It’s little more than common knowledge amongst the students and faculty of McNicholas High School that much of what the school is today can be attributed to the Sisters of St. Joseph, the pillars upon whom the Rockets have always stood. Though it’s been years since McNicholas has seen the Sisters in front of the classrooms, much of the order’s original influence on the school has remained the same.
In 1967, Sister Judi Keehnen, a Sister of St. Joseph and McNicholas Class of ‘59, chose to rejoin her alma mater as both a teacher and athletic coach. Forty-seven years later, the influence of the Sisters of St. Joseph remains with Keehnen, who continues to work behind the scenes as a force of action in the McNicholas community.
Keehnen first felt a pull towards religious life in seventh grade, when a missionary sister came in to speak with her class about considering a religious vocation. Despite only being in the middle school, Keehnen began to see the sisterhood as an exciting lifestyle – one that would stay in the back of her mind all throughout her years as a McNicholas student.
However, it wasn’t until high school that she began to seriously consider her life as a religious. Back in the mid-fifties, when the Sisters of St. Joseph still called the McNicholas convent their home, Keehnen and her fellow classmates were often enlisted in the early hours of the morning to help put up chairs for upcoming school assemblies. It was during one of these mornings, in the October of her senior year, that Keehnen was approached by Sister Marcella about joining the convent.
“On the way to the gym she said to me ‘Judi you are always around here helping – why don’t you just join us?’ And my response to her was, ‘I would like that. What do I need to do?’” Keehnen explained. “That was my first conscious movement toward entering the convent. Eleven months later I was on my way to New Orleans to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph novitiate on September 8,1959.”
After proving her devotion to the religious life in the novitiate stage of her discernment process , Keehnen officially pronounced her final vows with the Sisters of St. Joseph in July 1967., That September 1967 she chose to give back her time to McNicholas. From 1967-82, she taught clothing, woodworking, and drafting in the classroom, and stepped onto the court to coach the volleyball team from 1973-80.
“During the late 60’s and early 70’s, we had some challenging students, but they were always a great bunch a caring and giving individuals,” Keehnen said. “I could always count on the (McNicholas) students to come through in caring and giving for whoever and whatever needed help. I see that same giving from the students today.”
And Keehnen didn’t stop at the classroom, nor did she slow down in the field of extra-curricular activities. Bringing back a bit of her New Orleans influence, she spent fifteen years in charge of the school’s annual Mardi Gras pageant and ball, worked in the costume department during musical season, and even spent a year coaching the McNicholas softball team.
Forty-seven years after beginning her teaching career with McNicholas, Keehnen remains a vital part of the McNicholas community, having served on the school board since 2004, the alumni board since 2009, and continuing to volunteer on a weekly basis. Every Thursday, she has divided her time between the development office, admissions office, and has recently returned to the alumni office, where she helps school officials with whatever they may need.
Though the times have changed since she first became a part of the McNicholas family, Keehnen admits that she is continually impressed by the spirit of the students and the heart that is put into their work, especially within the area of community outreach.
“In my years at McNicholas as student and teacher, we did not have the responsibility to encourage the students to give to others,” Keehnen said. “Teaching young people to give back to society is one of the best changes at McNicholas. In the long run, the world will be a better place. We all win.”
While Keehnen works tirelessly to support the school she loves, she continues to look back fondly upon the memories that she shares with her former coworkers, and looks forward to sharing the enduring spirit that the Sisters of St. Joseph have granted McNick from the very beginning.
“What makes me feel great is how the administration, teachers, and students have carried on the charism and ideals that the Sisters of St. Joseph started when they founded the school,” Keehnen said. “The faces and circumstances have changed, but the dedication of the teachers and the student’s response to all that are presented to them is the same.”