Sister Cathleen Feeney: Nun helps found Woodhaven center for underserved women

By Tammy Scileppi

It seemed a divine plan was in the works when Sister Catherine Feeney, along with Sisters Jean McLoughlin and Janice Algie, were asked by their congregational leaders to establish a center in Queens, where underserved and marginalized women could further their education.

It took over a decade to make that happen, but the sisters fulfilled a mission that began with the School Sisters of Notre Dame: five pioneering ladies who came to New York City from Germany in 1847.

From educating the children of German immigrants to welcoming Queens’ newest New Yorkers, the SSNDs have always been there to provide support, education and a helping hand. It was in that spirit of empathy and collaboration that the School Sisters of Notre Dame Educational Center came to be in 2004. From its first home in an unused convent in South Ozone Park, the center moved to Woodhaven in 2009.

“Underserved women hold the future of their families, neighborhoods, and our world in their hearts and hands,” said Sister Catherine, who grew up in Brooklyn. Her father was an Irish dock worker and her Polish mother was a bookkeeper. She attended a local Catholic school, St. Anselm and after graduation, went to St. Saviour High.

“We thought Queens was the country,” she quipped.

Students at both schools were taught by the SSNDs. Sister Catherine said their love for education and dedication to prayer inspired her to become one of them and to continue their mission of educating girls and women who had no other opportunities for schooling.

“Our ladies are from a variety of Latin countries, the Caribbean, Asia, and some from the sidewalks of New York. Two are from Yemen,” Sister Catherine said.

“We believe the center is quite special because of its inclusivity, and it is tuition-free. Religion and ethnic background make no difference,” she said.

Before her work at the center, Sister Catherine taught in elementary schools for 14 years and served as principal for six. She was then invited by community leaders to work with women who were interested in becoming religious sisters. Eight years in parish ministry in Jamaica revealed the need for a center where women could further their education.

“The spirit of community that the women bring to the center not only reverberates within the building,” Sister Catherine said, “but spills out to all of the neighborhood. Woodhaven is an enriching, multi-ethnic place. Its friendly, family-centered spirit inspires a sense of community.”

The center’s friends and supporters reinforce Sister Catherine’s belief that such a project is as alive as the people who are committed to it.

“Each of them believes that an educated woman transforms not only herself but her family, neighborhood, and ultimately the world,” she said.