PHOENIX — She is a big-time Phoenix Suns fan but follows other sports, too.
She enjoys bicycling, walking, reading and the outdoors.
She was once a talented Irish dancer.
But none of these interests define Sr. Raphael Quinn, I.B.V.M., nearly as much as her love for children and teaching.
“My own religious vocation and the foundation of my own family was a place of prayer, and great faith. My mother had a great passion for education. I have a desire to educate as many children as possible, especially seeing that they learn and grow in the knowledge of who Jesus is,” she said. “I don’t look on it as work.”
Perhaps that is why, after 50 years, the principal of Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral School still has what she calls “the spark” when she sees youngsters returning for the start of the fall semester.
“She has said, ‘when I no longer feel that, I will know it is time to retire,’” said Ss. Simon and Jude Director of Advancement Mary Jo Wahlers. “She’s never not felt that.”
On Aug. 25, the 461 students, as well faculty and staff gathered inside the school gym for a Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, honoring the milestone. Fr. Fernando Camou, cathedral rector, was there as well.
During his homily, Bishop Olmsted recalled a diocesan priest’s recent description of Sr. Raphael. “She is always joyful. She has the ability to make each person feel welcomed and loved.”
The bishop also reminded the congregation that “no one can serve as a principal of a school without facing obstacles, times of discouragement and hardships. When one can do that and still keep in mind the good things about others, that’s the Holy Spirit at work.”
That is one of many traits cited by the bishop, as well as Sr. Raphael’s former students and parents, that has made her the school’s rock.
In a separate interview, Bishop Olmsted said Sr. Raphael provides love, attention and encouragement equally.
“She aims at inspiring all students. (Some) have won prizes at science fairs and other competitions. At the same time, those who need extra help don’t feel overlooked at all. She has a way of encouraging each to live up to their own abilities,” he said.
Others echoed those thoughts.
“She’s an exceptionally amazing person, like no other,” offered Mary Novotny, who sent four children to the school in the late 1980s and 1990s and is part of a lay group that provides spiritual companionship to the Loreto Sisters, the order Sr. Raphael is part of that teaches at the school. “She’s universal in her love, from the best to the most challenged students. She has a pulse on everyone and what a particular student needs.”
That means investing a great deal of time in her students’ activities outside class as well.
“I played sports from fifth grade on,” Amy Kline Morreale said, who also sent three children to the school and now works as its bus supervisor as well as a kindergarten teacher’s aide. “She came to every single home game. Sister checked on every student and made sure their homework was done and that they were getting their grades. To this day, she still does that.”
Loreto Sisters’ values
The five core values of the Loreto Sisters are felicity, freedom, justice, sincerity and verity, the last of which, “embodies integrity.” That means “to do what we have to do well.”
The values are Sr. Raphael’s guide and are reflected in some of the comments of those who have learned under her.
“SSJ is what it is today because of her,” Chris Tanner, a 1990 graduate, said. Tanner and his wife, Susanna, sent three boys there, the youngest of whom is in seventh grade.
“Our community at Ss. Simon and Jude was built by Sister’s faith, dedication and leadership. She has helped mold thousands of children into respectful, faithful and compassionate human beings.”
“She taught discipline with purpose. I see it in my youngest son all the time. He came out of there with better manners, compassion and respect. It had to do not just with academics but the whole person,” she explained.
Sr. Raphael also was hailed as a community builder, someone whose direction and involvement fostered a sense of family.
“She has a steel-trap mind,” Morreale said. “She knows every student from when the school started. She remembers every name, (even) if she hasn’t seen them in years.”
One story illustrates Sr. Raphael’s investment beyond the classroom walls.
Michele Statt was a 6-year-old 1st-grader in the 1970s when an accident at home involving a glass door sent her to the hospital.
“I was ready to go into surgery. I was on a gurney in a hallway. She came in, she was in her habit and walked over and comforted me. I was just a little kid; very afraid,” recalled Michele, who met her future husband, Joe Statt, at Ss. Simon and Jude. They sent four children to SSJ, the oldest of whom also would meet his future wife there.
My own family was a place of prayer. I hope children feel that spirit of love and compassion.
Family, dancing and sports — and the camaraderie of each — were part of Sr. Raphael’s childhood, and Bishop Olmsted said those became ingredients for her leadership approach.
“She loves people, especially young people. It is very evident in everything she does,” he said.
Sr. Raphael’s love of community was built in part on a childhood in Ireland with five brothers and two sisters. She participated in sports, including tennis and field hockey, and learned to dance at an early age, winning “a good few medals” in competition along the way.
Faith also played a prominent role.
“My own family was a place of prayer,” she told The Catholic Sun. “I hope children feel that spirit of love and compassion.”
“I try to develop a personal relationship with students and make a connection with their family. I think children today trust you more when they know you know them, (especially) if they are going through a difficult time,” she explained.
This past year offered new challenges, as the school worked its way through COVID-19 related restrictions. Sr. Raphael said the limits on socializing were particularly tough for youngsters.
“What really helps is that connection with the Lord. It is really sad to see young people today not able to cope with the loneliness and isolation they are feeling. That is a big responsibility in our schools to not only teach academics but also to be able to cope and have that resilience to be able to rise above this,” she said.
While the world got a little narrower in the past 18 months, this spring gave Sr. Raphael and her fellow Loreto Sisters a chance to rekindle one of their favorite activities. Wearing a T-shirt with the Phoenix Suns logo and the number 50, Sr. Raphael and her fellow “Suns Nuns” rooted their team on to an appearance in the NBA Finals. Years ago, when the likes of Charles Barkley played for the team, the nuns would sometimes sit courtside and cheer.
“This year we got into the Suns again,” she said. “Sr. Augustine would read the stats in the morning paper.”
Life has changed in many ways since the early 1960s when Sr. Raphael joined the Loreto Sisters about a decade after their invitation from Rector, the Rev. Paul Smith, to begin a school next to the Cathedral of Ss. Simon and Jude.
“As a young nun, I was very committed to my vows. This was what you were expected to do. All I can say is after all these years, this is what God has planned for me. I am so grateful to be part of the Ss. Simon and Jude community school for 50 years.”
“The Holy Spirit reminds us of all we have been taught,” said Bishop Olmsted in his homily. “Today, we thank God for a teacher who the Holy Spirit loves even more than we do: Sr. Raphael. Whatever we know about God, the Holy Spirit teaches us. But he does it through human voices, sometimes with an Irish accent.”