By Jo Mathis
When Denise Hickey enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1992, she worried about perceived favoritism from her aunt, Sister Colleen Hickey, associate director of the Law School Library.
Not a problem.
“I soon realized she treats everyone like her niece or nephew,” said Denise Hickey, now assistant dean of alumni relations at the law school.
For 41 years, Sister Colleen Hickey helped run the four-floor, 340,000-volume library, which is open to and frequently used by the public.
“Not having children of her own, she looks at the law school community as her responsibility,” said Denise Hickey. “She’s been a maternal figure to all, students, and faculty. The school, and being a caregiver to all, is her mission and her vocation.”
Sr. Colleen Hickey, who is known for her Irish wit, was honored at a retirement party on November 20th at the law school.
“I loved being there,” she told the Legal News, “because it provided me, a nun, with a job. And also with so many opportunities to do noble work. Which was sorta like nun stuff.”
Hickey officially retired last spring, but is still involved with service projects at the law school, which remains her home-away-from-home.
Hickey was raised in Detroit by a divorced mother of four who ran a tiny grocery store in front of their house. Each child worked in the store as soon as she or he was tall enough to sell the penny candy
“My mother was a brave woman who did so much to improve herself on her own and never asked for anything,” she said. “We all turned out great.”
After becoming a nun, she taught school throughout Michigan for several years. Meanwhile, her life was so completely Catholic for so long, Hickey prayed for the chance to interact in the world outside.
That prayer was answered in 1970 after the parochial high school where she had been teaching closed and The Sisters of St. Joseph told her to find a job in the Detroit area. She began working at the University of Detroit Law Library, which took advantage of her library science degree, and was accessible by city bus — even if it did require six busses round-trip.
As a lifelong nondriver, public transportation was essential.
“We didn’t have a car (growing up),” she said. “And they didn’t teach you to drive in the convent.”
The salary wasn’t much, she said, but that didn’t matter.
“It was a way for me to use my education to help students,” she said. “I had the chance to do all sorts of different things and associate with so many wonderful people at the school.”
She recalled that when she started, the old law library was an outdated gym comprised of one full floor with a running track above it, and mostly donated, dusty books.
The library moved to temporary quarters during an extended period of construction beginning in 1974 for a new 32,000-square-foot building which coincided with an extensive remodeling of Dowling Hall. The Kresge Law Library opened in the fall of 1975.
Hickey said the students she met enriched her life, as she tried to help them in whatever ways she could, whether it was writing (yet another) letter of reference, or helping find the date of a long-ago court decision. Every year, the FBI would interview her about a graduate who’d applied for a federal position, and every year, she told them the same thing: Every graduate was perfect.
Hickey was also in charge of commencement activities, and sometimes would have to sell the idea that Mother’s Day was the perfect day for such a ceremony.
“There was a way to get off the committee,” she said. “But you had to die.”
Denise Hickey recalled the day in 1995 she and some other students were studying for the bar exam when her aunt walked up to them, accompanied by a priest from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church next door.
She had Fr. Lovely pray for the group on the eve of their big exam.
It was an intrusion at an extremely stressful time, said Denise Hickey.
“But it was the best thing she could have done,” she said. “It gave us focus, brought us into a quiet place, and was a tremendous amount of comfort.”
When she and the priest left, everyone gave Sister Colleen a round of applause.
No one has taken Hickey’s place yet. Library Director Byron Cooper is retiring next month, and his replacement — as yet not named — will fill her position.
Hickey said she can’t miss the library too much because she’s still so involved in its service projects.
Hickey, who lives in Grosse Pointe near a bus stop, is devoted to veterans’ and immigrants’ causes, as well as the Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church Warming Center for the urban poor.
“What I do there is raise money for them, and get them things when they need something,” she said. “I’m a guardian angel over there. You don’t see me, but ….
“It’s very rewarding when you’re evaluating your life.”
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