|Singing the Praises of a Former Teacher
At Benefit, Musician Kevin McKrell to See Nun Whose Lessons Still Keep Him in Line
By Paul Grondahl
Albany Times Union
May 8, 2008
In 1963, as a third-grader at Holy Spirit School in East Greenbush, Kevin McKrell first encountered Sister Monica, "a flash and a blur of starched white habit."
This Irish nun with a thick brogue instructed him in the mysteries of receiving First Holy Communion one day and smacked his wrist with a ruler or boxed his ears the next.
"I was a handful as a kid," recalled McKrell, the 52-year-old singer-songwriter and longtime Celtic music bandleader.
For the next four decades, Sister Monica, a member of the order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, inhabited McKrell's dreams — and more than a few nightmares.
"I considered her a Sister of Perpetual Guilt because she left me with enough guilt to last a lifetime," said McKrell, who jokes about this mythic nun onstage in between rousing Irish anthems.
He even wrote a stream-of-consciousness novel of black comedy that revolves around her.
On Friday night, McKrell will meet Sister Monica for the first time in four decades. He'll be joined by alumni from Holy Spirit School at the Parting Glass, the Irish pub in Saratoga Springs, where McKrell will perform with his daughter, Katie, and his band, the McKrells. About 150 people have purchased tickets, a capacity crowd.
The Parting Glass show and a reception Sunday after Mass at the Holy Spirit School gym morphed into a fundraiser for the beloved elementary school teacher, who now goes by her given name, Sister Carmel Spratt, and lives in Australia. Her ministry is assisting women and children to break free from the enslavement of human trafficking for the sex trade.
The nun is visiting the area for a few days, and her middle-aged former students, who once "feared and worshipped her as much as any deity from Zeus to Jesus" in McKrell's recollection, decided to honor her life and work.
"This whole thing took on a life of its own," McKrell said. "It's pretty frightening for me. I don't know if I should sing her praises, or duck in case she throws an eraser at me again."
He can blame Holy Spirit classmate Sharon Jones Witbeck.
"It all started with a 1 a.m. Google search," she said.
That was in January, when Witbeck tracked down her old teacher with a new name and ministry in Australia. They corresponded by e-mail, and Witbeck tentatively suggested that the nun read excerpts from McKrell's novel-in-progress, "Good Morning, Sr. Monica," on his Web site. She expected Sister Carmel to take offense at the exaggerated, sardonic portrait, which McKrell concedes is an amalgam of fiction and embellished memory.
Witbeck could not recall any corporal punishment at the hands of Sister Monica. Her strongest memory may be the nun's brogue intoning this assessment of the young Witbeck: "You are so cheeky and bold."
"The language and cultural differences seemed strange to me at first, but the love she had for us transcended all that," Witbeck said.
An added layer to Witbeck's tangled attitudes toward her Catholic upbringing is the fact that the 54-year-old Nassau resident, a divorced mother of three and retired state Department of Transportation worker, went public in 2002 with charges of clergy sex abuse against the Rev. Joseph Mancuso. The abuse occurred in the late 1960s when Mancuso was an assistant at Holy Spirit Church. After Witbeck's campaign, Bishop Howard Hubbard removed Mancuso as pastor of Mount Carmel Church in Schenectady.
"I don't hold a grudge and I haven't brought that up during the planning of this event," Witbeck said. "I'm only in this to help our teacher."
Witbeck felt reassured about the Parting Glass event after their teacher read excerpts of "Good Morning, Sr. Monica" and didn't flinch at McKrell's often caustic portrayal.
"It would take a whole lot more than that to offend me," observed the member of the order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood.
Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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