The nun was causing a furor.
At a recent District 32 school board meeting, a school auditorium exploded into chaos after a group of parents demanded the resignation of the district superintendent, Felix Vazquez. His supporters began to boo and shout, and the object of their rancor was soon clear: Sister Kathy Maire, educational missionary.
“The Sister is doing it all for you!” the superintendent’s supporters screamed. “This is her agenda!”
When Sister Maire ventured into Bushwick, she had not planned on being at the center of such a storm. But being at the nexus of tensions is nothing new for the Roman Catholic nun — she was among 29 people detained at gunpoint by Nicaraguan rebels in 1985. (She went back to Nicaragua a year later.) And she was among a group of clerics who, without the approval of the Brooklyn Diocese, publicly supported candidates running against Representative Stephen J. Solarz in 1992.
“I believe people need to have a sense of power,” said Sister Maire, 52, an organizer for East Brooklyn Congregations, a coalition of 40 religious organizations. “They have to know they can have victories.”
Over the past five years, Sister Maire has organized a series of protests, which she calls “actions,” to tackle what she terms a “culture of failure” in Bushwick. In the district, which has a history of favoritism in hiring, students rank near the bottom citywide on reading and math tests, and they lack textbooks. Many school buildings are in disrepair.
The group she organized, the Bushwick Parents Association, has had some successes: a principal they fought against was dismissed, and water fountains and toilets have been repaired. She has encouraged parents to go into their schools and meet with principals, and keep track of how long teachers are absent.
Her activism, however, has raised objections among some parents who see her as an agitator. “A sister is supposed to be there to help guide people,” said Gladys Gonzalez, president of the Parent-Staff Association of Public School 376. “I don’t think a sister is supposed to divide a community.”
Sister Maire was named education organizer for the East Brooklyn Congregations in 1990, when the coalition was looking to expand its role in the schools. Her career began in New Jersey, where she taught French, but she soon began to focus on the undereducated and on political causes. She taught adult education in Bolivia for four years before returning to the United States to teach migrant farm workers in Delaware. It was there she began organizing parents to demand better education for their children.
She came to New York in 1984 and worked at a women’s shelter before joining St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick. She was part of a delegation from Witness for Peace, a church-backed group that monitored rebel activities, when she traveled to Nicaragua in 1985. The rebels attacked while she and other people were on a boat crossing the San Juan River to Costa Rica, and they were held for 24 hours.
To Sister Maire, the increasing criticism of her role in protests against the District 32 school board is a good sign. “The more we get into monitoring education, the more threatening we become,” she said. “Nobody likes to have the cage rattled.”