When Sister Mary Vianney Ennis, S.M., first arrived at St. John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa, tumbleweeds regularly rolled out of the adjacent open fields, across nearly deserted Baker Street and onto the playground. The air was filled with the both the powerful scent of acres of nearby orange blossoms and the equally thick Irish accent of Sister Vianney.
More than a half century later nearly everything has changed except the lilting cadence of Sister Vianney’s voice, familiar and dear to generations of students, parents and colleagues who passed through the school year after year. They came and went, their surroundings changed, and changed again, Orange County boomed and the tumbleweeds and oranges vanished. But Sister Vianney remained, a marker of true north in an often shifting world.
And now her time has come to leave. At age 74, the vibrant gray-haired nun that has become as closely identified with the school as the saint for which it is named is retiring, returning to the home she left when she was 21.
“I’m going to miss the people,” she says. “They’re family, and I’ve gotten very, very close to so many people. I’m definitely going to miss the school. Every day I get up because I’m going to school. And after 53 years I won’t have to be someplace at 6 o’clock in the morning, and I won’t have to answer bells and phones. I’ll have to make a schedule for myself or I’ll go crazy. I need something each morning to call me out of bed.”
That daily pattern began for Sister Vianney when she was a second year professed novice with the Sisters of Mercy in County Offaly in the very center of Ireland. She had intended to be a nurse, “but when I joined up, teaching became a definite strong point because the sisters in the convent where I lived were all teachers.”
In 1959, Monsignor Thomas Nevin, the founding pastor of St. Joachim Church in Costa Mesa, traveled to Ireland to recruit teachers for a new parish and school nearby—St. John the Baptist. “His sister was one of our community,” says Sister Vianney, “and he came and talked to the mother general and asked for sisters to come over here as teachers. The first community came in 1959 and two years later I was sent.”
The young new arrival from Ireland knew nothing about Southern California, and her first impression jolted her.
“What I hated,” she says, “was all the lights. I arrived at the airport at nighttime. And there were all these lights, massive lights. I thought, ‘I will never get used to it.’ That was the scariest part. I’m not a night person. I like being inside at nighttime and it was just a shock seeing all those lights from the airplane.”
The church and school “was a brand new place and unfamiliar, and I had no idea what was ahead of me. But I was anxious to get going. I was going to teach second grade, and I was put into a temporary classroom.”
She discovered that she “loved teaching second grade. It was in my bones. It was really exciting. I really didn’t think back and say, ‘What am I doing?’ because if I did that I knew I’d get homesick, and so I just kept going. It was the best thing I could have done. Every day was a new day and I didn’t know what was going to come with the day.”
Her pronounced accent was an initial problem that she turned into an advantage.
When I’d speak, they laughed at me, and I laughed right back at them,” says Sister Vianney. “I would say things and they hadn’t a clue what I meant. To this day when I say ‘horse’ people think I’m saying ‘hearse’. When I’d say ‘shirt,’ they’d hear ‘short’. She clarified the problematic words by writing their “translations” down on flash cards that she would hold up when students would stare back blankly.
After 10 years of teaching in the classroom, and two years when she was in charge of religious education for the parish, Sister Vianney was named principal of St. John the Baptist School in 1975.
She says she still cherishes the memories of her time in the classroom, and of the students she taught.
“I became very close to them,” she says. “Some of the students I taught in second grade are here right now back here with their children or grandchildren. Some I’ve never lost touch with. It’s great. And they come back, many of them, periodically, or send notes or emails, and I can connect right away. Those were great years. I got as much out of it as they did. They were great years.
“Today I have to be the principal and do the discipline part of it. I can’t be as close today as I was back then.”
In late July or early August she plans to move back to Ireland, to a retirement convent in County Athlone, where she’ll be “looking into visiting the elderly and maybe doing crafts or just sitting and reading and talking.”
“It does surprise me, when I think that I’m going back to Ireland. I’ve lived here for more than 50 years and I lived in Ireland for my first 21 years. My family is back there, and the family is very big. But this has been my home, absolutely.”
“Sister Vianney’s leadership at St. John the Baptist School has been a legacy of mercy,” says Father Gerald Horan, O.S.M., the Vicar for Faith Formation for the Diocese of Orange. “That’s the charism and name of her religious order, but it’s also a characteristic and quality that is deeply embedded in her own personal spirituality. She has always been a thorough, reliable and capable educational leader. She’s got high expectations and she knows how to show a tough exterior, but she has a heart of gold. She is respected and loved by everyone who comes to St. John’s, yet she oversees the campus, its teachers and the work of learning with motherly care. And she receives every visitor with unique Irish charm.”
She will not leave without fanfare. On June 19, a special Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Kevin Vann at St. John the Baptist Church to honor the end of Sister Vianney’s career at the adjacent school.
“Everyone’s just been too nice altogether,” says Sister Vianney. “A lot of students will be coming back for the Mass. It’s going to break my heart, and it’s going to be a tear jerker, but it’ll be fantastic, I know.
“It’s been a great life and I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do it.”