Good Shepherd Sister honored for lifetime of community service

BOSTON -- For 27 years, Sister Mary Hart, RGS has helped generations of youngsters succeed in academics through summer and afterschool programs in Roxbury. In recognition of that great service, she recently received the Boston Neighborhood Fellows Award, presented annually to six unsung heroes by the Philanthropic Initiative.

Not only has Sister Mary educated thousands of youngsters, but she has inspired many volunteers with her dedication to academics, said Sister Mary Eileen Foley, RGS.

“She has a great love for children and a great respect for education,” Sister Mary Eileen said. “The Good Shepherd Sisters are happy that Mary has been chosen to receive the award. She has been an inspiration to us as well as to those with whom she worked.”

The focus of the summer and after-school programs that she started is literacy for all participants, Sister Mary said.

Sister Mary added that she formed the program at the request of the pastor of St. Francis de Sales-St. Philip Parish in Roxbury. The parish merged with St. John-St. Hugh Parish, forming St. Katharine Drexel Parish on May 15, 2005. The programs continue at St. Katharine’s.

“A lot of people still know us as St. Francis de Sales. I wanted our new parish to have some very good things said about it, and I thought this was a good opportunity,” she said of the award. “Receiving the award meant recognition of St. Katharine Drexel programs for children.”

The Philanthropic Institute is a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works with donors to help make a difference in society through strategic philanthropy. Each recipient of the Neighborhood Fellows Award, founded in 1991, is given $30,000. The institute has awarded more than $2 million over the last 17 years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino presented Sister Mary with her award at the Old South Meeting House in Boston on March 13.

Sister Mary said the ceremony was “very dignified.” At the event, a parent whose five children were taught by Sister Mary, thanked her for enabling her to pursue a nursing degree. Sister Mary said the woman’s comments were the highlight of the evening.

Sister Mary grew up in Lawrence and attended Regis College. After her graduation in 1953, she became a Good Shepherd Sister. The religious order is currently celebrating the 150th year of their founding. It is also the 25th anniversary of the Good Shepherd Associates, lay men and women who assist with the mission of the Good Shepherd Congregation. The associates recommitted themselves to that mission on April 14.

Prior to starting the program, Sister Mary was searching for a way to work in parish ministry because she wanted to serve the local Church, she said. She received a call from the pastor at St. Frances, asking her to start a children’s summer camp. The camp went so well that she started a small afterschool program, she said.

The program now has 75 students from kindergarten through eighth grade and 79 volunteers. Each student is paired with a volunteer because one-on-one tutoring is the most effective, said Sister Mary.

The “hope-filled” program aspires to help students achieve academic success and go on to higher learning, she added.

“That’s our goal: to get them into very good high schools, and once they get into good high schools, they’re going to be college-bound,” she said.

Most of the children have parents who are immigrants, and the programs are just one way that the Church reaches out to the immigrant person, she said.

The summer and after-school programs have been successful because they have had the support of people in the community who volunteered to help the children. Some of those people have worked with Sister Mary from the beginning, she said.

Sister Mary added she could not have organized the programs without the help of many people, including Virginia Grayson, a Good Shepherd associate, and Barbara Diggs.

“They’re my right hand and my left hand,” she said. “I know I would never be where I am or the program would never be where it is except for the support that we have received from our Church and from the Roxbury community.”

Volunteers from area high schools and colleges also assist with the program, Sister Mary added. The students from Boston College, Northeastern University and Emmanuel College can receive college credit through their efforts. Students from St. John Preparatory School in Danvers and Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood volunteer as well.

Sister Mary said of the Xaverian students who come weekly, “They help our middle school youth academically, and our middle school youth always beat them at Connect Four.”