The beloved former St. Joseph School teacher is remembered for her love of students—and of Ireland
By Dan McWilliams
St. Joseph School in Knoxville is hosting the 20th annual Sister Jolita Supper & Sing-Along from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 20.
Because of the COVID pandemic, the event will be a drive-through barbecue/takeout supper this year.
Sister Mary Jolita Hughes (1935-2001) was a Sister of Mercy who taught at St. Joseph from 1994 to 2000 as well as in earlier stints from 1969-72 and 1988-89. She served in elementary education with stops across the state for more than 40 years, also becoming principal at St. Mary School in Johnson City from 1986-87 and 1989-94 and principal at St. Dominic School in Kingsport from 1976-78. She taught at the old St. Mary School at Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Knoxville from 1964-67 and at Sacred Heart School in Knoxville from 1978-86.
“After her death in 2001, the family and friends of Sister Mary Jolita Hughes, RSM, organized the benefit to honor her life and her last words: ‘Help St. Joseph School,’” said St. Joseph principal Andy Zengel. “Over the last 20 years, the event has raised over $225,000 to help students in need—something Sister Jolita committed all her time, talent, and treasure to during her remarkable life.”
Sister Jolita’s family has kept the fundraiser going.
“I am so grateful for the tireless efforts of Sister’s sisters: Mary Catherine Willard and Therese Hurley,” Mr. Zengel said. “These matriarchs of our Catholic community have made each celebration of this fundraiser an annual St. Patrick’s Day family reunion! Their extended family and friends come from all over the country to remember Sister Jolita, to celebrate all things Irish, and to help our students receive a full Catholic education.”
St. Joseph School “benefits tremendously from the diocesan tuition assistance fund, with more than half of our families receiving some level of support,” Mr. Zengel said. “However, families may also need help with lunch costs, athletics fees, field trips, speech therapy, etc. Our mission speaks to the ‘growth of the whole child.’ The Sister Jolita Fund helps us close gaps and open doors for our students.”
Tickets for the Sister Jolita takeout supper are being sold at $5 per child, $7.50 per adult, and $20 for the whole family. RSVP with the number in your family to Rita Cook at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The drive-through, all-you-can-eat fundraiser features barbecue sandwiches, “Sister’s salad,” potato chips, and desserts.
“To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this wonderful event, we are asking our community to consider donations and sponsorships at the $20, $200, and $2,000 levels,” Mr. Zengel said.
Contact Therese Hurley at 865-441-6774 or Mr. Zengel at email@example.com for more details.
Because of the pandemic, the familiar Sister Jolita silent auction will be incorporated into the SJS Mardi Gras fundraiser as an online auction event from Feb. 14-21, Mr. Zengel said.
The fundraiser brought in $23,831 last year after raising $20,933 in 2019 and $20,896 in 2017.
Therese and husband Pat Hurley and Mrs. Willard are all parishioners of Immaculate Conception.
“We wanted to do something for Sister Jolita, who is my wife’s sister and Mary Catherine’s sister,” Mr. Hurley said. “She passed away, and the year after she passed away I decided it would be a good idea to have an Irish dinner sing-along in her honor. My wife grabbed a hold of it and said it was a good idea to raise a lot of money.
“We thought it’d be a good idea to keep her memory alive. That’s the reason it all started. It’s turned out to be quite a fundraiser.”
Sister Jolita was always on the lookout for a child in need, Mr. Hurley said.
“When Sister was alive, she would come to us with things like, ‘We have these two children who want to go to this retreat. It would be a shame that they can’t go because they can’t afford it.’ That went on with everything—pencils, papers, and uniforms,” he said. “Any child if their parent loses their job, they won’t have to take them out of school [because of the fund]. If they need supplies for school and their family can’t afford it, it all comes from the Sister Jolita fund.
“She was just a fantastic lady. She was well-loved by a lot of people.”
The fundraiser began in 2002. Last year’s was an auction-only event because of the pandemic.
The Sister Jolita event has usually been dubbed an “Irish Supper” because of its namesake’s love for Ireland.
“She went there several times as a Sister of Mercy to visit,” Mrs. Hurley said. “She loved Ireland so much. She loved the people; she loved everything about Ireland. She went with a couple of other sisters, Sister Thomasetta and Sister Maris Stella [Mogan]. They went from convent to convent. They were there for two weeks at least.”
In 2001, Paulist Father Rick Walsh organized a trip to Ireland to establish a spot to especially honor Sister Jolita. He selected St. Patrick’s Well in Clonmel, planted three trees in her memory, and placed a stone with the inscription “O how she loved holy Ireland.” A regular donation to the well comes from the Sister Jolita fund.
Sister Jolita “just loved children,” Mrs. Hurley said. “She wanted to help the children. She did tutoring after school, and that’s what some of this money goes for, to help them with tutoring or things that need done. That’s why we raise it every year, so that the children who need things can get them. Field trip, lunch money, tuition help. It’s a wonderful thing. Our family has kept it up. Our cousins still donate to the fund because of her love for that school and the children.
“If people want to donate $20 in her 20th year, I think that would be great. Anything that they can do would be wonderful.”
Mrs. Willard credits her brother-in-law Pat Hurley for the fundraiser.
“This whole Sister Jolita thing was Pat Hurley’s idea, and I just think it’s wonderful that he wanted to have Sister remembered. He wanted to have a simple dinner and sing-along,” she said. “The first year, we raised like $2,500, and last year we raised $23,000. It just went up every year.”
The fundraiser serves as a lasting memory for Sister Jolita, who got her start helping the needy when she was young, Mrs. Willard said.
“This isn’t something she started when she went to St. Joseph School. This is something she started when she was in high school,” Mrs. Willard said. “She was one of the candy stripers [at St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville]. She worked under Sister Assissium in the maternity ward. She came home and told our mother that ‘this mother didn’t have any clothes to bring her baby home in.’ She’d tell our mother, ‘You’ve got to fix some clothes to bring this baby home.’”
Mrs. Willard frequently saw her sister come to the family for help.
“When she came to St. Joseph, she’d come to us and say, ‘so-and-so doesn’t have enough money for books or didn’t have enough money to go on a field trip. Can you help me get some money?’” Mrs. Willard said. “We’d help with whatever she wanted us to help with. After she died, Pat said we need to do something to keep Sister Jolita’s memory alive.”
The fundraiser is “kind of a gathering of old St. Joseph families, is what it really is,” Mrs. Willard said. “The Dunns and the Pickerings continue to help us with the desserts. They’ve done that from the beginning. The DeWines have helped us from the beginning in the kitchen.”
Mrs. Willard said she “sends a letter to all of our children, all of our cousins, and they send donations and gifts. Last time we were there, we had more than 50 of our family there. They came from Georgia, Maryland, Alabama, California, Massachusetts, and North Carolina. It’s just been a real family thing, and that part is good.”
One man who donated this year said Sister Jolita taught him in the first grade at St. Mary School at Immaculate Conception, Mrs. Hurley said.