Sister Mary Ellen Wheelahan, O. Carm., is a lifelong New Orleanian, a 1972 graduate of Cabrini High School who grew up in Lakeview. She entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Mount Carmel in 1976, making her vows in 1984. She is known in the archdiocese for her work related to child protection and prevention of child abuse, and programs to encourage self-esteem in children. Wheelahan has been selected Cabrini High School’s 2013 Alumna of the Year.

What do you remember about being a high school student in New Orleans in the 1970s?

I remember it being a more innocent time than it is now, a simpler time. I remember taking the bus to school. It was a big thing for us, and now the girls are like, a bus? What is that?

Do you think that kids today have a more difficult time than previous generations?

It’s different, because they are involved in so many other extracurricular activities. It makes it more of a challenge for parents to find time to sit down and communicate with children, the way children need, in order to pass on the values of the family.

What kind of work do you do?

I work with parents, employees and volunteers in training them how to recognize the signs of abuse, what it means to be a mandated reporter. In our schools, anyone who has ongoing contact with the children is trained. Even the students receive training now.

What inspired you to enter religious life?

I grew up with Sisters of Mount Carmel at St. Dominic, and also had the experience and example of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of community and service. They always appeared so prayerful and happy, so peaceful. And I admired their ability to reach out through education, too.

What do you enjoy outside of work?

I have 10 nieces and nephews, and a great-niece and -nephew now. I love being with my family, with those nieces and nephews. I like to read and cook, and do cross stitch. Anything that the sisters will eat, I’ll cook it. I am the cook in our local community; the others do not like to cook.

What’s so special about New Orleans?

I love everything about New Orleans! We have the most respectful, down-to-earth people. My job takes me all over New Orleans, to the west bank and across the lake. One of the retired sisters goes with me when I drive at night, and she laughs because every time I come back into the city and I see the lights, I say, “I love my city!”