Steel Butterfly: Formidable Sister Mary Jane
Submitted by Rosana Madrigal (San Francisco)
Reprinted with permission from February 4, 2011,
issue of Catholic San Francisco.
Article by Liz Dossa
Photo by Jose Luis Aguirre/Catholic San Francisco
On April 29, 2012, Sister Mary Jane Floyd, PBVM (religious name Sister Mary Robert) celebrated her Diamond Jubilee marking 60 years since her first profession of vows as a Sister of the Presentation, San Francisco.
Presentation Sister Mary Jane Floyd stands on the porch of a wood frame house in Redwood City, supervising a flock of chattering students and holding Blossom, her grey terrier. The children have just emerged from the Catholic Worker tutoring program, which she has held in this house for 17 years.
Going down the front steps and through the white picket fence, one child says jubilantly: “I’m done!”
Sister Mary is pleased. “There’s been a big improvement in that little girl!”
This winter day Sister Mary Jane, bundled up in a lavender hat, fleece jacket, and blue and green scarf, looks like a bright, small bird. Earlier that afternoon, she set out name cards on tables, considering which student should sit with which tutor today. She knows who is struggling with reading and who has improved in math. A teacher to her core, she’s organized and careful, making sure there are resources like dictionaries, tissues and extra pens. Her main resource is insight into what the children need to succeed in school. Many parents in this largely Hispanic neighborhood despair over helping their young students with school work because of their lack of English, but they care deeply about their children’s school success.
When the doorbell rings, Blossom barks insistently, to alert Sister Mary Jane, whose hearing she confesses is not what it used to be. At 4 p.m. sharp, the students file in, going to their assigned spots. The 28 students who come these days range from second graders who need help with spelling to ninth graders who work on geometry problems. Sister Mary Jane talks to each one of them each day, checking their work, asking, “How are you?” and then, bending down, listening to the answer.
This Catholic Worker-sponsored tutoring program which began in 1994 is the latest in the series of ministries that Sister Mary Jane has carried out since she entered the Sisters of the Presentation May 27, 1948. Following the Presentations’ primary mission, she was assigned to schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Pedro and San Jose, serving as principal for five years. But that wasn’t enough.
“As a novice, I’d read about the priest workers in France in the factories,” she said. “They propelled me to want to find work within the ordinary system, outside the church.”
She was drawn to the Catholic Worker movement with its commitment to voluntary poverty, non violence, prayer and hospitality. She helped found the Catholic Worker house on Cassia Street in Redwood City with Larry Purcell and Presentation Sister Joan Murphy in 1975. In the Catholic Worker tradition, they became both staff and family for the troubled teens they welcomed. Mary Jane went to work as a secretary at Dole Food in San Francisco, commuting on the bus to support the house.
“She was a timid spirit in those days,” Purcell said. “She didn’t want to carry flags in demonstrations, but she believed in making money so that another nun could work with the poor. That other nun was Joan. The first three years we lived off of Mary Jane’s salary.”
By the early 1990s, the Sisters of Presentation helped the Catholic Worker group purchase and refurbish another house on Heller Street within walking distance of the first. Sister Mary Jane moved to that house to take care of her stepmother and at the same time began working at an adult day health center in Palo Alto as a receptionist. A group of retired teachers set up an English-language school for women in the garage of the Heller street house in 1991. Three years later, Sister Mary Jane saw that the women’s children might need tutoring. Grateful to have help with their students’ homework, the women began sending their children, and the program grew, as tutors from nearby parishes volunteered. The Sisters of the Presentation support Sister Mary Jane’s living expenses and fund specific parts of her program. Purcell raises money for the tutoring and for the Cassia Street house through his newsletter.
Sister Mary Jane is very clear about her motives: “I did this, one, because of the Gospel teaching of Jesus about reaching out in compassion; two, our community’s charism of working with the poor; and three, because it is the right thing to do.”
“A good description of her is a steel butterfly,” Purcell said. “She is really tough, but gentle and unassuming. Her compassion sometimes gets her into trouble.”
He remembers her encounter with local government. Last year, a Redwood City official questioned the small sign outside the house announcing “English classes” and said it would have to go. Sister Mary Jane was adamant.
“I’m not taking the sign down,” she said. “This is a perfect chance to start my jail record.” She didn’t have to do civil disobedience. The city backed down and the sign remains.
Sister Mary Jane retired from her job at the adult day health center in 2000 to devote her energy to both the tutoring program and the English language and computer school for women held in the garage. A wise administrator, she cultivates her tutors who hear about the program through parish bulletins and through Purcell’s regular newsletter to his supporters for the Catholic Worker House on Cassia Street. She’s quick to acknowledge their contributions. “Credit goes to the 41 tutors and 17 teachers in the evening classes for the success of the program,” she said.
Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Mary Pat Hutchison, a retired history professor from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, comes three afternoons a week and takes pleasure in the bright, responsive students who come to her. Patrick Crevell, cartographer for the city of Redwood City, tutors students in math and enjoys working one on one with students. “For Algebra II, I’m one lesson ahead,” said with a grin. “I’m a resource. It’s satisfying because I can meet their needs in homework. I always wanted a tutor myself.”
“The key thing I think is wonderful,” said Purcell, “is that as an 18-year-old Mary Jane felt compelled to join a teaching order. As an 80-year-old she has come full circle. The order was to teach thve poor and that is what she is doing.”
Dr. JoAnn Stenger, who began tutoring when she retired from her plastic surgery practice in 2009, is in awe of her work. “She’s the Mother Teresa of Redwood City,” she said.
Those interested in volunteering or donating may contact Sister Mary Jane at (650) 366-8315.