An admitted city girl, Sister Carina Maris Okeke is finding her new abode in rural Lithia a bit disconcerting.
“It’s too quiet,” she said of the convent house donated by a parishioner at St. Stephen Catholic Church. “I was born and raised in the city. This is my first time in the countryside.”
However, she concedes the serenity of the new convent house she shares with her sister in the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy Congregation, Sister Regina Maraizu, is ideal for her religious community’s tradition of prayer and contemplation.
“Our life is very contemplative,” said Okeke of her religious community, which originated in her homeland of Nigeria.
However, her life is about to get a lot more noisy. The new principal of is preparing to welcome 300 eager students to the school at 10424 St. Stephen Circle, Riverview, Aug. 20.
Okeke, the 11-year-old school’s third principal, said she’s in her element when she’s surrounded by students.
“I have a passion for Catholic education and for children,” she said.
Raised in a devout Catholic home, Okeke said she knew at the age of 5 that she would become a nun and teacher.
Her father, who died two years ago, spent 51 years volunteering in the church as a catechist, parish council president and youth minister.
“My parents influenced me very much," she said. "We were a good Catholic family that prayed together and stayed together.”
Okeke was raised in a large family – four brothers and three sisters – and describes her hometown in Nigeria as a close-knit community where the people took care of one another.
Her parents encouraged her vocation and, after taking her vows, she obtained her associate’s degree in elementary education in Nigeria and began teaching. She later served as a principal for three years.
The desire to further her education brought her to New Jersey in 1996 where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology from William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J. But her thirst for knowledge didn’t end there. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in educational leadership, management and policy from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., and a doctorate in higher education leadership, management and policy from Seton Hall.
She said she was content to teach social studies to middle-schoolers at St. Leo/Sacred Heart School of Irvington, N.J. But when her school needed her leadership, she stepped up, serving as principal of the inner-city school for seven years. Unlike Florida Catholic schools, nuns in New Jersey Catholic schools are commonplace. She served with five other nuns.
She was in the midst of pursuing a university career when the principal’s position at St. Stephen Catholic School opened up and she felt called to apply. The school’s former principal, Therese Jackson, has accepted a position as vice principal at Tampa Catholic School.
“My entire life has been spent sacrificing my time and talents for Catholic education,” said Okeke.
Although she only arrived in the area July 16, she said she can already feel the warmth and generosity of the parish.
“These are wonderful people and the students are wonderful kids,” she said.
Okeke has a number of ideas for marketing the school and introducing new programs, but she said she’ll take her time before making any changes at St. Stephen.
“When you come to a new place, you need to see how things are going before you implement any changes,” she said. “I’m not just going to dive in and change things. I’m going to wait and see.”
In her spare time, Okeke enjoys writing music and poetry. She’s written more than 300 songs, has recorded two albums and is working on her third. In addition, she’s published one book and is in the process of writing a second.