to us, “Which hand?” We would yell out which hand we thought held our eagerly awaited candy.
On Sunday afternoons when I was a teenager, my father would take the older children on a two-mile walk to McDonald’s farm for the fun of being outdoors while my mother stayed home with the younger ones. This was a dairy farm, so we would always stop at their ice cream stand for a wonderful treat.
On Halloween, we children always went trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. Because I was the oldest girl, my mother charged me with caring for my younger siblings. Brothers Paul and Jack thought this was silly at their “advanced age” and would not go with us. One time on our return home, Paul and Jack decided to scare us. They hid behind the door when we rang the door bell and made ghostly noises and poked strange objects through the mail slot at us. Of course, we all screamed with fright. It ended up that they had more Halloween fun than we did – but they were jealous of all our candy!
I went to Sacred Hearts (of Jesus and Mary) Grade School taught by the Saint Joseph Sisters of the Archdiocese of Boston. They were happy years. I especially looked forward to the May Processions because we got to dress up and bring flowers to honor Mary. When I was in the eighth grade, I was chosen to be the Queen of Peace that year in the May Procession. I was dressed in white with a crown and a long cape. Two first grade boys dressed as Swiss Guards carried my train. I felt honored and very happy.
For high school, I went to St. James High in Haverhill, Massachusetts also taught by the St. Joseph Sisters. In my junior year, Sister St. Gerard, my homeroom teacher, asked me to stay after school because she had a message for me. It was to offer me a job at the neighboring drug store as a “soda jerk” requested by the manager. I was eager to accept it because I wanted to help my mother and father with the finances. I worked on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after school and full time on the weekends. Then one day, the manager offered me the job at the cosmetic counter and I was delighted because I’d get two extra dollars there and it would not be as messy as dipping up ice cream and making “brown cows”.
One memory still fresh in my mind from my “soda fountain days” is that of Father James C. Shaughnessey, one of the priests of the parish, coming for a treat, and telling me that I had a vocation to the Sisterhood. Of course I was greatly embarrassed in front of all the people standing around, and I quickly said, “Oh no, Father, not me!” A few days later he was waiting for me after school and asked to talk with me. I answered that I had to go to work. “Well, then come to me on your day off”, he said. That evening I asked my mother’s advice. “Go talk to him”, she said, “It may be a sign from God.”
I went to the rectory and the cook answered the doorbell. She could tell that I was nervous, so she sweetly patted me on the back in her kind Irish way and hurried off to call the priest. I told him that yes, I did want to become a Sister, but didn’t want the whole world to know it and I didn’t want to go to the St. Joseph Sisters because I didn’t want to teach school. He had recently been assigned to a parish in Lowell, Massachusetts where the SCNs had a school and an orphanage. He suggested that I go talk to Sister Domitilla Clare, a good friend of his. She was very kind and understanding and I liked what she said. All during my senior year, I visited her and the other Sisters there often along with my mother. Sometimes they came to visit us. They helped me get ready to come to the Novitiate and so did the St. Joseph Sisters.
I came to the novitiate at Nazareth on September 8, 1955. Because of the school year, our postulancy was extended four months, making it a ten-month period of preparation. I loved every minute of my novitiate, but found it very different from anything I had ever known. It all helped me to grow, however. I made my first vows on July 19, 1958 and went on my first mission to Our Lady’s Home for Infants in Louisville. The young mothers were precious. I loved their kindness and goodness to everyone. Caring for their babies was a real joy and sometimes very difficult when mother and baby had to leave.
Next, in August 1959, I went to St. Pius X in Calvert City, Kentucky. I taught the first and second grades and was also the housekeeper. I had not wanted to be a teacher, but the children were so dear I loved it after all. Even their families won my heart. Often they would take us to Kentucky Lake for boat-rides and picnics, and for car rides to different places. On one of these occasions on the way to Cape Gerardo, Missouri, I saw cotton fields for the first time.
St. Vincent, Kentucky in 1961 was my next mission. My full-time ministry was in the high school library with Sister Jackie Kirsch who taught me so much. We became very good friends. Another good friend was Sister Philomena Cox, the music teacher who also had the Glee Club. I loved to hear the students sing.
My next mission was at Nazareth, Kentucky as a nurse’s assistant in the Infirmary in August, 1963. I liked caring for our Sisters. They inspired me by telling me of their home-life and missions. The hardest thing for me was pushing wheelchairs up or down the ramps, but usually someone was there to help me. Nothing else I had to do bothered me.
In September, 1966, I went to Our Lady of Peace Hospital to work in the Medical Records Department and also in the Arts and Crafts Department. I enjoyed working there because we had such a warm, happy community spirit among us.
I returned to Nazareth in 1967 and worked in house-keeping at Nazareth College. I found that to be a lonely job, but I did it well. I was there only a short while, then went back as a nurse’s assistant in the Infirmary which delighted me. I remained there until 1972. I made many very good friends while there, especially Sisters Frances Borgia Quigley and Edward Barnes who were very dear to my heart. They were very kind and encouraging to me.
My next ministry at the Motherhouse was the switchboard operator. I really enjoyed it because I met so many interesting people. The most interesting and delightful of these were the little children and especially those who came on Halloween for “trick or treats”. A funny incident occurred one time when a doctor-friend of one of the Sisters came to visit. As he was leaving, he leaned over to me and said, “Sister, if you ever decide to leave the Convent, come to my office and I will hire you as my receptionist immediately!”
On my days off from the switchboard, I was asked to be in charge of the thrift shop and to drive the Sisters to their various appointments in Bardstown, Elizabethtown and Louisville.
In 2001, I also began caring for our Sister Barbara Thomas who was such a joy to be with. This was one of my happiest experiences and I still treasure the memory of my time with her. I was privileged to be with her at the time of her peaceful death. I felt I was in the presence of a saint.
Among my other many ministries was hospitality at the Guest House, helping in the Ceramics Shop and working with the Montessori children which I still enjoy. One might think I should be retired at my age, but I’m far from that. There are still countless little jobs and kindnesses that give me energy and joy. I am grateful that I became an SCN and, besides teaching, have had so many enjoyable life experiences.