Religions and Spirituality

Cardinal Dolan Blesses Renovated Grotto at Kennedy Catholic

Cardinal Dolan, right, blesses the grotto, with Kennedy Catholic principal, Father Mark Vaillancourt. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
Sisters of the Divine Compassion look at Sister Barbara Heil’s plaque in the newly renovated grotto. Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
The plaque created in memory of Sister Barbara Heil Credits: Gabrielle Bilik

SOMERS, N.Y. – Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, visited John F. Kennedy Catholic High School on Monday, May 22, to bless the recently renovated grotto and honor the memory of Sister Barbara Heil, who died last year in a car crash.

Heil was 80 years old when she died and had belonged to the Kennedy Catholic community since its opening in 1967. Prior to that, she was a teacher at its predecessor, St. Mary’s. She was a member of the Sisters of Divine Compassion in White Plains. A plaque was built into the grotto in her memory, along with a prayer bench that was placed nearby.

During the rainy May 22 ceremony, students, faculty, parents and community members gathered under a tent adjacent to the grotto. Previously in a state of disrepair, the grotto was remodeled and expanded to accommodate larger crowds. It is situated near the entrance of the school, across from a small pond overlooked by a statue of the Virgin Mary, which Dolan said was apropos, as the religious figure also embodies a message of divine compassion. To have the memorial near the statue and the school’s entrance will allow those who enter to connect with Jesus and Mary, and also to “never forget Sister Barbara,” he said.

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Dolan led the group in a prayer before blessing the grotto.

Kennedy Catholic community members and loved ones describe Heil as multitalented and sweet. Many Sisters of the Divine Compassion came to the ceremony to honor her memory and to see the plaque, which read, “As a daughter of the Divine Compassion, she ignited hope and courage in all whose lives she touched.”

“This says it all,” said Sister Corita Clarke, of Sisters of the Divine Compassion. “She was a very kind, loving and generous person.”

Clarke added that Heil loved her work at the school, which included making costumes for many of the school plays and teaching Latin.

“She was an incredible seamstress,” said Donna Dooley, school parent.” I have a friend who was a student here and Sister Barbara made her cheerleading uniform back in the 1980s. She really had her hand in everything.”

Dooley was instrumental in the remodeling of the grotto, working with other parents, faculty, and Kurt Guldan of Salem Landscaping, who carried out the remodel. Guldan was also at the ceremony and said he expanded the grotto according to the faculty’s wishes to increase the size, while honoring the original design, which was done by a parent.

In addition to the memorial plaque and bench, students at Kennedy Catholic have carried on some of Heil’s traditions in her memory. Each year, Heil organized an Easter basket drive and donated them to the Mustard Seed Migrant Ministry in Goshen. This year, Dooley’s son, Aidan, along with four other members of the junior class, organized an Easter basket drive. Together, the community provided enough goods to make 120 baskets, Dooley said.  The baskets were donated to Cardinal McCloskey Community Services (CMCS), a nonprofit, social service agency that provides services to foster children, preschool-aged students from low-income families, and developmentally disabled adults.

“A year later, we still feel the loss of Sister Barbara,” Dooley said.

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