Sr. Judy Flahavan retires after principalships at St. Columbkille, Ascension and Nativity — all inner-city elementary schools. Looking back as a woman religious for 51 years and educator for 47 1/2 years — a few weeks before her so-called “retirement” — Sister Judy Flahavan, 69, says there were two life-altering events that “blessed” and led her to her true vocation of working with inner-city children and their struggling families.

The first was being named principal of St. Columbkille School in South Los Angeles. This down-in-the-trenches assignment came only after teaching mostly at parochial schools serving middle-class families in northern California, Washington state and even Hawaii, which happened to be her last assignment. The Sister of Notre Dame de Namur also took one career detour to coordinate a religious education program in Marysville, Calif., for four years. 

“When I first started at Columbkille, I loved it,” says Sister “Judy,” as she’s been known to generations of Catholic school students. “The people were just very genuine, gracious. They have an innate sense of God, I think. They’re humble, simple. And I don’t think I loved being a principal, necessarily, as I loved the people. 

“After a while at Columbkille, though, I developed skills about these children who are second-language learners who need to have teachers who understand that. Also, you have to have an understanding that their parents come without much formal education and respect that. I think after 10 years there, it would have been hard to leave inner-city schools, unless I didn’t like it. 

“But I loved it,” she says, sitting in a swivel chair in her office in a converted wood-frame house at the far end of the school complex, running for nearly two blocks along busy Vermont Avenue. 

Then came the second life-changing experience, which further deepened the desire of the nun — who grew up in the Castro district of San Francisco, under the watchful eyes of a San Francisco fireman and his Irish wife — to serve the underserved.

It happened during Sister Judy’s one-year sabbatical to study Spanish at the Maryknoll Language School in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and to stay with a group of sisters in her congregation in a shanty town on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. 

“What an eye-opener that was for how people live in other places,” she recalls. “All the streets were just sand, and the people lived in little shacks that were just like places covered with a tarp. So the poverty was very obvious. The Jesuits had a school, but the way kids learned was so different. The teacher would write the information on the blackboard and the students would copy it down in their little tablets and take that home to study. 

“St. Columbkille is a place where there aren’t a lot of resources, but it was nothing compared to this,” she observed. “One day I saw a woman with a wheelbarrow and toddler in tow just walking along, and in the wheelbarrow was a dead baby she was going to bury. So seeing all that, when I came back I didn’t know what I was really going to do, but I thought I’d be a principal again. And I did want it to be an inner-city school similar to St. Columbkille.”

Finding strength to change things So Sister Judy wound up at Ascension, another parochial school in South L.A. that served the poor and working-class families. The desks were in terrible shape and most of the Venetian blinds on windows didn’t work. 

“And it would have been very discouraging except for what I had experienced in Peru,” she notes. “I could say, ‘Well, there are kids learning with much less.’ So it really strengthened me. And, fortunately, we were able to change that.” 

Desks were replaced, blinds got fixed and, during her six years as principal, enrollment went up, especially when she learned about the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provided partial tuition scholarships for underprivileged students to attend private schools in Southern California. 

Then in 1997, Sister Judy took over the reins of a third parochial school that had also seen better days since it opened in 1924. In fact, enrollment was down to 169 students at Nativity, serving the gritty Vermont-Slauson community. And they were housed in bungalows, because the original brick two-story building had been badly damaged by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Students didn’t even have an on-site place to play and ate their lunch in their modular classrooms.

But the outgoing, soft-spoken nun once again dug in her heels. During her first year, the old school building was repaired. And because Nativity was able to keep the bungalows, a seventh grade was added in 1999 and an eighth the next year. 

During the 2006-07 school year, a new building donated by John and Dorothy Shea replaced the bungalows, housing pre-kindergarten through third grade, with its own computer lab and playground. Fourth- through eighth-graders occupied the refurbished original school, which could have been a stand-in for the parochial school in “The Bells of St. Mary.”  

“I think people saw all the activity around here, so the enrollment jumped --- and it hasn’t gone under 300 in years,” the principal reports. “And with our double-session pre-K, it’s up to around 320.” 

