PORTLAND, Maine — It’s a hardwood ritual. As the basketball players are announced, they shake hands with the refs and greet their teammates on the foul line. There, they wait for the national anthem and the tip-off before running plays up and down the court.
But there’s an additional step this year at Catherine McAuley High School.
A custodian draws back the rope separating the fans from the floor. The starting players, one by one, jog to a small woman, dressed in black, who’s seated on the bottom bleacher row at the far left. They give her big hugs and trot back to their teammates. They know right where to find her. She’s been sitting in the same spot since before any of them were born.
“I sit where I sit every single home game. I’ve been sitting in that seat for 35 years,” said Sister Edward Mary Kelleher before Friday’s home game. “I started sitting there because we didn’t have trainers in those days, we didn’t have ice machines. They knew where to look for me [when somebody got hurt].”
In July, Catherine McAuley High School, a private all-girls school founded in 1969 by the Sisters of Mercy, will sever its ties with the Catholic Church. But Kelleher, who in 2010 retired from running the school after 30 years, will continue to serve as principal emerita.
These days, Kelleher spends her time raising tuition money for students who need help and smoothing out red tape for international students. She has no plans to step down.
“They very kindly continue to invite me back,” she said. “They gave me a title, which was very nice.”
Current Head of School Kathryn Barr is happy to have her.
“She’s just a constant source of inspiration for the students, and the faculty and the staff,” said Barr. “Whether we’re a Catholic school or not, she’ll still be around.”
To show its appreciation for her continuing efforts and dedication, the basketball team, which has won multiple state titles in the last decade, has dedicated its season to Kelleher. That’s what the pre-game hugs are all about.
“She’s definitely a down-to-earth person,” said senior basketball co-captain Jessica Willerson. “She understands everything we’re going through — academics, basketball. She knows everything.”
A basketball fan since her days at John Bapst High School in Bangor, Kelleher sees no end in sight to her home game attendance — and that’s just fine with the players.
“Sister is like the heart of our school,” said senior forward and basketball co-captain Brooke Howard. “We wouldn’t be who we are without her.”