The email arrived within hours of Sister Irene’s death. Ed Weirauch, a 60-year-old man who lives in Delaware, did not want her passing to go unnoticed. He is convinced that she helped save his life when he was a young boy.
Sister Irene Loretta Cassady, who was the vice principal at St. Matthew’s Elementary School in Mayfair and a nun for nearly 70 years, died from COVID-19 on Thursday, May 7. Don’t let her age, 86, fool you. She was active until the end.
“She died as she would have wanted to die: Almost literally with her boots on," said Sister John Magdalen, the principal at St. Matt’s. “She was 86 years old and running around this school more than I do.”
Sister Irene was born Barbara Virginia Cassady in the height of the Great Depression. She was raised in the Harrowgate section of Philadelphia along with her brother, John, and sister, Irene, both whom survive her. She chose her religious name in honor of her mother.
“From the time she was 5 years old,” her sister said, “she wanted to be a nun.”
Shortly after graduating from Little Flower, she joined the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and received her habit in 1953. With mathematics degrees from Immaculata and Villanova, she taught mostly in the Philadelphia region, with stops in Virginia and Georgia sprinkled early in her career.
Sister Irene was the principal at Queen of Heaven School in Cherry Hill when Weirauch was a child.
“I had this rare illness that I really wasn’t supposed to survive, but she ‘stormed the heavens,’ everyone used to tell me,” said Weirauch, who suffered from the blood disorder hemolytic-uremic syndrome.
Weirauch’s sister said he was in a coma on Easter night in 1972 when last rites were administered.
“Sister Irene leaned over my brother and held him in her arms as Msgr. Zegers anointed him,” said Amy Weirauch. "My parents were frozen with fear, shock, and disbelief, and Sister Irene was there to hold their son for them.”
Sister John Magdalen wasn’t surprised. She recalled the time Sister Irene insisted on visiting a St. Matthew’s child who was in the hospital, even though Sister had a back injury severe enough to require her to use a wheelchair.
“She was a brilliant woman who was just as comfortable counting out the chocolate milk cartons as she was teaching eighth-grade math,” said Sister John. “Nothing was too big for her to do, and nothing was too little for her to do.”
Peter Gerace, an eighth-grade student and math whiz, said one of the highlights of his day came after he collected the trash. He purposely picked the area of the school where Sister Irene’s office was.
“We would have a nice conversation each time. And it would be different. I just loved it,” said Gerace, who is headed to Father Judge. “I will never forget anything that she taught us.”
Peter called Sister Irene the school’s biggest booster. She was forever creating banners and saluting the accomplishments of St. Matt’s students with pictures outside of her office.
She was a huge Phillies fan, especially the 1950 Whiz Kids. One afternoon, a local priest arranged for her to meet one of the stars of that team at Shibe Park.
“She went around forever after telling people that they could shake the hand that shook the hand of Del Ennis,” said her sister.
"I am overwhelmed with all of the attention and all of the [remembrances] on Facebook,” Irene Candy said. “She was just so generous and good-hearted. It just warms my heart to think about her.”
As a symbolic sign of her two passions, Sister Irene was buried with a piece of chalk in one hand and a rosary in the other.
The services were livestreamed, a blessing for her scattered family. Once things get back to normal, St. Matt’s and others will hold a celebration of Sister Irene’s life.
“Right now, when I think about it – and this might sound ridiculous – but to me, she is someone you could begin the process of canonization,” said Sister John Magdalen. “As ridiculous as that sounds, I truly believe that she is a model of every good, humble, kind, loving thing that anybody could be.”
— Ed Barkowitz, ebarkowitz@Inquirer.com