Sister Mary Eileen Brannigan, a talented musician who played several instruments, expertly led religious and secular choirs, and taught generations of Northern California schoolchildren, has died at 91.
She died April 6 of hip-surgery complications after a recent fall, said Sister Susan McCarthy of the Sisters of Mercy West Midwest Community in Auburn.
In addition to playing piano, organ, guitar and other keyboard instruments, Sister Mary Eileen guided students learning to play wind and percussion instruments. She was a substitute organist at Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento and also played the organ while conducting the Sisters of Mercy choir at services.
She gave private lessons and spent 45 years teaching music in Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Sacramento. Besides elementary schools in Auburn, Redding and Sacramento, she taught at Mercy High School in Carmichael and Bishop Manogue High School in Sacramento.
Although her specialty was Gregorian chant, Sister Mary Eileen also made her mark in musical theater. In 1972 and 1975, she was recruited by Music Circus producers to organize and lead practices for Sacramento-area youngsters playing nuns in “The Sound of Music.” She directed a chorus of performers – billed in programs as “The Sister Mary Eileen Choir” – who sang Latin hymns during a wedding scene that Sacramento Bee critic William C. Glackin praised as “electrifying.”
“Whoever Sister Mary Eileen is, she knows how to train a choir,” Glackin wrote.
After retiring from teaching in 1988, Sister Mary Eileen specialized as a baker and custom knitter with Sister Mary Christopher Brannigan, who was her sister by birth and by vows in the Sisters of Mercy. The pair earned renown for their handmade holiday ornaments, toys and shortbread cookies, which they often shipped to customers at holidays.
They appeared in national TV ads for Mail Boxes Etc., which shipped 30 dozen of their shortbread cookies for a party in San Francisco every Christmas “without a grain of sugar off.” The spots, dubbed “Higher Authority,” won top honors at an international festival for TV commercials.
The sisters also were in the news in 1994, when they survived a spectacular crash with minor cuts and bruises after their car was dragged hundreds of feet under a tractor-trailer on Interstate 80 in Loomis. An unassuming woman with a gentle sense of humor, Sister Mary Eileen recalled that she was “busy trying to figure what to do with my hands and feet” as the big rig rumbled over the car.
“And once I realized that was a losing proposition, in my old little language I told God, ‘Well, you can have me if you want me,’ ” she said. “I guess I haven’t done enough penance yet.”
Mary Eileen Brannigan was born Sept. 28, 1922, and grew up in San Francisco learning music from her father, an Irish immigrant who played violin. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in Auburn in 1940 and professed her final vows in 1946.
She graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles and began teaching in 1943. She did graduate work in music at the University of Notre Dame and received a secondary music credential in 1964.
Sister Mary Eileen is survived by another sister, Therese Mulhall. Sister Mary Christopher died in 2011.
A funeral Mass was held Friday. Donations may be made to the Sisters of Mercy WMW Community, 535 Sacramento St., Auburn, CA 95603.