COLUMBIA—When Eileen Quinn was growing up, she attended Catholic schools in Buffalo, N.Y., run by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. Each day in the classroom, she noticed something about the religious women who taught her.
“I saw that the sisters loved each other and that they were happy,” she said. “It was very clear to me how happy they were, and I wondered if that is what God wanted me to do. I thought about it over one weekend, decided I wanted to be one of them and never second-guessed my decision.”
The daughter of immigrants from Northern Ireland entered the order immediately after graduating high school in 1957. Sixty years later, Sister Eileen Quinn is preparing to retire and return to the place where her vocation was born.
In June, she will leave Cardinal Newman School, where she has taught math for 23 years, to live in community with 32 other sisters at their St. Mary Center in Buffalo.
As she sat in her empty classroom recently, Sister Eileen called the decision to retire bittersweet.
“I am going to miss my students and I’m going to miss Columbia, but I decided I needed to make the transition while I still had the energy to get involved in another ministry,” she said.
For most of her years in religious life, Sister Eileen has been a teacher. She developed a deep love of math thanks to one of the sisters who taught her in high school, and still readily remembers her name — Sister Mary DeSales.
Sister Eileen received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from D’Youville College in Buffalo and her master’s from Notre Dame University. After graduating, she taught math at Mount St. Mary Academy in the Diocese of Buffalo (her alma mater) and then at a diocesan high school in Lockport, N.Y.
She changed roles in 1972 when she became the provincial administrator for her order’s Eastern Province, and until 1985 handled the needs of sisters at every level. That job involved a lot of travel, and she made her first visit to South Carolina, where her order has served since 1947.
During a two-year sabbatical, Sister Eileen completed a master’s degree in theology from Washington Theological Union. She returned to school work and served as principal at her alma mater, then moved to Columbia in 1994 to teach at Cardinal Newman.
She has taught all levels of high school math and served as the chair of the math department.
As she prepares to return to Buffalo at the end of July, Sister Eileen said she will miss the daily joy of teaching, a job that “energized” her every time she stepped in front of the classroom.
She’s excited about the future though. With a bright smile, she said she looks forward to living in community again with her fellow sisters and being involved in new ministry, perhaps the growing immigrant and refugee community in Buffalo.
Her colleagues and students said they will miss her straightforward, business-like classroom demeanor, her kindness, and her dry sense of humor.
During a ceremony in late May, Sister Eileen was honored with the 2017-18 Carolyn McLendon Excellence in Teaching Award. Her coworkers also held a celebration in her honor.
Molly Rainwater was one of Sister Eileen’s students in 2011, and remembers her as being all business in the classroom, calling on every student to solve a problem.
“In my case, if you didn’t know the answer, she sternly reminded you that you did know it — and told you to solve the problem,” she said.
Five years later, Rainwater returned as a first-year math teacher, and felt blessed to be working with her former instructor.
“She provided me a strong mathematical foundation that helped me become a math a teacher,” Rainwater said. “She was a wonderful teacher and now has been a great mentor to me as a teacher. I am honored to say that I am one of her former students and have also been blessed to be one of her colleagues.”
Susan Henry, a member of the Cardinal Newman math faculty for 29 years, said Sister Eileen has been an effective and supportive department leader who always looked out for what was best for her fellow teachers.
“She was a tough teacher but at the same time very giving; didn’t let the kids slack off, but whenever they asked for help she was willing to help,” Henry said.
Photo provided: Sister Eileen Quinn, right, of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, receives an award for excellence in teaching from Jacqualine Kasprowski, principal at Cardinal Newman School. Sister Eileen is retiring after 23 years as a math teacher at the school.