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Sister Callahan hangs up educator hat after 44 years with Catholic schools

Sister Joanne Callahan, who headed the school system

Sister Joanne Callahan, who headed the school system for the Diocese of Rockville Centre for more than two decades, packs her belongings in her office at diocese headquarters in Rockville Centre on Tuesday. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

One of Sister Joanne Callahan’s toughest days as head the Diocese of Rockville Centre’s sprawling school system came the morning she got a call while in Albany for meetings: A priest and a parishioner had been shot to death in Lynbrook during a weekday Mass.

Callahan’s stomach twisted into a tight knot. A grammar school was attached to Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church, and students often attended the morning Mass.

Callahan raced back to Long Island, and was let into the school, which was on lockdown during a seven-hour standoff with the shooter, who had run to a nearby house. Luckily, the students for some reason had not gone to Mass that day in March 2002, and the shooter — armed with a .22-caliber rifle — never got into the school.

But the fear of a school shooting never left Callahan, who on Tuesday spent her last day working for the diocese in a career that spanned 44 years, including 22 as superintendent of what for decades was the largest school system on Long Island.

“My worry always even before 9/11 … was what happens if someone gets into a school,” Callahan said in an interview. “I worried about it before we had Columbine,” the 1999 massacre at a Colorado high school that left 12 students and one teacher dead; the two student perpetrators died by suicide.

“We need to keep students safe, and how do we do that?” Callahan said.

Callahan was the longest-serving superintendent of the Catholic school system in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which has more than 50 grammar schools, about a dozen high schools and, when she first took over, nearly 40,000 students.

She spent New Year's Eve day cleaning out her office at the diocesan headquarters in Rockville Centre, saying goodbye to colleagues and sharing cakes she baked. She was usually the one who baked for the going-away parties of staff members. This week, she did it for her own.

It was a bittersweet moment. She loves teaching and education to her core, she said, and in nearly a half-century in the field, took only two “mental health days” when she needed a break.

“I don’t think there were 10 days in my life that I didn’t want to get up and go to work,” Callahan said. “I was fortunate to be in a role … that I loved. And I love it until today.”

But she is juggling so much, it was time for something to give. Besides working for the diocese and serving on numerous boards, she also is the head of her religious order, the Ursuline Sisters of Blue Point. Their numbers are dwindling, and they were recently forced to sell their longtime headquarters in Blue Point.

“We are down to 33 sisters, and they really are my responsibility, to take care of their needs, to raise money for our retirement fund,” which is underfunded, she said.

After a grueling pace and at the age of 70, she is ready to slow down a little. She wants to join a gym — the last time she belonged to one was three decades ago, after she was hit by a car and underwent 13 months of physical therapy.

She would like more time to pray and to visit the other sisters, some of them in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

She also admits to being a “news junkie” — she will watch TV news programs for up to three hours a night, and rarely has time for a movie.

Callahan oversaw the school system starting in 1993 during a time that was both tumultuous and gratifying. She had to play the role of the “bad guy” who announced school closings and consolidations as enrollment numbers dropped. Today there are roughly 25,000 students.

But she also got to experience what she calls the joy of Catholic education and the academic excellence it pursues.

“Catholic schools have something that public schools just can’t do. And that is to talk about Jesus every day,” she said. “When something happens, a disaster or a loss, we pray. We teach children that.”

She started in the diocese in 1972, teaching at St. William the Abbot School in Seaford, where she still lives in the convent. She then spent a few years teaching in her native Connecticut, and even coached the high school cheerleading squad, “which my family just thought was hysterical. I was not athletic.”

She returned to Long Island in 1983 to become principal of St. William, and in 1988 was tapped by the diocese for duties including reorganizing — that is, closing or consolidating — schools. She served as superintendent from 1993 to 2005, and most recently has served part time as secretary of education, handling duties such as public policy.

She sees parents as critical to the educational process.

“The most important job you get to do in this world is to be a parent,” she said. “I see the results of students who have parental support, and those that don’t.”

Those challenges are ever greater in the “smartphone” era, she said.

“Screen time in my opinion is too much. It becomes a baby sitter,” she said.

As she enters her next stage, Callahan knows more rough times may be ahead for Catholic schools. But the sisters in her order are supporting her decision to hold just one job, rather than two.

“I wish today was my first day” in the diocese’s education department, she said as she surveyed the boxes in her office. “There is still so much I would like to do in Catholic education. I would still like to be in charge.”

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