Patricia DeMoully, a Catholic nun and educator whose relentless advocacy for the poor endeared her to families from inner-city Minneapolis to the Mississippi Delta, died last week of natural causes. She was 94.
Though not even 5 feet tall, DeMoully is remembered as a giant in the elementary school classrooms where she taught and served as a principal for nearly five decades. Late in her life, DeMoully made a dramatic career change and moved to the small Mississippi community of Jonestown, where she coordinated construction of houses for the poor while living in a trailer with other nuns.
DeMoully, known as “Sister Pat,” died peacefully at Carondelet Village, a senior community in St. Paul.
“Sister Pat threw herself into each activity with every bit of love and compassion and energy that she had in her little body,” said Mary Kaye Medinger, a longtime friend and consociate, or lay member, of the CSJ community. “She literally gave it her all.”
Born in 1925, DeMoully grew up among five siblings in St. Paul. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy and entered the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet community in 1944. She later earned a degree in history and elementary education from St. Catherine University and advanced degrees in education from the University of St. Thomas.
Her teaching career began at the former St. Luke’s elementary school in St. Paul, where she taught first grade and then became principal for six years. She quickly established a reputation as a gracious but hard-charging administrator who was adept at connecting with children from troubled backgrounds. Her success caught the attention of Ed Flahavan, then pastor of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis, who hired her to oversee an inner-city parish school with a student body of mostly low-income children.
DeMoully immediately went to work bolstering the quality of the school’s faculty and services. Known for her attention to detail, DeMoully had the entire year planned out — including mass schedules and recreational events — weeks before classes began, Flahavan said. When the school ran out of money to pay a janitor, DeMoully cleaned the floors and wastepaper baskets herself. It was not unusual to see her shoveling snow from the sidewalks in the predawn hours before school. “Sister Pat had one speed and that was full force ahead, and she used that force for the good of the students,” Flahavan said.
At age 66, DeMoully began searching for a new ministry. That’s when she heard about an opening as coordinator of a Habitat for Humanity project in remote towns in the Mississippi Delta. With hammer in hand and often wearing jeans and a T-shirt, DeMoully helped transform an old church building into a dormitory for volunteers, while she lived in a small trailer with two other sisters.
“I loved the people immediately,” DeMoully told a newspaper reporter in 1996. “But I also felt the need was great. … I’d worked in the poorest areas in Minnesota, but it was nothing like this.”
Soon after she returned to Minnesota in 1997, DeMoully retired from active ministry but maintained her passion for the outdoors. On long forest walks, she would educate her fellow hikers on different kinds of wildflowers and would carefully pluck those she did not recognize and later look them up in her guidebooks on plant life, recalled Cathy Steffens, CSJ, a longtime friend and hiking companion.
“She saw nature as a reflection of God’s presence, and an extension of the beauty she would see in children and in all people,” Steffens said. “Her life was grounded in love of God and in love of the dear neighbor without distinction.”
DeMoully is survived by a brother, Thomas DeMoully. Funeral services have been held.