Sister Carol Anne has been inspiring and challenging students for more than three decades

Story from Daniel J. Holmes and The Rhode Island Catholic

In the chemistry labs of Bishop Hendricken High School, or among the Academic Decathlon teams of any other school in the state, the name of this year’s Lumen Gentium Lifetime Achievement in Catholic Education honoree Sister Carol Anne Murray always commands respect — and sometimes, perhaps, a bit of apprehension as well.

“The boys have come to look upon taking my class as a rite of passage,” she explains with a wry smile. “I’m going to push them, and I’m going to be firm with them, and they’re not going to like it very much at the time. But later on — when they get to college, or med school, or wherever — they always come back to thank me.”

Since Sister Carol Anne joined Hendricken’s faculty in 1989 there have been plenty of students to have done just that — as guidance counselor Joseph Adamec describes it, “I know that there are very many young doctors, dentists and engineers today who credit their ability to get through organic chemistry to the foundation that Sister Carol Anne provided them with.”

Even students who ended up pursuing careers outside of the sciences have expressed their indebtedness to her rigorous pedagogy: Aaron McInnis, now an accountant, recalls that the honors chemistry class he took with her as a sophomore helped him learn “the scholarly discipline needed to be successful in college and beyond.”

Thomas Gambardella, director of campus ministry at Hendricken, nominated Sister Carol Anne for the award.

“Never one to seek the limelight, she has always given the entire credit to her students,” Gambardella said. “However, they truly know that Sister Carol is the driving force behind their success.”

Outside of the classroom, Sister’s most notable accomplishment is likely her record-breaking leadership of Hendricken’s Academic Decathlon team. Since taking the reins of the team, the Hawks have soared to an unprecedented streak of state championships, and were even named the top team in the country at one National Championship. Earlier this month, they were again named R.I. Champions, and will soon be off to Minnesota for another shot at the national title. She may be a Sister of Mercy, but when it comes to the Academic Decathlon, she knows how to be merciless.

“You don’t win by being the nice guy,” she explains. “There’s a whole lot of scholarship money available for the boys if they do well at the Decathlon, and I intend to help them win as much of it as possible.”

There is one classroom setting, however, that usually brings out Sister Carol Anne’s softer side. Besides teaching at Hendricken, she is also a CCD teacher at her home parish of St. Anthony’s in North Providence.

“Teaching there is really special for me,” she says warmly. “It can be a nice change of pace from working with the boys at Hendricken.”

Regardless of the setting, teaching is part of the vocation that Sister Carol Anne always knew God was calling her towards.

“When I was very young, I used to line up all my dolls and have the family dog sit down with them, and then I’d lead the ‘class’ in diagramming sentences and doing their times tables,” she recounts. “My father even bought me a little blackboard so I could really have a classroom of my own.”

Over the course of her own education she remembers having a “phenomenal science teacher who was a sister,” and who helped inspire both her love of chemistry and her decision to join the Sisters of Mercy after high school. She professed her vows as a Sister of Mercy on September 8, 1957 in Cumberland — recently celebrating a milestone jubilee of 60 years in 2017. Sister Carol Anne completed her novitiate while earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Before joining the faculty at Hendricken, she taught at St. Matthew’s, St. Xavier’s, and Our Lady of Providence High School.

“I originally thought they were going to want me to teach math,” she remembers, “but then they mentioned that they needed more science teachers — so I was very, very happy, since chemistry was really my first love anyway.”