Sister Rosemary Flaherty, a strict but inspiring English teacher who also wrote her own prose and verse, died Saturday at the Convent of Mercy's infirmary in Oakland due to complications from leukemia. She was 81.
Sister Rosemary taught for decades at Roman Catholic schools around Western Pennsylvania, instructing elementary students up to college English majors. While she enjoyed a gift and feel for the language that made it seem effortless for her, she drilled hard work and precision into her students that paid off over time.
She had students regularly pore through newspapers to search for typos and thereby train their critical eyes. She had them rewrite papers again and again until they were just right. She would chide students for using too many words, or for being lazy with too few.
Advice from the daughter of Irish immigrants could be colorful and thereby memorable decades on: A student who padded writing with too many adjectives would be told it "looks like a Polish church."
"Sister Rosemary's greatest gift as a writing teacher was helping her students see that the meaning of each word is enhanced if you chose the right one and leave it uncluttered by superfluous words around it," recalled Ellen Harvey, a 1973 graduate of Immaculate Conception High School in Washington, Pa., who went on to become a writer and publicist. "I guess that was the 'Polish Church' theory -- don't clutter up substance with a lot of fluff."
Rosemary Flaherty grew up in Oakland as the only daughter of John and Bridget Connolly Flaherty. The white-haired policeman and his wife were both born in Ireland and brought their brogues with them to Pittsburgh, where they raised Rosemary and her two brothers, John Jr. and Kenneth.
Sister Rosemary joined the Sisters of Mercy from St. Regis parish in 1950 at age 17. She made her final vows to the convent in 1956, graduated from Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University) in 1959 and received a master's in English from Duquesne University in 1967.
She started teaching at a Roman Catholic elementary school as early as 1953 and continued working at schools in and around Pittsburgh through 1977. From there she taught in Carlow's English Department from 1977 to 1981 and then worked in departments at Mercy Hospital, including the legal, finance and social services offices, from 1987 through 1994. She worked for two years after that at the Pittsburgh Blind Association.
Behind the scenes she wrote essays and poetry, often about nature and animals, and spun long, humorous yarns for friends. One concerned how proud her mother was, early in her time at the convent, that she had been named its "refectorian." Only later during a once-weekly meeting with her daughter did she ask what this important-sounding title meant. She was in charge of putting out jelly in the cafeteria, Sister Rosemary replied.
"She had a beautiful mind and expressed herself so well," said Sister Joan Laboon, a friend for 50 years. "She was a great storyteller. She would have you laughing at whatever she told you."
She was preceded in death by her parents and brothers and is survived by nieces and nephews.
A Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. today in the chapel at the Convent of Mercy, followed by interment in St. Xavier Cemetery in Latrobe.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581.