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A Life of Service: Sr. Margaret Hickey reflects on teaching career, sisterhood

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Noah Johnson

Sr. Hickey has seen Roncalli Catholic grow into the school it is today firsthand. Her career as an educator and leader for both Roncalli Catholic and the Notre Dame Sisters in Omaha has given her the unique opportunity to impact the lives of those in her community for decades. Now, Sr. Hickey is looking back on her career after celebrating her retirement this fall.

Sr. Margaret Hickey remembers walking into her first homeroom class at Roncalli Catholic High School.

It was 1974. The recently formed Roncalli High School was in its inaugural year as a co-educational school after merging the all-girls Notre Dame Academy with the all-boys Archbishop Rummel High School.

As she walked into her senior homeroom, Sr. Hickey noticed a split down the center of the classroom that divided the former Notre Dame and Rummel students.

“The girls were on this side and the boys were on the other side,” she said. “There was no talking, but I did notice how much better the girls were dressing. Their uniforms were all tucked in and their hair was groomed. I thought, ‘something’s happening here.’”

Sr. Hickey has seen Roncalli Catholic grow into the school it is today firsthand. Her career as an educator and leader for both Roncalli Catholic and the Notre Dame Sisters in Omaha has given her the unique opportunity to impact the lives of those in her community for decades.

Now, Sr. Hickey is looking back on her career after celebrating her retirement this fall.

Sr. Hickey’s first introduction into a future of service came as a child in Kindergarten at St. Albert Catholic School. Even early in her life, Sr. Hickey said she was drawn toward a future in education.

“I wanted to be a teacher, and so I kept that in the back of my mind,” she said. “Everyone along the way kept encouraging me to be a better person and develop my gifts.”

As she approached high school, Sr. Hickey was asked if she had ever considered religious life. It was a future that she could see for herself, so Sr. Hickey began attending the Notre Dame Academy as a freshman.

By the time she was a sophomore, Sr. Hickey joined the Notre Dame Sisters.

“Now in those days, we’re talking the 1950’s, girls joined the community a lot earlier,” she said.

Candidacy followed over the next three years. Over that time, Sr. Hickey learned more about prayer and community living, all while uncovering her own talents and abilities.

Following high school, Sr. Hickey became a postulate and began attending college. During that time, she remembered being told often by her fellow sisters that she possessed the skills to be a teacher.

“I thought that was great because it was what I wanted to do,” she said.

Sr. Hickey began studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree with an emphasis in elementary education, but took a break from college to enter the novitiate. Over the course of the following year, she would contemplate the call to religious life.

In 1961, she made her first vows, returned to college and completed her bachelor’s degree. She was assigned to teach first and second grade students at a Catholic elementary school in Omaha.

However, at the end of her first year, Sr. Hickey said the fit wasn’t right. So, she was assigned to St. Michael’s school in Harlan, Iowa. There, she taught English, religion and history.

“I was there for three years and had a great experience,” she said. “It kind of taught me how to handle community life because I lived with four other sisters and we had a great time.”

After teaching at St. Michael’s, Sr. Hickey returned to the Notre Dame Academy, where she taught for seven years. That time marked an important crossroads in Sr. Hickey’s life. At the age of 27, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was forced to undergo consecutive surgeries just days apart.

“I didn’t know if I was going to die or be alive,” she said. “I remember very clearly, at that time, waking up in the middle of the night and saying, ‘I really want to stay alive. I want to continue teaching because I love what I’m doing, but I am open to your will, God.’”

Thankfully, a successful surgery and healthy recovery brought her back to the classroom at the Notre Dame Academy. At the beginning of her fourth year of teaching at the academy, early discussions began regarding a potential merger with Archbishop
Rummel High School.

“The reality was that Rummel’s enrollment was going down and so was ours at Notre Dame,” she said. “We saw that it was a good move, and so we spent a good two years planning. We found it was going to be a good, good fit.”

It was an inflection point in the history of both institutions. By the time then-named Roncalli High School opened its doors for the first time in 1974, Sr. Hickey said over 600 students were walking its halls.

And the separation in the homeroom that Sr. Hickey noticed at the beginning of the year? That didn’t last long.

“By the end of the year, we had to make sure that a boy and girl weren’t hiding out in the theater or somewhere,” she said.

She attributed the seamless transition to the hard work of teachers and administration when it came to planning the move.

“I think that kind of thing started what Roncalli Catholic is noted for today; the diversity, family atmosphere and the acceptance that people feel when they get here,” she said. “It was well done.”

In 1968, Sr. Hickey began taking on small leadership roles within the sisterhood. It began with serving as the coordinator of her house, which held around 20 sisters at the time. In 1974, she was asked to join the leadership team temporarily after a sister departed.

“They told me I did fine, especially when they all went off to Europe for a meeting and left me home by myself and somebody died, so I had to put all of that together,” she said. “I realized that when you’re in a leadership role, you don’t have all the power. You have all the help around you. All you have to do is keep asking for help.”

Sr. Hickey was elected provincial president for the first time in 1977. She was re-elected for a second three-year term in 1980.

After her second stint as provincial president ended in 1983, Sr. Hickey returned to Roncalli Catholic to continue teaching. She remained in that position until 1998 and described her time at the school as some of the best of her life.

In 1992, she had another occurrence of cancer, forcing her away from the classroom for nearly three months. It was during that time that Sr. Hickey saw firsthand how strong her Roncalli Catholic family was.

“The kids kept coming to see me in the hospital,” she said.”They kept showing their love and bringing communion because, by then, they were ministers. I realized how much I missed being with the kids.”

Sr. Hickey returned to the classroom healthy and energized to continue her teaching career. She would do so for the next six years, before being re-elected to the role of provincial president. She held that position through 2005.

“I kind of balanced leadership and advancement work and teaching all those years of my life,” she said.

In 2013, Sr. Hickey was elected once again to the role of provincial president. She held the role for two consecutive three-year terms before celebrating her retirement in August 2022.

As she looks back on a successful career dedicated to service, Sr. Hickey said she couldn’t have done it without the support of those around her.

“When I was a little girl, I would have never dreamed that I’d be doing what I’m doing today,” she said. “It’s always about calling each other forth to use our gifts.”

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