Having been an administrator for nearly three-quarters of her institution’s 64-year history, Sister Mary Walter Hickey is synonymous with Elmira Notre Dame High School.
The Sister of Mercy acknowledged that she never foresaw her tenure lasting 47 years. But every time she considered moving on from Notre Dame, “I guess my roots ran a little deeper,” she remarked.
As a new school year begins, Sister Hickey’s roots remain firmly embedded there as she continues in a new role. She stepped down as school president this past Jan. 1, having served in that position since 2008 following 34 years as Notre Dame’s principal. Sister Hickey, 84, now carries the title of president emerita, focusing her efforts on alumni relations and fundraising in a part-time role.
To recognize Sister Hickey’s many years in administration, a celebration took place May 31 in the school auditorium. More than 400 alumni, faculty, staff, families and community members were on hand, with tributes from State Sen. Thomas O’Mara and Chemung County Deputy Executive David Sheen also included.
The guest of honor was delighted by the event, which also served as a reunion of sorts.
“I was touched by the number of people who came to the celebration who had been away for a long time,” she said.
Sister Hickey is a native of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in the Brighton suburb of Rochester. She attended Our Lady of Mercy High School, where she was inspired toward a religious vocation by the example of the Sisters of Mercy.
“They were wonderful women who were superior teachers. Their selflessness got my eye, and I felt a calling,” she said.
She entered the order upon her 1953 high-school graduation, teaching at Rochester-area schools until beginning at Notre Dame in 1972 as assistant principal. She arrived in town shortly after Elmira and the surrounding area were devastated by flooding from Hurricane Agnes.
“The school was set up as a Red Cross distribution center,” she recalled.
Sister Hickey became Notre Dame’s principal in 1974, remaining in that role all the way until 2008. At that point, she assumed the newly created position of school president, branching off from her principal duties. Over the years, she has earned the Twin Tiers Outstanding Educator Award in 1999, the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce Athena Award in 2005 and the Catherine McAuley Award in 2007.
Among Sister Hickey’s personal highlights at Notre Dame are the dedication of a new science wing in 2005 and the opening of a refurbished auditorium in 2017 — the result of a capital campaign that also included major upgrades to the school’s athletic facilities.
“A lot of those things we’ve been able to do because people in the community worked with me and helped raise those funds. It’s nothing I did by myself,” she said.
Notre Dame, a coeducational institution, began offering seventh and eighth grades in 2012-13 and had an enrollment of approximately 270 in grades 7-12 this past school year. Sister Hickey acknowledged that keeping enrollment up is a constant challenge.
“This is not the most economically strong area of the state,” she said, observing that although Notre Dame covers much of the Southern Tier as well as northern Pennsylvania, there are no large cities in the region. She added that another priority of hers has been to raise enough scholarship money so that as many families as possible can afford the tuition — money that she considers very well spent.
“We have wonderful kids, our teachers are superior, and our kids do very, very well,” she said. “Our graduation record continues to be superior.”
There was no replacement for Sister Hickey as school president. She said she’s enjoying her alumni relations/fundraising role for Notre Dame, where the current principal, Deborah Franklin, has served since 2017.
“It’s a much more relaxed kind of position,” Sister Hickey said. “I don’t have to make the big decisions.”
She added that she’s eager to further extend her nearly half-century connection with her beloved Notre Dame community.
“The people here are special. They will do anything to support the school,” Sister Hickey remarked. “They’re just very, very nice people.”