Sr. Pauline M. McShain SHCJ, A Woman of Action

By Marybeth C. Phillips

“Our lives of love and peace should speak louder than words,” said Sr. Pauline McShain, as she reflected on the motto of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which reads,  “Actions not words.”  This philosophy is the foundation of every Holy Child ministry established during the past 164 years.

Since 1946, when Sr. Pauline, or “Polly” as her friends call her, began her life in the Society, she has desired to follow the example of Mother Cornelia Connelly. This 19th century Philadelphian was convinced that her sisters should be women of their own times, striving to meet current needs, both spiritual and temporal.

Killarney House

After Vatican II, the Holy Child Sisters were among the first to adopt contemporary clothing, and to work in controversial ministries.  During the 1990s, Sr. Pauline became a volunteer at Siloam, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia, which offers services to individuals “infected with HIV/AIDS…enhancing their over-all well-being, including their personal spirituality.”


Currently, Sister is involved in research and writing in the American Province of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, and also works with the planning committee of The Voice of the Faithful, Philadelphia.

Pauline is a second generation Irish-American.  In the 1880s her paternal grandfather emigrated from County Derry, coming to Philadelphia to join his uncle in the construction trade, building both St. James and St. Agatha churches in West Philadelphia. Eventually, John J. McShain Sr. began his own construction firm, winning contracts for the Misericordia Hospital in Philadelphia, Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Bryn Mawr, a tavern, and for several buildings, including the chapel for the Sisters of Mercy in Merion, PA.

Sister McShain Speaks to the Bishops of Ireland

On October 14, 2010, the bishops of Ireland, at their annual dinner to raise funds for St. Patrick’s Seminary at Maynooth, honored Sr. Pauline McShain as a “Faithful Servant.”   Sister accepted this award in the name of her parents, Mary and John McShain, because they had “earned this recognition by living their Catholic faith with grateful and generous hearts.”

The principal Maynooth Honorees of the year 2010, however, were Mr. and Mrs. John J. Dougherty, (IBEW Local 98).  Also recognized as a “Faithful Servant” was Bishop Joseph P. McFadden. His new responsibilities as Ordinary in Harrisburg, however, detained him in his diocese.

Sr. Pauline’s father, John McShain, was one of America’s prolific builders, active in one of the few growth areas during the Great Depression of the 1930s—government contracts.  In 1934 John McShain built an annex to the Library of Congress—no small feat for a Republican during a Democratic administration.  Having earned the respect of President Roosevelt, Mr. McShain won contracts to build the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Jefferson Memorial, the Longfellow Building, the Naval Hospital and, in 1941, the Pentagon.

Killarney House Given to Ireland

During Sr. Pauline’s acceptance speech at the Maynooth dinner, she referred to her parents’ former estate in Co. Kerry, Ireland, known as Killarney House. Originally situated on 2,500 acres, the house overlooked the Lakes of Killarney, with their backdrop of mountains.  Soon after John McShain purchased this estate in 1959, he arranged with the Irish government that, following his own death and that of his wife, Killarney House would become the property of the Irish State.  Accepting this gift, the Irish officials agreed to preserve Killarney House and grounds in perpetuity. John McShain died in 1989; the death of his wife Mary occurred in 1998.

Since then, however, Killarney House has received no maintenance, and now lies in woeful disrepair, at one time being invaded by some squatters, who took up residence. No explanation has been offered by the Irish government as to the reason for this neglect during the era of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland’s economy was flourishing.

Although the condition of Killarney House is of great concern to Sr. Pauline, she responded to the Irish bishops’ award with strong words and righteous anger regarding another far more serious matter.  Having spoken of Killarney House, which some of the bishops had visited, she said,  “Today, however, there is another house, a far greater house, which is falling into disrepair—a reality that has distressed millions of Catholics.

This is the House of God, the structure that encloses His People, the Church. Without our being aware, the Church has slowly deteriorated.  Now the time has come for its repair and renewal.  Today Christ repeats to us what He once said to St. Francis, ‘Rebuild my Church’ “. Pauline remains a committed member of the Voice of the Faithful, which seeks healing and justice for those who have been sexually abused. She gives credit to The National Catholic Reporter for her growing awareness and concern for victims.

During Sr. Pauline’s early days at St. Leonard’s Academy of the Holy Child in West Philadelphia, where Cornelia Connelly’s memory inspired both nuns and students, she learned to respect and honor other children.  Cornelia’s words, “Trust the child,” were often repeated, with effective results.

Transportation being difficult during World War II, Polly transferred at fifteen years of age to the School of the Holy Child in Suffern, New York.   Following her secondary school graduation, and a trip with her parents and a cousin to the West Coast and Canada, she entered the Society.   Her spiritual formation was accompanied by an academic grounding;  she graduated from Rosemont College with a B.A. in English. Later, while teaching and serving as an administrator, Sr. Pauline earned Masters degrees in Secondary Education, Religious Studies, Guidance and Counseling.

She has taught both in the United States and in Nigeria, served as a secondary school principal, director of novices, religious superior, and as Vicar for Religious in the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT, and the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ. For some years, she has been a member of Pax Christi USA.


Marybeth [Clucas] Phillips is a graduate of Sister Pauline’s alma mater, St. Leonard’s Academy of the Holy Child Jesus, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, the institution which many of the SLA grads attended after high school.

St. Leonard’s closed its doors in 1983, but its five beautiful Victorian homes which were its school, convent, and chapel are now Penn offices. SLA’s exteriors have been preserved, and you can view them at 3833 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, catty-corner and across from St. Agatha-St. James Church, and also across 38th Street from the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia.

You may visit the baptismal font and home parish of Mother Cornelia Connelly at St. Stephen’s [Episcopal] Church, 10th and Ludlow Streets, in center city, Philadelphia. (Cornelia Connelly was a convert to Roman Catholicism, and Foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.)


One Comment

  1. St Leonard’s Academy in West Phila. closed with the graduating class of 1982, not in 1983. The West Phila site was used for classes through June 1981.

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