Centuries of trailblazers

Schools of the Sacred Heart alumnae break down barriers for future generations.


Jacqueline Franco '23

Schools of the Sacred Heart produce fearless female pioneers who inspire future generations.

The Network of Sacred Heart Schools has produced female pioneers for centuries.  In 41 countries and for 142 years, Schools of the Sacred Heart have fostered students’ empowerment and inspired them to make history for future generations of women, according to sacredheartusc.education.  Mrs. Rosario Kennedy ’62, Ms. Mary Robinson, Mrs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Miss Lia Neal, Ms. Margaret Brennan ’98, and Mrs. Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne “Cokie” Roberts are just six among the many Network of Sacred Heart School alumnae who have opened doors for women everywhere.

A Sacred Heart Greenwich alumna, Mrs. Kennedy was born in 1945 in Havana, Cuba.  Her family escaped the Communist regime to Miami, Florida.  She ventured to Greenwich, Connecticut, on a scholarship to attend Sacred Heart Greenwich, previously known as Convent of the Sacred Heart.  After graduating in 1962, Mrs. Kennedy became the first Cuban American woman on the City of Miami Commission and Vice Mayor of the City of Miami, according to cubansinamerica.us.  Mrs. Kennedy reflected on her role in a transgressive position and the impact it has had on the future of Miami governance.  

Ms. Rosario Kennedy ’62 fights for the removal of abandoned buildings that drug traffickers exploited in Miami, Florida.  Courtesy of rkamiami.com

“Although I was the first Hispanic woman elected City Commissioner, it is difficult to imagine that in the city’s 90-year history, there had only been three females elected to the commission previously, so the glass ceiling had been barely cracked,” Mrs. Kennedy said.  “I was fortunate to have been appointed by the governor and other elected officials to sit and chair many boards – this allowed me to prove myself prior to running for office.  I am proud to say that just this past week and for the first time in Miami, a second woman was elected to sit on the dais to comprise a three-man, two-woman commission – perhaps in our city, that glass ceiling is now broken for good.  To this day, I remain the only female lobbyist who has served in an elected position.”

Mrs. Kennedy is extremely appreciative of her Catholic education and recognized the continuous effect her Sacred Heart education has had on her.  She feels many of her values stem from what she learned at Sacred Heart.

My Sacred Heart education solidified the Christian spirit of my upbringing and taught me to listen to others with the intent of finding social justice for all – which guides me through my life in everything I do,” Mrs. Kennedy said.  “It taught me to be grateful for my blessings, the power of empathy, and the pleasure of giving back, especially to the country and the city that welcomed me and my family with open arms.  The Convent of the Sacred Heart gave me the tools for living a meaningful and fulfilling life.  Respecting others, conducting myself with integrity, being responsible for my own actions/decisions, and listening with empathy to everyone were drilled into me in every aspect of my education.  I am blessed, in turn, by having given a Catholic education to my children, which has produced some very fine people of whom I am extremely proud.”

Ms. Robinson was born in Ballina, County Mayo, Ireland, in 1944.  When she was ten, she began to attend Mount Anville Secondary School, the Sacred Heart school in Dublin, Ireland.  Ms. Robinson’s teachers at Mount Anville Secondary School knew her as intelligent and incredibly gifted in languages, according to theguardian.com

Former President Mr. Barack Obama presents Ms. Mary Robinson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Courtesy of thesun.ie

Ms. Robinson served many roles on the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, Secondary Legislation from 1973 to 1989, and Joint Committee on Marital Breakdown from 1983 to 1985.  In addition, she was a member of the Dublin City Council from 1979 to 1983.  Ms. Robinson became Ireland’s seventh and first female president December 3, 1990.  She later resigned in 1997 to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Ms. Robinson prioritized carrying out the Secretary-reform General’s plan, which calls for incorporating human rights into all of the United Nations operations, according to president.ie.

In 2009, Ms. Robinson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ (US) highest civilian honor, according to obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.  She founded The Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice in 2009.  The foundation offers a platform for encouraging action on climate justice to enable nations and individuals in their attempts to achieve sustainable and people-centered development, according to mrfcj.org.

