Letting the “Stuff” Go

By Sister Jean McGrath

I have always been a fan of books and articles about organizational skills. Key word here is FAN, not proponent since my efforts to have an organized desk, an efficient filing system, or color coded closet fall far short of feng shui or the popular best seller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Condo.

Never has this been more true than in the last few months since I left my long time ministry as principal of a Catholic Elementary School in Chicago.  Thirty one years of accumulated “memorabilia” had to be sorted, prioritized, and PURGED.


The supplies I started with…

I was thrilled to go to Office Depot and find colorful new file folders and fine line markers to support the task.  I should have gone to the local camping outlet store to learn how to set a campfire in the backyard and safely ignite years of saved articles, newsletters, budget worksheets, and “to be read later” or “important to save” documents stuffed in bulging file drawers.


The supplies I should have bought…

I prayed for detachment, simplicity and a powerful paper shredder.

Tough as the task has been, I have had some wonderful reflective moments during the purge.  On a yellowed piece of paper, I found the hand-written payroll from 1986 when a gifted kindergarten teacher with thirty years of experience at the time made an annual salary of $19,000.  (I should add that she taught for an additional fifteen years and never complained.) She was then and remains for me now a model of dedication, commitment, and true believer in the potential of each child whom she taught.blur-calligraphy-data-51191I desperately wanted to save the theological reflection of a first grader on his St. Patrick’s Day reflection on the meaning of the Trinity or the very tender letter I saved from a three-year old pre-schooler who told me I was the best principal she had ever had. Her limited experience of other principals did not diminish my gratitude.elementary-school-1332472_1920In the “legal issues” file there was the police report we needed to make when one of our fifth graders DROVE to school as a reward his mother gave him for passing a science test.

The prayer service folder was especially poignant. Funeral booklets for a graduate killed in Afghanistan, another for a father and police officer shot and killed in the line of duty, a third for a young mother who months before her death asked me to “keep an eye on the kids” if the chemotherapy did not work.

The prayer service files also held wonderful reminders of beautiful celebrations for First Reconciliations, First Communions, Confirmations and Graduations. How privileged I was to be part of those key moments in the faith development of so many children. How privileged I was to watch so many children grow in “age, wisdom, and grace”.files-1614223_1920One of the gifted “organizational experts” I have consulted suggests taking a picture of those things which you need to remember. He does not mention how to organize the scores of pictures that result.  Obviously this is not the solution for me.

Two months after officially leaving my ministry, I am still purging.  The piles are definitely diminishing, but there is much yet to be done.  I am comforted with the thought that perhaps the purge is a metaphor for all of life’s transitions; I am aware that I must “let go”, but also need to know there is yet much to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, I am going to read the sequel to Condi’s book aptly titled, Spark Joy, and hope the inexpensive shredder I purchased for the task continues to hum.shredder-779850_1920


About the Author


Sister Jean McGrath recently retired as the principal at St. John Fisher School in Chicago and enjoys a good book, a good conversation, and a great bargain.


34 thoughts on “Letting the “Stuff” Go

  1. Barbara Noonan says:

    Dear Sister Jean McGrath
    I enjoyed your article this morning as I sat amongst piles of papers and files, trying to keep each one in eyes sight so that I won’t forget to follow through with the various task each one represents.
    I make it a point to clear away this pile before leaving my office each Friday, then somehow by Tuesday the next week it reappears.
    If you do learn the secret on how to keep this from happening, please share.
    Have a very blessed day,
    Barbara Noonan, Program Director
    SSJ Neighborhood Network
    425 West 18th Street
    Erie, PA 16502


  2. Marge Freundl says:

    Enjoyed reading this. My problem was resolved with a flood in my basement 1 1/2 years ago… never emptied out anything so fast!


  3. Maria Hill says:

    Interesting that it is on the anniversary of your birth that I read this charming reflection full of wisdom and your usual marvelous sense of humor! Thanks for the joy it brought me and may this birthday be full of joy and blessing for you and all those you love.


  4. Barrie Barrett says:

    Great reflection, Jean—heart-felt and humorous. I SO relate to the difficulty of letting go.
    “The lyfe so shorte, the craft so long to lerne.” —Chaucer


  5. Jackie Sc says:

    Great reflection, Jean! Made me chuckle a few times.
    Celebrate your bday well and let the purging wait. It will wait for you.. 🙂


  6. Elizabeth Loock says:

    This enjoyable story in a humorous way is a lighthearted nudge of what it is so important to do…enjoy (remember if you can!) and LET GO! It is giving me inspiration! Thank you, Jean.


  7. Mary Zignego says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I especially loved how you intertwined the humor along the way. Thank YOU for your service not only to kids but God. I hope I get to meet you some day. God bless you!


  8. Beth says:

    As I prepare to move to our new building, I enjoyed your idea of a bonfire! We all know the importance of letting go in order to embrace what is to come. Do we ever find it easy to “let go”? Thanks for your humor and so many years serving as “principal”. I can imagine all the hearts you touched, as you look back at all those who touched yours. Thanks, Jean.


  9. Susan Jonas says:

    Thanks for the article that reminds me that other people struggle with my same “saver” inclination. I too have purchased and read “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” but, (shamefully) don’t seem to be able to implement its suggestions. The home from which I wish to downsize is so full of 30 years of VERY IMPORTANT paper, memories not just of my own life and work, but souvenirs of 30 years of raising children. I simply laugh at those who predicted a “paperless office” where all info we want can be stored in electronic format.


  10. Patricia Stanley says:

    Your article reminded me of my weakness: paper hoarding and yarn collecting. I realized this when returning home after recuperating after kidney failure and cardiac arrest. I looked at this illness as a reminder from God that my life on earth will be coming to a close sooner than later (‘m 84 years old). So the task of downsizing goes on and on and ….


  11. Mariellen Newquist says:

    How lucky I was to have your newsletter forwarded my way! So beautifully written with your never ending sense of humor that makes all of our hearts smile. Save the ones you really love and frame them! That way you can enjoy them each and every day!
    ~ Mariellen ❤️


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