BEVERLY — Sister Jean Anne McGrath is more likely to hand out hugs than hand down discipline as the principal of St. John Fisher Elementary School.
McGrath, 69, has been the principal at St. John Fisher for 27 years. Last weekend, she celebrated her 50th Jubilee — a celebration marking a half century since joining the Sisters of St. Joseph.
"I hope in my corner of the world, I've made a difference. And isn't that what we are all called to do?" McGrath said.
An honorary street sign was placed at 103rd Street and Fairfield Avenue Friday to commemorate McGrath's achievement and dedication to the community. The sign is just blocks away from where she was born and raised.
McGrath attended the neighboring St. Cajetan Elementary School in Morgan Park and later Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School in Mount Greenwood. When she graduated in 1962, many of her friends were looking to make an impact. Some joined the Peace Corps. Others marched to promote social justice.
Motivated by this same spirit of the '60s, McGrath entered a convent in suburban LaGrange. She was one of 63 women take the vows. Today, only five of them remain in religious life.
McGrath began her career as a second-grade teacher at Divine Infant School in suburban Westchester. It was there that the principal shared with McGrath three tenets of a successful teacher: You must be firm, fair and friendly.
"She said, 'You are friendly and fair, but ohhh the firmness," McGrath recalled.
After two years in Westchester, she went on became an assistant principal at a high school in Garfield Ridge and later a principal in suburban Lyons. When McGrath was asked to take the helm of St. John Fisher, she was initially hesitant.
"It was big, and I worried it was too close to home," she said.
Today, McGrath has no regrets. She's had nieces and nephews graduate from St. John Fisher, and enrollment remains high. Some 700 students attend the Southwest Side school, making it the second-largest Catholic elementary school in the Archdiocese of Chicago, she said.
Mary Donna Caffrey has taught kindergarten at St. John Fisher for 19 years. Both of her now-adult children also attended the school.
McGrath "is compassionate about everything she does. She loves us just as much as she loves our kids," Caffrey said.
Mary Nitsche agreed. She's been teaching second grade at St. John Fisher for 26 years.
"She is like your best friend. You never think of calling her sister this or sister that. She's just Jean," Nitsche said.