The educational center is a Catholic organization that teaches and empowers “underserved women of all races and faiths to reach the fullness of their potential,” according to their mission statement.
What started as a small GED program with a first class of 18 students has grown considerably over the past decade, and this year, the center handed out 55 ESL and ten GED certificates.
Back in 2003, Sisters Catherine Feeney, Jean McLoughlin and Janice Algie opened an educational center in South Ozone Park. They were told that the neighborhood needed a GED program.
But, according to Executive Director Sister Catherine Feeney, the need went much deeper than simply GED classes. More remedial work was needed, and they soon began to offer literacy classes with a small computer component.
“We began with three of us and we did everything,” Sister Cathy said. “We had one volunteer teacher and we taught everything and did all of the administrative work.”
For five years they stated in South Ozone Park, but they realized they needed to move. Their numbers were not growing considerably, and they needed to be closer to public transportation.
That was when they opened the School Sisters of Notre Dame Educational Center in Woodhaven.
After the move, the Sisters widely expanded their ESL program, numbers grew and now the center has helped, in some shape or form, over 700 women in ten years.
“The center has grown and changed because we evolved,” Sister Jean said. “We moved slowly, we made shifts and changed as the needs arose. We came with the idea of meeting the needs of these women, so the ESL program has expanded because there’s such a need for people to know English.”
The staff has grown as well, growing from the three founders to now having two full-time and three part-time teachers, as well as some staff for administrative work.
Students come for ESL classes three days a week for two and a half hours, while GED students come for four and a half hours every day. ESL students usually spend two or three years at the center, while GED students will stay in school anywhere from six months to a year.
The School Sisters of Notre Dame was founded in Bavaria in 1833 by a woman named Theresa Gerhardinger, whose mission was always to educate and nurture women.
Sisters Cathy and Jean said that mission is what continues to drive their efforts.
“We felt in our hearts it was a call from God to serve women today,” Sister Cathy said. Sister Jean agreed, saying she had a “deep sense of call from God.”
Sister Jean, who heads much of the spiritual dimensions of the center, including a daily generic prayer, said the center has strengthened her faith.
“I’ve grown deeper in spirit because I’ve been a part of this program. The women are awesome to be around,” she said.
For Sister Jean, the relationships that the women build are just as important as the education they receive.
“Many of the women are successful in the sense of getting better jobs or going to college, but I think deeper than that is this: they, in their interacting with each other, really help and support their neighbors. They grow close to each other, they help each other out, they share recipes, they babysit for each other. In a sense, we back off and they form a community of friends. And that I think is the deepest gift to them,” she said.
In order to celebrate their anniversary, the Sisters hosted their annual Mardi Gras party with over 200 guests, and the students at the center created an international cookbook.
“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a ministry,” Sister Cathy said. “I wake up every morning excited.”