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Sister Schools: Religious orders bring charism, witness to Catholic education

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When it came time for David Nassar and his wife to choose a school for their children, he began to think about his own education. Nassar attended Catholic school, and fondly remembers the women religious who taught him —  Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).

They taught him how to speak and write well, and imbued the students with a sense of discipline and respect for others. But first and foremost, he became devoted to Christ and to His mother, Mary. 

Now, Nassar’s three children attend St. James School in Falls Church, where the IHM sisters have taught since 1923. He and his wife felt the presence of the sisters would teach their children the same values he learned as a child. “It really does come through in the school,” he said.

Catholic schools throughout the diocese traditionally were founded and run by men and women religious. St. James was founded in 1906 by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. But, as with many other orders since, circumstances forced them to leave the school. In the recent past, IHM sisters left St. Michael School in Annandale and the Cathedral of St. Thomas More School in Arlington. 

Though gone, their legacy remains. Sister Mary Sue Carwhile, principal of St. James, was educated by IHM sisters at the Cathedral School. Another sister in the community taught at the school before joining the order. Still another is a St. James alumna. 

Knowing the presence of consecrated men and women in Catholic schools is no longer the norm, Sister Mary Sue is grateful that she and the sisters are able to live and teach at St. James. The community is grateful, too.

“A day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t thank us for our presence,” she said. “We feel very privileged to minister here.”

The fruits of contemplation

Jerry Sarchet first interacted with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia when he began teaching at St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries. Though he had taught for years, the principal asked him to observe one of the classes taught by the sisters.

“I was floored by the level of conversation back and forth. … She was able to bring a life and enthusiasm (to the discussion) that was unreal,” he said. “I joked with her afterward I was going to file suit against (my home) state of Ohio for fraudulent education.”

His experience with the sisters convinced him to enroll his own children at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge, which also is run by the Dominicans. The sisters have a great love for the truth and for their vocation, he said, and they embrace the entire child. They’re always joyful — “you've never seen a (sad) Dominican sister,” said Sarchet.

In part, what makes an order-run school unique is the charism that pervades the institution. For the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia, it is, “to contemplate, and to give to others the fruits of our contemplation.” 

Though very much in the world, the sisters spend a great deal of time praying and meditating on the Scriptures. That’s a gift they can give to the students, faculty and larger community, said Sister Kateri Rose Masters, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas. They want to share God’s wisdom, “not just lessons from a book,” she said. “Hopefully, what we’re communicating is not just truth but a person and a relationship with Christ.”

Living  Jesus

At the top of all of their papers, the students at Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg write V + J, an abbreviation of the French phrase, “Live Jesus.” The custom is just one small way Salesian spirituality is incorporated in the daily life of the school.

Holy Cross was founded in 1998 by Arlington Bishop John R. Keating in conjunction with the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales. Even before it opened, the sisters were involved in the planning. 

“The beauty is from the beginning we were able to have our spirituality as an important part of the school,” said Sister Susan Louise Eder, principal. “(Those in the school community) love the philosophy of seeing God in others and making Jesus the center of our lives.”

The spirit of the school enticed Amy Strickland, who sent her three children to the school and currently teaches third grade there. “As a parent, I came to love the school. When I started working here, I couldn't imagine working anywhere else,” she said. 

The school instilled a sense of belonging in her children and gave them the opportunity to explore their faith. It also made the religious life seem approachable and normal, said Strickland. Interacting with the sisters gives young Catholics a chance to envision themselves in the consecrated life. “It’s important for my kids to see and for all kids to see,” she said. 

Whether Salesian, Dominican or IHM, the sisters hope their presence in Catholic schools will encourage vocations, as it has for a number of them including Sister Susan Louise. “I did attend school run by our sisters; it (has) a profound influence on you,” she said. 

Strickland agrees. “(The charism) permeates the entire school and it is truly amazing to be a part of that,” she said. “It bleeds over into your own life.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017