"Better mistakes than paralysis” – St. Julie Billiart
Sister Ellen Keane was born in Marlboro, Massachusetts. Her mom and dad had five children, three boys and two girls. She went to a nearby public grammar school. As she was finishing eighth grade, she met a group of girls in the neighborhood who talked about going to a girl’s Catholic high school, St. Michael’s Academy, in Hudson. She was taken with the idea. Given her mom and dad’s blessing, she went to interview with the principal. As the door opened, she was surprised to be greeted by a nun in a very unusual habit … her introduction to Notre Dame!
During her junior year, the family moved to Stoneham. She hated leaving St. Michael's, but was encouraged by the Sisters to consider going to St. Charles', another SND girl’s high school in Woburn. She applied and was accepted. The day she entered the building and started up the stairs … from the landing above she heard, “you must be Ellie!” A group of her classmates was at the top of the stairs. It was the warmest of welcomes! That moment has stayed with her, especially during times of transition. It reminded her that endings prepare the way for new beginnings.
After high school, she went to Emmanuel College in Boston, another SND school. She majored in Spanish and wasn’t yet ready to think of entering. After graduating, however, she still felt the call and entered in August 1963 at Ipswich.
Her first mission was Bishop Fenwick High School, a co-ed school in Peabody, Mass. Two events from her time at Fenwick stand out to her as particularly meaningful. Together with other Sisters she started a Summer program for Hispanic children in the Peabody/Salem area. There were classes in the morning and field trips every afternoon. It was a gift to all involved. The second event was starting a Drama club. Musicals were the focus. The plays included kids in set making, lighting, costume making, music, and technical feats. Each of the plays were truly magical moments!
The ministry that has meant the most to her was her time in Kenya. In 1981, Sister Patricia Loome, and Sister Ellen were invited to start a secondary school for girls in a rural town called, Kakamega, in Western Kenya.
Before going she had made a retreat during which she was deeply moved by the passage from John 14:2-3. It was as if she heard Jesus say,” I am going to prepare a place for you and when it is ready, I will come back and take you with me, that where I am you also may be.” … And he was true to his word!
The school would become known as Bishop Sulumeti Girls Secondary School. It began to take shape on an open grazing field. Like Julie and Francoise, they posted the invitation wherever folks might be passing by to come for an entrance exam at the local parish. There were thirty-five girls who appeared and completed the test while their tethered chickens, recently purchased from the market, clucked away outside.
She felt so blessed and at home during her twelve years in Kenya. People in primary cultures live close to the land; they learn the lessons that nature has to teach and have a profound sense of God in their life. She is deeply grateful for all the lessons that they taught her. Her own faith journey was deeply enriched.
Upon her return to the States, she had a sabbatical at Washington Theological Union in Silver Spring, Maryland. She then went on to earn an MA in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Baltimore. She remained in Maryland for a number of years as a counselor and spiritual director in Washington Theological Union’s sabbatical program.
In 2001 she returned to Massachusetts and while offering her services in a variety of ministries she enrolled in the Spiritual Direction intensive training program at the Jesuit run Center for Religious Development. At the end of that year, she was invited to join the staff there. Once again this was a time of many blessings. When the Center closed, she and a colleague went to the Jesuit center in Watertown to continue offering programs.
In 2015 she joined Sister Mary Boretti, SNDdeN, as co-director at the Notre Dame Spirituality Center in Ipswich. Another very special gift time on the journey!
Sister Ellen is deeply grateful to God for her family, her Sisters, her friends, the countless people she’s met, and the places she’s been over the years. They have truly shaped her and gifted her. Finally, she is thankful for God’s constant reminder that endings prepare the way for new beginnings!