From textbooks to iPads Looking back to when she started teaching 55 second-graders at Notre Dame School in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, Sister Judy recalls how the students were almost literally glued to their desks, reading textbooks or using number two pencils to fill out worksheets and pop quizzes. Teachers, meanwhile, were just encouraged to liven up a dull lesson by maybe using a map or some other visual aid. 

“But there wasn’t much else, and there’s such wonderful technology today,” she points out. “And not only can the teacher use it to enhance lessons, but also the students can actually develop lessons. They develop their own projects with very little help or guidance because they come up with these ideas themselves. And this is so great because I think with education you remember what you discover.”

Nor do students stay in their seats, all doing the same thing at the same time, reports the veteran educator. Research shows that some children learn better by hearing, while for others it’s visual or actually kinesthetically touching things like letters of the alphabet that really stimulate their developing minds. So teachers can make allowances not only how they teach but also how children might be grouped to increase their learning skills. 

Teachers at Nativity have what’s called “Elmo Teacher’s Tool” in their classrooms. Using a laptop and projector they can stream videos for their students to watch as well as search the Internet for information ranging from stellar objects to Stephen Foster. And kids, of course, can do their own research and class assignments in the two computer labs for primary grades and older students. 

Sister Judy doesn’t buy the often tossed-around didactic notion that today’s students simply don’t have the prolonged attention span of older generations. “No, I think our children are pretty attentive,” she maintains. “It depends on, of course, the teacher to provide some kind of motivation and keep them focused. But our kids are pretty focused. They just love to use computers.”

Almost all of Nativity’s students come from working-class Latino families who qualify for the government-funded lunch program, so keeping up with the latest smart phone and other techno devices is simply not possible. But she has noticed that a few eighth-graders do have iPads and are doing “really amazing” information gathering and sharing all kinds of in-your-face knowledge on them. Because they’re actually easier to use than a regular computer, she believes iPads or similar technological tools will soon be used in every school, including Nativity. 

“So all of these things I think have helped teachers to know how better to instruct children,” she says. “The kids are so into them that the interest is immediately there. You don’t have to worry at all about getting their attention. I think all of this new technology will just be integral to education in the near future, and we won’t be buying textbooks in large measure. Because it’s so much cheaper just to download them now.”

‘Unfathomable’ mysteryThe arc of Sister Judy’s own religious and spiritual life has also seen considerable changes from the time she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur on Aug. 14, 1960. For starters, the 100 young women in her novitiate were all wearing habits — a black bonnet with a white band and with a long black dress covered by an apron. After the Second Vatican Council, sisters, including members of her own congregation, started “experimenting” with different outfits. 

Because she could sew, Sister Judy was able to make some homemade outfits, although she admits with a quick grin and laugh they didn’t “always look great.” Today, she’s pretty much settled on wearing a sweater, blouse and slacks or occasionally a dress or blazer. 

But her clothing wasn’t the only thing that evolved over five decades. 

“I think I’m more aware of God always there than maybe I used to think,” she muses. “And I think I know God as more loving than I used to. He’s not the judgmental being I thought he was. So I don’t think you have to be kind of perfect in everything like we tried to be. Now I think of God as being so magnificent and almost unfathomable. When you think of dying and stepping over, it’s such a mystery.”

When asked about her future plans, she simply half-smiles and quips, “I don’t have any.” She’s going to take some months off to discern what her next ministry will be — to find out where there’s a real need that she’ll be able and “inclined” to fill. 

“I’m kind of looking forward to probably the workload won’t be what it was when I was a principal, which will be fine. I’ll be glad about that,” she acknowledges. “And I won’t miss all the administrative stuff we have to do now, because it wasn’t exactly the role of helping teachers or working with the children I started out with. But I’m not really retiring because I didn’t like that part of my job.”

After a moment, with her fingers knitted and a thoughtful expression coming over her face, she continues:

“I’ll miss the children, and I’ll miss the faculty. But I know I can always come back to visit them. I’ve known for a while that I’d be moving on. And there is a good person [former Nativity marketing/development director and teacher Antonio Felix, who holds a master’s degree in administration] taking my place. So I’m not worried about that. 

“But it’s been a blessing,” says Sister Judy Flahavan. “I’m so glad that this has been my calling from St. Columbkille to Ascension to Nativity. I appreciate it. It’s been a big part of my life.” 

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