Ms. Brennan is a pioneer for women in journalism and media.  She graduated from Sacred Heart Greenwich in 1998 and holds the moderator position for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) News’ show Face the Nation, according to cbsnews.com.  Ms. Brennan has traveled to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and Cuba for her reporting and has covered a number of diplomatic discussions, including Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s chemical weapons program, and the resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba, according to cbsnews.com.  In 2013, Ms. Brennan became the first American to interview Mr. Park Geun-Hye, President of South Korea, according to cbsnews.comShe has also advocated for women’s empowerment and gained recognition for promoting diversity and inclusion in media, according to nexttv.com.  Ms. Brennan reflected on the profound influence her Sacred Heart education continues to have on her as an adult.  She cited Sister Raphaelle Cherry, The Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ), who taught her to have confidence in her opinions, an important skill to have in her career.

Ms. Margaret Brennen ’98 poses for her yearbook photo and a promotional photo for CBS’ Face the Nation.  Jacqueline Franco ’23

My Sacred Heart education was foundational in a lot of ways that I, as an adult and far along in my career now, appreciate more,” Ms. Brennan said. “I often bring up this anecdote of being in an AP English with Sister Cherry, who was the instructor at the time, when she asked questions, girls, when called upon, would often give this preamble to their answer that was often I don’t know if this is right or this could be wrong but or this might have already been said.  It’s like this disclaimer and this terrible tick that I think many women do.  She cut that right off and said, you know, if you don’t have the conviction of your own opinion, then don’t raise your hand at all.  Being told in a very direct way that my opinion was as good as anyone else’s and that my gender shouldn’t be part of it, I didn’t need to soften what I was saying to make somebody else more comfortable.”

Ms. Brennan recounts that her gender was highlighted during her entrance to the position at Face the Nation.  She felt she had to prove herself by meeting expectations and becoming a person who is tough but fair.  She recalls that one of her co-workers once reminded her it is not just getting the job, it is keeping the job, which has stuck with her throughout her career.  She shared some of her own advice for Sacred Heart students looking to enter the field of journalism. 

Constantly be curious and ask questions about why something is happening,” Ms. Brennan said.  “It’s not just, this event happened in a bubble.  It’s what are the underlying complexities and contributing factors and the secondary and tertiary effects here?  Thinking things through is something Sacred Heart was good at teaching.  It is important for being a journalist as well because it’s not just always a snapshot in time, it’s a look at an issue.  Often the people whose stories you’re telling and the narrative of their personal experience may be a way for you to tell or give a look into a bigger set of issues.  Do as much as you can to learn as much as you can.”

Ms. Brennan praises the fundamental values her Sacred Heart education instilled in her.  She believes that living as a good person and a good human was the most important aspect of the education she received.

“One of the things that are so wonderful about Sacred Heart is the most essential thing is that you fundamentally are being a good person and a good human,” Ms. Brennan said.  “And I love that sensibility, whether it’s an extraction of religion or it’s just sort of who you need to be in the world.  Keeping that with you is something that’s really unique to the Sacred Heart experience.  If you can keep that alive, not everyone has that.”

The staff section in Volume XVI, Issue 4 of the King Street Chronicle from June 1998 showcases Ms. Margaret Brennan ’98 as Co-Editor.  Jacqueline Franco ’23

Mrs. Shriver, along with many members of the Kennedy family, attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Noroton, Connecticut, according to jkflibrary.com.  After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in sociology at Stanford University, she started working at the US State Department in the Special War Problems Division.  Later, in 1950, she became a social worker at the Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.  In the following year, she moved to Chicago, where she worked with the House of the Good Shepherd and the Chicago Juvenile Court, according to specialoplympics.org.

In 1957, Mrs. Shriver assumed the leadership of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, whose aim is to identify the causes of intellectual disability and improve how society treats citizens with intellectual disabilities.  Mrs. Shriver believed that people with intellectual disabilities had untapped potential and could achieve more if they received equal opportunities.  She organized Camp Shriver, a summer day camp in her backyard for young people with intellectual disabilities to explore their sports and physical activities skills.  This idea expanded to the first International Special Olympics Games in Chicago, Illinois, US, in July 1968, according to specialolympics.org.

