Blessed Sacrament School bids farewell to Sister Judy

CHARLESTON — For the first time in its 60-year history, Blessed Sacrament School will not have a religious sister as principal.

Sister Judy Therese Holler, of the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, is leaving the top spot after “four wonderful years” to return to teaching, she said. She served as assistant principal for one year and principal for three.

In the past, a vacancy left by one sister would be filled with another sister. But SSCM, like so many religious orders in the United States, is suffering from the vocations shortage, and simply does not have anyone qualified to take Sister Judy’s place.

Msgr. Joseph F. Hanley, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church, said Sister Judy leaving is “quite a loss for the school” in a number of ways. Religious sisters as a whole bring a special dimension to the school, he said, and Sister Judy in particular really loved the children.

Blessed Sacrament has started its search for a new principal, but Msgr. Hanley said it is unlikely they will find anyone from a religious order.

“They just aren’t available,” he said. “It’s a mark of the times. Most schools have made this transition. I would have been happy if we didn’t have to make the transition, but that’s where we are.”
The Diocese of Charleston has 31 schools, and with Sister Judy leaving Blessed Sacrament, only five of those will still be led by sisters.

St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton is one of the five, and that is where Sister Judy will teach fourth grade.

She said she knew this day was coming.

When she came to Blessed Sacrament, Sister Judy said it was a gift from God to allow her to grow and stretch, but more and more she missed being in the classroom with the children, and she realized teaching was still her calling.

“It’s something I have a lot of confidence in: sharing my faith with everybody,” she said.

Sister Judy converted to Catholicism when she was 25 years old, but said she first heard God calling to her when she was only seven. At the time, she explained, she was away at Girl Scout camp and ended up at church with a group of Catholic campers. Her family is Protestant, so she had never been to a Catholic service.

“Something just hit me,” she said. “I thought: This is it. This is where I want to be.”

Her parents, however, did not understand or encourage their daughter’s new love. As she grew up, Sister Judy continued to visit the Catholic Church, where she felt a warm rush of belonging each time, until finally she acted on her yearning to become a sister.

Sister Judy said it was not an easy decision for her parents to accept, especially her father, who wanted grandchildren. But it was the right thing for her.

“I believe that God worked a lot in my life. He was there the whole time, guiding and encouraging,” she said. “It took some time to get there, but I really believe I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Instead of being a parent to a few, she said, she is a parent to all.

At the start of the new school year, Sister Judy will lead one grade instead of an entire school, and she is mostly happy with that. Budgets and administrative meetings have never been her favorite things, she said, smiling. It’s too much like math, which ranks as an “OK” subject.

Her favorite classes, aside from religion, are reading and language arts.

She said she will have to work hard to be the kind of teacher she has preached about for four years: go the extra mile, help children with different learning styles, and deal calmly with daily interruptions.

“I have to remember to be that flexible person that I’m asking everyone else to be,” she said.  

Faculty members and parents threw a surprise farewell for Sister Judy, who leaves at the end of June.

She said she will miss everyone, but it is the students who hold her heart the tightest.
“I’m going to miss the children,” she said. “I’m going to miss seeing them with their bright faces in the car line everyday.”

Sister Judy recently attended her last Blessed Sacrament graduations for kindergarten and eighth grade and said it was a teary-eyed affair.

Sally Bent, who works in the school office, said staff members and parents are sad for themselves, but happy for their principal.

“We are going to miss her, and we are going to miss her leadership,” Bent said.

Sister Judy said some people have expressed concern that Blessed Sacrament won’t be a Catholic school anymore without a sister at the helm. But she believes after 60 years, Catholicism has permeated the very walls.

“Our legacy will live on,” she said.

In the hallway just outside the office are framed photos of all the sisters who have served as administrators of Blessed Sacrament since it opened. Known as The Wall of Heroes, they are practically the first thing a visitor notices. The outgoing principal noted that as long as her photo hangs there, she’ll be watching.

Sister Judy said only three of the women shown are still living; the others have gone home to God. She added  that at age 53, she is considered a young sister.

“Young girls aren’t coming in,” she said.

Nobody knows what the answer is to the vocations shortage, but Sister Judy said it could start with positive role models and encouragement from parents.