Sister Carmel O’Keeffe, a pioneer of international education in Japan for half a century, died of heart failure on Monday, Oct. 17, in her hometown of Cork, Ireland. She was 93 years old. Her funeral took place in Cork on Oct. 19.
Born in 1918 as Eileen O’Keeffe, she was educated in Ireland and Scotland and took her vows in 1939 as a sister of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus, a Catholic order dating to the 17th century. She was sent to Yokohama in 1947 to re-establish Saint Maur International School, originally founded in 1872 and the oldest Catholic school in Japan. Thousands of her former students throughout Japan and the world remember her strong moral influence to this day.
Over an astounding span of 60 years, Sister Carmel taught three generations of students, first in wartime wooden barracks and later in the modern school buildings whose construction she oversaw.
She worked tirelessly, overseeing the revival of the school from the ashes of World War II. Not only did she teach mathematics, English and history for over 20 years at Saint Maur, she also contributed to the English education of students at Yokohama Futaba Gakuen, its sister school.
Sister Carmel served as principal of Saint Maur International School from 1967 to 1991, continuing as chair of the board through the turn of the century.
During her tenure, the school expanded in size, underwent a successful coeducation process, and inaugurated one of the earliest International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programs in Japan, as well as one of the first international school computer labs in East Asia. The five current school buildings were all constructed or conceived while she led the school.
Sister Carmel was honored by Kanagawa Prefecture with its highest award for service to education, the first foreign woman to be so recognized. Even more impressive was her commendation by Pope Benedict XVI, conveyed to her in 2009 by the Papal Nuncio in Japan, which commemorated her 90th birthday, 70 years as a nun, and 60 years at Saint Maur.
Although her retirement was announced more than once, Sister Carmel continued to report to work every day. Failing health persuaded her in 2009 to return to Ireland, where Saint Maur remained in her thoughts and heart. Those of us who knew her for many years realize what a forward-looking and superb educator she was throughout her long career.
Memorial services will be held at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Saint Maur International School auditorium