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THE HIGH-FLYING NUN AFTER 50 YEARS IN EDUCATION, SISTER MONICA RIORDAN REMAINS ENERGETIC AND ENERGIZING

When Julia Agnes Riordan, always called Jewel, was in kindergarten, she saw a nun give a look and a gesture that forced a misbehaving child out of a church pew.

"I remember thinking 'that's what I'm going to do,' " recalls Sister M. Monica Riordan, 65 years later. " 'Tell other people what to do.' "

As a long-time educator, and now principal of Our Lady of Sacred Heart School in Orchard Park, Sister Monica has gotten her wish.

But she's done it with such style and grace that children, teachers, parents and her superiors hardly notice that she's calling the shots.

"If there is a Mother Teresa of education, it's Sister Monica," said Sister Marie Hughes, an enrichment teacher at Our Lady of Sacred Heart. "She's not only energetic, she's energizing."

"She's doing what she did 50 years ago, but she's not stale," said Sister Sally Maloney, who was a fourth-grade student in Sister Monica's class.

In her office, the principal directs a visitor to a couch while she sits on a bench. It's for two reasons, she explains. The bench is easier for her since she had a hip replacement five years ago. And she wants to position herself under the awards hanging on her wall.

"It makes me look good," she says, with one of the frequent winks of her sparkly blue eyes.

Just in 1988, Sister Monica was named by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Distinguished Principal, one of only four private school principals so honored. She received the National Catholic Educational Association Distinguished Principal Award, and she was cited by the West Seneca Chamber of Commerce as Educator of the Year.

There are some good reasons why she's received those awards:

Since she arrived nearly 14 years ago, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart has doubled its enrollment to almost 700 and expanded to an adjoining former public school building. The school is now considered the largest Catholic school in the Diocese of Buffalo.

In 1982 she introduced all-day kindergarten, which has attracted many to the school.

She placed seventh- and eighth-graders in the same area as kindergartners through second-graders, so the older ones can help the youngest.

"In junior high they live up to what you expect of them," Sister Monica said.

She has invited teachers from Japan and Spain to teach at the school.

A volunteer corps of parents numbers near 100.

She started intramural sports, (the Lady Hawks basketball team just won the diocesan
championship); the Curiosity Club; a drama club and activity groups for once-a-week crafts. And she encouraged Banana Splits, a support group for children whose parents have divorced.

"I put it all on her shoulders," said Monsignor Dino Lorenzetti, the pastor at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. "We haven't had one argument because I do it her way."

During a walk through the school one day last week, Sister Monica shakes hands with one girl, praises another, quiets a passing class so they don't disturb sixth graders who are presenting their musical play.

Last year's school play "Made of Steel" has been turned into an adult version and attracted attention from "Good Morning America."

But, it's on the personal level that Sister Monica excels.

When she saw a young girl crying because her class had gone ahead without her, Sister Monica put her arm around the child, saying "everything's going to be fine" and made sure she could walk along with another class until she caught up with her own.

"She doesn't yell a lot. She talks to us to tell us if something isn't good. If it was good, she congratulates you," said fifth-grader Courtney Insalaco.

A former high school student said Sister Monica was slow to burn.

"But when she did finally get mad, her face would turn red," she said.

No longer does Sister Monica wear the habit and veil she took in 1943 "when I became a war bride." Now it's a tailored suit, a crisp white blouse, low heels. She has a shock of white hair and an easy smile. Her only jewelry is a cross worn on a chain and a silver band. The band is inscribed, as are those of all Sister of Mercy nuns, with a personal motto:

"Servite Domino in Laetitia" the inscription reads. "Serve ye the Lord with joy," translates the former Latin teacher.

That service extends beyond the school. She has served on the parish council and several committees. She teaches C.C.D. She founded the Athletic & Cultural Committee.

"I'm not only a workaholic," said Sister Monica, who turned 70 in December, "I'm an extremist. I do everything with mucho gusto. Once I resigned from 15 organizations when my friends told me I was getting snappy."

Her friend, Margaret Carey Borngraber, a teacher at Maryvale Middle School, recounts that when her father died, her mother had a heart attack at the wake.

"Monica was the one who stayed with my mother," she said. "She's the one we all trusted."

Sister Monica has a bachelor's degree in English from Canisius College, a master's in chemistry from Notre Dame and she's done graduate work in physics at the University at Buffalo.

For next summer she has applied to teach English in Ukraine under a local program called Bridge to Education.

When she retires -- not for a few years -- she'd like to live in Ireland for a few months, helping in a school and visiting the graves of her three aunts, also Mercy nuns. Then she'd like to continue studies in French at Cannes so she could teach the language here.

"I certainly can't go from this to nothing," she said.

She starts the day with communal prayer at 6:15 a.m. and ends it after the 11 p.m. news and watching an old TV comedy show like "M*A*S*H" or the "Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Usually she gets six hours of sleep, but she's gotten by on three.

"I remind myself that it's a good nap and you can do a lot with a nap. But when I put my feet on the floor, I start talking."

Though her pace is quick and decisions seem to be processed quickly -- she's read "Seven Habits of Successful People" twice -- there is a sense of serenity about her.

And a sense that she has all the time in the world to spend with you.

It makes her late for everything, she confesses.

Three weeks ago, she and Barb Garra, former president of the Parents Guild, went to an Ars Nova concert at Trocaire College, leaving behind Sister Monica's purse and the concert tickets.

"When we got there, she went running all around to say hi to people because everyone knows her," said Mrs. Garra, "except for the students who were collecting tickets.

"She went trotting in past them and they asked for her tickets. Sister Monica just said: 'It's OK. They're in my purse. I'll send them in tomorrow.' And that's very typical of her."

Beth Gannon, a friend from high school days, remembers the day she went into the Mercy School of Nursing and Jewel entered the convent.

"She went in one door and I went in another," said Mrs. Gannon, who has six children and 14 grandchildren and helped her husband run a funeral home. "But she's kept herself totally abreast of the life that everybody else has lived. There isn't anything we haven't discussed."

Jewel was 18 when she entered the convent, to her father's dismay and her mother's delight. She thinks her mother, a great influence in her life, knew best.

"I've had a very enriching, fulfilling life," she said. "I've been happy a lot more than many, many people. I have support from family and friends. And I think I've kept up a pretty decent relationship with God."

There was only the briefest glitch. On her 21st birthday, she was scolded seven times in the convent, and the next morning, in full habit, she walked out the front door.

"In those days you just didn't do that," she remembers, laughing. "We never even went out alone."

Within two days, she knew she'd made a mistake, and with permission from the bishop's representative, she was told she could return in a month.

When she did, her mother superior said: "I see you've come to return your habit."

Sister Monica replied: "No, I've come to return myself."

Mother Superior retaliated: "We can't have people going in and out, in and out."

Characteristically, Sister Monica stood firm: "Well, I'm out and I want to be in."

And she's never wanted anything else since.

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