Ms. Eunice Kennedy Shriver celebrates with an athlete at the third Special Olympics Games.  Courtesy of nps.gov

Miss Neal is the first woman of Black descent to swim in an Olympic final for the US and the second female African-American swimmer to make a US Olympic team, according to lianeal.comShe was a senior at Convent of the Sacred Heart on 91st Street, in New York, New York, when she qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games, and won a bronze medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay.  At the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, Brazil, she won a silver medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay, according to gostanford.comMiss Neal recognized how her Sacred Heart education continues to influence her and the values it instilled in her. 

Sacred Heard instilled in me from the beginning, without me even realizing it, was being a feminist and strong woman and getting used to being surrounded by other strong women,” Miss Neal said. “Anything that’s just rooted in equality and anything feminist just seems very second nature to me.  I can barely remember a time when I just accepted inequality.  That’s a major lasting effect that I’ve carried with me.”

Miss Neal recalled the challenge and difficulty of balancing Olympic training and the rigorous academics at Convent of the Sacred Heart.  She shared advice for current Sacred Heart students facing adversity. 

Miss Lia Neal and her teammates celebrate their bronze medals in the women’s 4x100m Freestyle Relay at the 2012 Summer Olympics.  Courtesy of teenvogue.com

“Follow what makes you happy,” Miss Neal said. “Every moment of your life, you think every decision that you make is going to be life or death, but that is not the case.  It’s easier said than done, but make a conscious effort just to choose things that bring you joy, and don’t let what other people are doing influence you too much.  Just try to stay true to yourself and listen to yourself.”

Ms. Roberts attended Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland, where she learned about the importance of education and service.  She was an eloquent advocate of Sacred Heart’s mission to demonstrate God’s love through words and acts, according to rscj.org.  She acknowledged St. Rose Philippine Duchesne as one of her heroes, according to ncronline.org.

Throughout her career, Mrs. Roberts paved the way for future generations of women journalists and demonstrated the importance of female voices in the media.  Sister Joan Magnetti, RSCJ and former headmistress of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, New Jersey, and Sacred Heart Greenwich, was a close friend of Mrs. Roberts.  They met through Mrs. Robert’s sister, Ms. Barbara Boggs Sigmund, former mayor of Princeton.  Sister Magnetti testified to her strong and faithful character even toward the end of her life. 

“When she took sick, she didn’t tell me anything,” Sister Magnetti said. “I didn’t even know that her cancer had come back.  She wrote me just about three weeks before she died, she said, ‘Hey Joany, I’ve been thinking about you and haven’t heard much about what’s going on in your life.’  She just didn’t want to be a burden, but her faith in God and her faith in the love of the heart of Christ, which came from her Sacred Heart tradition, was very strong to her.”

Sister Joan Magnetti, RSCJ, presents Mrs. Cokie Roberts with the Woman of Spirit Award.  Courtesy of stamfordadvocate.com 

As a journalist, Mrs. Roberts was one of the first women to work as a correspondent for CBS News and later became a political commentator for National Public Radio (NPR) and The American Broadcasting Company (ABC) News, according to New York Times.  Members of her field knew Mrs. Roberts for her insightful reporting and commentary on politics and government, areas in which she often addressed the role of women.  She was also a champion for women’s rights and a strong advocate for women’s empowerment, according to abcnews.comSister Magnetti reflected on Mrs. Robert’s journalistic persona and talent. 

“She was never nasty,” Sister Magnetti said. “When she wrote her books, all about women.  You know, We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters, Capital Dames, all of that.  She would spend hours, and her husband Steve would say, “Joan, she’s never home,” she would be in the bowels of some National Archives.  So she really did her homework and that’s what I appreciate about her.”

Sister Magnetti discussed Mrs. Robert’s faith and shared her favorite proverb, which emphasizes the significance of being accountable for the things we receive.  According to Sister Magnetti, this is the primary objective that every School of the Sacred Heart aims to instill in their students.

“Her faith was passed down,” Sister Magnetti said. “That’s why it’s so important for parents to pass on their faith to their kids.  She had a rugged faith, and the same with Barbara, very rugged faith.  It wasn’t a fanciful thing.  She used to talk about the repository of faith.  I never understood what that meant, but that we kind of store up the faith within us that has been passed down by our school, by our faith, by our parents.  She lived that adage that we all are a slow drip, from the Gospel, it was Saint Madeleine Sophie’s favorite, ‘Those to whom much is given, much is required.’”

Featured Image by Jacqueline Franco ’23