By Seth Gonzales
DALLAS – Sister Caroleen Hensgen, a School Sister of Notre Dame who became the first female superintendent of Catholic schools in the country, died Oct. 15 at her home at St. Mary of the Pines in Chatawa, Miss. She was 98 years old.
“We mourn the passing of this legendary Catholic educator but we celebrate her life and significant contributions,” Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell said. “Sister Caroleen had a major impact in the Diocese of Dallas by leading our Catholic schools in providing outstanding quality education that positively formed hundreds of thousands of students who are leaders in our community today. She was also a staunch defender of the civil rights of all citizens. Let us pray for the repose of the soul of this great woman and my dear friend, and may perpetual light shine upon Sister Caroleen.”
A native of St. Louis, Mo., Sister Caroleen began her career in Catholic education teaching at schools in Illinois and her home state of Missouri. Prior to arriving in Dallas, she worked as a principal for 16 years in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La., and the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
In 1967, she gained national notoriety when she accepted an offer by then-Dallas Bishop Thomas K. Gorman to become superintendent of Dallas Catholic schools. At the time, no woman in the country had ever ascended to that post. In a 1991 interview with The Texas Catholic, Sister Caroleen said she was well aware of that fact, but it didn’t concern her as much as the ramifications of her job performance.
“I did realize that I was the first woman superintendent, but that wasn’t considered an honor,” Sister Caroleen said. “But as time went on, I began to realize that if I didn’t do a good job or became so aggressive that I was a terrible threat that I would destroy other people’s opportunities.”
In 24 years at the helm of Dallas Catholic schools, Sister Caroleen oversaw the strengthening of the diocese’s Catholic education system, while making a Catholic education more accessible, especially for the poor.
“She was a force in Catholic education in Texas when the Diocese of Dallas was just beginning to grow, new immigrants were moving in to the area and there was racial injustice in education,” said Sister Mary Anne Owens, SSND, provincial leader for the Pacific Central province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. “Once she knew what the just response to a situation was, there was no stopping her.”
In 1971, as the Dallas Independent School District struggled to integrate its schools, parents began attempting to transfer their children into Catholic schools in hopes of avoiding integration. In response, Sister Caroleen announced a freeze on admitting students transferring from public schools, declaring that Catholic schools would not be a safe haven for those seeking to flee integration. The freeze lasted seven years, was financially costly and drew widespread criticism, even from those within her own school system.
“As a community, we took a stand and said, ‘We will not participate in discrimination against people,” said Sister Gloria Cain, SSND, current superintendent of Dallas Catholic Schools. “This had such a wide impact that Catholic schools superintendents in different regions started doing the same thing. I don’t think Sister Caroleen realized that this happened because of her.”
Though she shunned the spotlight, respect and recognition came slowly, but surely. Her work in support of desegregation was not lost on DISD. In 1975, the district’s Title 1 Parent Advisory Council recognized her for outstanding educational leadership. During separate banquets in 1983, the Texas Catholic Conference and National Catholic Education Association each presented her with a plaque recognizing her contributions to Catholic education. President George H.W. Bush later named her to an advisory panel as part of his administration’s America 2000 Schools initiative.
At the time of Sister Caroleen’s arrival in Dallas, Juanita Ramirez had only been working as secretary to the superintendent for one year. For her, Sister Caroleen was not just a boss, but an extended family member.
“I admired her because she was so warm to me and just embraced my family,” said Ramirez, who worked with Sister Caroleen for over 20 years. “She was like a spiritual mother to me.”
Having served as superintendent for the last five years, Sister Gloria said she owes a lot to Sr. Caroleen’s guidance and encouragement.
“Everything I know today about being a good administrator, I learned from her,” Sister Gloria said. “As a religious woman, she mentored all of us young sisters so that we would be excellent educators. In my mind she was a beacon, an example of what it means to live out our mission as School Sisters of Notre Dame.”
Elena Hines, who was hired by Sister Caroleen in 1983 to serve as principal of Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic School, said Sister Caroleen’s leadership skills were inspirational and challenging.
“She inspired us to be excellent leaders and make our schools the best they could possibly be,” said Hines, now principal of St. Rita Catholic School in Dallas. “She never minced words with you. She said it like it was, but always in a kind manner. She was always teaching. She took such pride in being an educator and truly believed in Catholic education.”
A funeral Mass for Sister Caroleen will be held on Oct. 21 at St. Teresa Church in Chatawa, Miss. She will be buried at St. Mary of the Pines cemetery in the same city. A memorial service in Dallas is planned for Monday, Nov. 18.