Sister John Raymond McGann took over as head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in the late 1970s, just as changes recommended by the Vatican II reforms were taking full hold.
It was an exhilarating time, as nuns increasingly expanded their traditional work in schools and hospitals to include prison ministry, social justice issues and work with the poor.
And for her, it was inspiring for another important reason: Her twin brother, Bishop John McGann, now deceased, was the leader of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, overseeing some of the same changes in the diocese.
Sister McGann “was the perfect person to be our superior general at that time,” said Sister Elizabeth Hill, former president of St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, where McGann lived and worked for years. “We all appreciated the depth of her spirituality, the great insights she brought.”
Sister McGann died on Jan. 6 at the religious order’s motherhouse in Brentwood. She was 91.
Sister Helen Kearney, the current superior general of the order, said McGann was a remarkable woman who graduated from college and earned a master’s degree — unusual for women at the time — before entering the order in 1948. She later earned a doctorate in psychology from St. John’s University and did post-graduate work.
McGann provided “wise and steady leadership to live out those changes” ushered in by the Vatican II reforms, Kearney said. The reforms encouraged greater participation by the laity, replaced Latin with local languages for Mass and had the priest face the congregation rather than the altar.
During McGann’s tenure as head of the order, the largest on Long Island, from 1978 to 1986, the Sisters of St. Joseph started working in a diocesan mission in the Dominican Republic, ministered to Native Americans on reservations, and invited struggling mothers — some of them recently released from prison — to live in the order’s convents along with their children as they tried to put their lives back together, Hill and Kearney said.
While Sister McGann was less outspoken than her brother, she had a powerful impact on hundreds of students she taught at St. Joseph’s College who became teachers and principals — many in New York City’s public school system, Hill said.
She was tireless, typically starting her days at 4:30 a.m. and traveling between Brooklyn and Long Island, Hill said.
Sister McGann spent her early years in Brooklyn, and the family eventually moved to West Hempstead. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English at the College of New Rochelle and her master’s in English at Columbia University. After a year teaching in the city’s public school system, she joined the religious order.
She spent six years teaching in schools run by the order in Brooklyn, before her superiors — recognizing her capabilities — asked her to take over as chairman of the Education Department at St. Joseph’s in 1956.
By 1968, she was named to the order’s leadership team in Brentwood, and a decade later was elevated to its top position.
After she completed two terms, the most allowed, Sister McGann became more heavily involved in the college’s Patchogue campus, Kearney said.
A funeral Mass was celebrated at the order’s motherhouse on Tuesday, and McGann was buried in the cemetery on the order’s grounds. She is survived by nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.
As a former superior general, McGann could have had a more prominent spot in the cemetery, Hill said. Instead, she chose to be buried next to one of her siblings, Sister Thomas Joseph, who also belonged to the order.