For Sister Patricia Ralph, a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, the school where she teaches, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C., is her “happy place,” as she calls it.

And as the fifth-grade homeroom and English/language arts and social studies teacher for fourth and fifth grades, Sister Patricia is just that – happy. 

“I’m just happy to be here,” she said. “I have no regrets.” 

Growing up as a twin in a family of eight in Newark, New Jersey, Sister Patricia attended Blessed Sacrament School, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph. By the time she was in the eighth grade, she was convinced she would become a sister. “I always knew I would be a sister,” she said. 

But when her twin attended a retreat run by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and came home announcing that she would become a religious sister, Sister Patricia said she didn’t believe her, “until she said the vows.” Her sister entered the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament as Sister Lynn Marie in 1983. 

Because she had long-desired to be a religious sister, Sister Patricia said she was somewhat “mad” at God – “I always wanted it, but He gave it to her first.” 

In 1985, Sister Patricia entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. She was the only African-American woman in her community, she said, which made a lot of people think she was crazy. 

“But I knew that this is what God wants,” she said. “That’s who I have to answer to.” 

For her first teaching mission, Sister Patricia was sent to St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Philadelphia, where she taught first grade. Enjoying the classroom environment, she was moved to Holy Name School in Washington for her second teaching mission. There, she said she found “such a family-oriented environment.” At a predominantly African-American parish, Sister Patricia said, “I felt right where I belong.” Due to an enrollment mistake, her first grade class had 35 students enrolled, but Sister Patricia said “it was the best class, we had so much fun.” 

Sister Patricia served as principal of Holy Name School for five years before returning to the classroom, this time to fifth grade. As the school transitioned from a Catholic school to a charter school, Sister Patricia and many of the other teachers stayed at the school to ease the change for the families. But after eight years at a charter school, Sister Patricia was looking for something different.

“I missed being in a Catholic school,” she said. “It was something that I just kept missing.”

Sheryce Parrish, the assistant principal at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy, had been calling Sister Patricia for years, asking her if she’d like to return to a Catholic school, but Sister Patricia always said that she was happy where she taught. 

But after many years, Sister Patricia called Parrish, telling the assistant principal that she was ready to return to teaching at a Catholic school.

When she arrived on campus for an interview, Sister Patricia knew it was the right place for her. 

“As soon as I put my right foot in the door, I knew I was at home,” she said. “I belong in Catholic schools.” 

Sister Patricia calls St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy her “happy place.” CS photo/Andrew Biraj

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy is one of the four schools in the Archdiocese of Washington's Consortium of Catholic Academies – that also includes Sacred Heart School, St. Anthony Catholic School and St. Thomas More Catholic Academy. Vincent Spadoni, president of the Consortium of Catholic Academies, said Sister Patricia is deeply committed to the consortium. 

“Sister Patricia’s lived example is a blessing not only to all of our students at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy, but also to those with whom she works,” he said. “It is such a gift having a woman religious on the faculty there.” 

Since Sister Patricia joined the St. Francis Xavier school community three years ago, she has worked to help provide grants and resources to improve the school’s programs. Through the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia’s mission fund, Sister Patricia has applied for two grants on behalf of St. Francis Xavier Academy, bringing $60,000 to the school to help improve the school's technology as well as its arts program, with instruments and sound. 

In her current role teaching the fourth and fifth grades, Sister Patricia said she still loves spending time with the children. 

“I’m hard on them, but they know I mean well because I want the best from them,” she said. 

The school community prays with one another each morning, which Sister Patricia said really separates them from the charter school community where she formerly taught. 

“That’s what gets us through the day,” she said. “We need Jesus.” 

In July 2019, Sister Patricia received the Harriet Tubman Award from the National Black Sisters Conference, an organization she joined as a novice in the late 1980s. The Harriet Tubman Award-- named for the famous abolitionist who helped rescue approximately 70 enslaved people through the Underground Railroad -- is given to a woman religious who “is responding to the call to be a Moses to her people,” the National Black Sisters’ Conference website said. Sister Patricia was nominated by her twin sister, Sister Lynn Marie. 

“It was such an honor, looking at the past women (who have received the award), and knowing that I’m part of that group… I’m amazed,” Sister Patricia said. 

At the very first event of the National Black Sisters’ Conference that she attended as a novice in the late 1980s, she said she was so amazed to see so many fellow African-American sisters. 

“When I opened the door and saw so many African-American showed that when you think you’re alone, you’re really not,” she said. 

Being a member has been a great support to her, she added. Sister Patricia has also served on the board for the organization. 

For her acceptance speech for the Harriet Tubman award, Sister Patricia used the book The Little Engine That Could as inspiration. Her father gifted her a copy of the book on the day of her final vows in 1985. On the inside cover, he wrote, “I always knew you could.” 

“I love being a sister,” Sister Patricia said. “Even if I had another life, I’d probably still be a religious.”

To those open to a religious vocation, Sister Patricia said “you’ll know it's right when you’re at peace with yourself.”