by Kevin Dicciani
Faith and service define the life of Deena Sellers ’01. The Mt. Airy native teaches multiple subjects at Xavier High School in Manhattan and serves as the chair of its Community Life and Inclusion Council. She routinely plans and participates in service immersion trips in which she, students, and other members of the school travel far and wide to help the less fortunate. A devoted Catholic, she belongs to the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Brooklyn; she is also a member of the Board and Selection Committee for the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Program of the Archdiocese of New York. Perpetually in motion, she also partakes in community-based projects for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. as well as the Office of Black Ministry, assisting the New York City-based organization in achieving its mission of promoting the aspirations of black Catholics.
So it’s only natural, then, that the Archdiocese of New York recently bestowed upon Sellers the St. Josephine Bakhita Award for Faith and Service for her continued investment in bettering the lives of others and the world. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York City, alongside Brother Tyrone Davis, C.F.C., the executive director of the Office of Black Ministry, presented Sellers and nine other women with the award at the Archdiocese of New York’s annual Black History Month Mass, held on Feb. 2 in Manhattan’s historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
As you can imagine, Sellers described the whole affair as “surreal.”
“You know, when you hear the two words ‘faith’ and ‘service’ put together, you never expect to hear your name associated with those things, especially in the grandiose context of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Archdiocese, and his eminence Cardinal Dolan,” she said.
The award, newly established by the Office of Black Ministry, is given to women in honor of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former Sudanese slave who after being awarded her freedom became a Canossian religious sister and served at a convent in Schio, Italy for 42 years. The oval, glass award displays the image of St. Bakhita alongside the words “Ms. Deena Sellers, in recognition of her great faith and loving service to others.”
Brother Tyrone said all that Sellers does and represents are “obvious reflections of her genuine faith and her generous service to others.”
“Deena is a strong leader, a caring educator, and a faithful servant — all of which motivates her to strive to impact positive change in the world around her — on a daily basis,” he said.
An educator for more than 18 years, Sellers teaches Spanish, French, and African American literature to ninth, 10th, and 12th graders, respectively, at Xavier High School, an all-boys Jesuit school; she is the only African American woman on faculty at the school. Although some days can prove tougher than others, she said, given that she’s a woman teaching classes that consist solely of young men, Sellers has never doubted that teaching is her calling in life. As such, she approaches each day, each class, and each student with care, empathy, and zeal.
“I like talking to people, I like connecting with people,” she said.
Sellers’s need for human connection is sated in other ways at the high school. For the past nine years, she’s been an avid participant in the Companions of St. Francis Xavier Service and Immersion Program, journeying to sites both along the East Coast and in Middle Tennessee, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic to help those in need. Her first experience in the program came in the summer of 2011 when she, ninth graders, and other Xavier faculty members worked on First Fruits Farm in Freeland, Maryland. There, under a blazing sun, they harvested a medley of fruits and vegetables, all of which were then donated to food banks and pantries in Baltimore and York counties. The trip, she said, made her fall in love with service.
“Since then, I started going on more trips and helping the service immersion directors form those trips, revamp them, update them,” she said, adding that she also participates in other service immersion programs, such as Habitat for Humanity, Esperanza International, and the Institute for Latin American Concern. “I absolutely love it. There’s never a summer where I’m not doing anything. So if I ever have a summer where I’m not doing anything, I’m going to feel like something’s missing from my life.”
An added path of faith and service for Sellers relates to her efforts as Xavier’s diversity coordinator. She called her work in the role “a labor of love,” saying it’s been an area of her career toward which she’s been lately directing a mass of energy. For her, it’s yet another opportunity where she can serve others and display faith by way of compassion and empathy.
Outside of Xavier High School, Sellers is a member of the Delta Rho Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. in Brooklyn. Founded in 1908 by African American women, the sorority, whose membership comprises college-educated women, seeks to improve the social and economic status of girls and women by engaging in and creating service programs in the areas of health, education, and business. She is one of more than 205 women who serve the Brooklyn chapter in carrying out the sorority’s mission of delivering “Service to Mankind.”
Sellers’s prolificacy in serving the greater good raises an important question: Does she have any free time whatsoever?
Her answer: “I never really let a lot of grass grow under my feet.”
Sellers’ commitment to faith and service can trace its origins back to Chestnut Hill College. After graduating from George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, in Philadelphia, she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on a cheerleading scholarship. The experience, however, overwhelmed her. The school was too large. She didn’t make many friends. She struggled in her classes. After two years, she left the university and returned to Philadelphia. She then took a semester off to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, her career, and her spirituality.
In the end, Sellers chose to pursue her bachelor’s degree at the College, where she had originally applied and been accepted while she was in high school. With newfound determination, she reapplied, interviewed with the admissions office, and then waited to hear back from the College regarding her application. Before long, she learned the College had accepted her and set in motion a course of events that would alter her life in a significant and lasting manner.
“What I cared about was that I had somewhere where I belonged, and they gave me a home, they gave me a family,” she said.
Two years later, in 1999, Sellers chatted with Mary Darrah, SSJ, the former director of campus ministry and assistant to the president for mission and ministry at the College, who died in December 2019. During the conversation, Sellers explained to Sister Mary that she was unsure where and how her spirituality would factor into her life. So Sister Mary asked her, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Sellers didn’t reply, and that’s when Sister Mary told her about the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, a process she had overseen that initiates individuals into the Catholic faith. Months later, with Sister Mary as her sponsor, Sellers finished her sacrum and thus began her lifelong journey into faith.
At the College, Sellers majored in French with a double minor in Spanish and secondary education. Her academic advisor was Mary Helen Kashuba, SSJ, DML, a professor of French and Russian, to whom Sellers credits with inspiring and encouraging her to become a teacher. After all, it was Sister Mary Helen who helped Sellers secure her first job as an educator at Roman Catholic High School once she finished her senior seminar, a substitute teaching job that ultimately evolved into a long-term position.
“She believed in me,” Sellers said of Sister Mary Helen. “She played a major role in determining the educator I am and the woman I am. She held me accountable, and she was one of the people that made Chestnut Hill College feel like home for me.”
Although Sellers can count plenty of successes both professionally and personally since she graduated from the College in 2001, she is nevertheless focused on future endeavors. Currently, she’s entertaining the idea of returning to school for a second master’s degree in comparative literature, as she’s interested in “putting all these humanities skills in one basket and seeing how they synthesize and converge with each other.” She’s also exploring the possibility of leaving the classroom altogether to become a director of diversity; at the moment, she said, her efforts surrounding the subject are what’s giving her life.
While she’s unsure about exactly what it is that she’s going to do next, Sellers is certain that she’ll carry it out in service to others and God, guided, as always, by courage and faith.
“If I’m here, then, I might as well do something with what God’s given me,” she said. “It’s like that Marian Wright Edelman quote that says, ‘Service is the rate we pay for living on earth.’ I believe in that wholeheartedly. If you have something, it’s your obligation by God to do something with it.”
This is an updated and expanded version of the article published in the College Magazine earlier this summer.