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Homegrown sister makes her mark on Catholic education

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In the world of Catholic education, Sister Patricia Helene Earl has just about done it all. She was educated at Catholic schools, then joined a religious order dedicated to Catholic education — the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. She worked as a teacher, a principal and as the assistant superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Arlington Office of Catholic Schools. She currently serves as the director of the Catholic School Leadership Program at Marymount University in Arlington. This year, the National Catholic Educational Association honored her for her many contributions to the field.

Sister Patricia said she could never pick which grade was her favorite to teach, and in the same way she doesn’t know which job has been her favorite, either. They built on each other, and each in their own way allowed her to do something important — bring those around her closer to God.

“Each child that I’ve met has been an opportunity to reach out and help them grow their own faith,” she said. “As I’ve moved into higher level positions, I hope that I’ve been able to give the witness that I should as to the importance of Christ in my life.”

Sister Patricia grew up in Arlington and attended the now-closed Marymount Junior School in Arlington. She graduated from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., in 1966 and received her bachelor’s degree in English with a philosophy/theology minor from the now-closed Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in Washington in 1970.

She first discovered her love of teaching after being asked to instruct religious education classes at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. “I really found I loved being with the children, I loved teaching about my faith,” she said. After a year of teaching religious education, the principal of the school, Mother Mary Ivo, invited her to teach in the school full time.

While getting to know the IHM sisters as colleagues and friends, she began to consider entering the religious life. “I had been kind of pegged since I was in first grade to be a sister, and it’s good to invite people, but sometimes there can be overkill. I just kept putting it off,” she said. “(At the school,) I suddenly realized, ‘I really think the Lord has been calling me to this all along.’ ” She made her first profession June 25, 1977, and her final profession August 15, 1988.

For several years, Sister Patricia taught in Catholic schools in Pennsylvania and in the Diocese of Arlington, including St. Michael School in Annandale, 1981-82, and the now-closed St. Mary Academy in Alexandria, 1985-86. Shortly after she began teaching at her alma mater in 1982, Marymount Junior School, she was asked to be the headmistress. “It was a wonderful opportunity because I felt very much at home, very much a part of the community there,” she said.

Her first administrative role piqued her interest in faith formation, not just for the students but for the parents, teachers and the entire school community. “You have the ability to have a broader outreach and influence, and hopefully doing that in the name of the Lord allows you to bring the school forward as a Catholic school,” she said.

In 1990, Sister Patricia had the opportunity to guide more schools in the development of their Catholic identity as the assistant superintendent for diocesan Catholic schools. “In those days, we were small enough, and I interviewed all of the teachers who were hired in the diocese, primarily in relation to their faith formation. (I made sure the teachers were) enthusiastic about not only developing the students academically but recognizing that as a Catholic school, that centering on Christ is at the heart,” she said.

While in that role, she began her doctorate in educational leadership at George Mason University in Fairfax. “My dissertation was on the faith formation of the laity in Catholic schools. They actually let me do that, which was kind of fun,” she said. In 2003, she completed her doctorate and became the first full-time director of the Marymount Master of Education in administration and supervision degree, also called the Catholic School Leadership Program.

The program began in 2001 with a lot of support from the Arlington Diocese, said Sister Patricia. “The program was started with the idea of not only developing (the students’) awareness of the skill set of being a principal, but how to do it at a Catholic school,” she said. “We’re trying to insert some of that faith development and Catholic identity into each of the courses that we teach.”

That role has allowed her to impact hundreds of school administrators, including many from the diocese. Perhaps even more have been touched by her books, “Building the Builders: Faith Formation in Spirituality” and “Building the Builders: Faith Formation in Virtue.” Her latest book, “Building the Builders: Faith Formation in Prayer, A Journey with Jesus through Mary,” was released this month.

“They were books I wrote to build (up) the teachers and principals, who are the builders of our children. (This) book is taken from a lot of my own journaling in my own prayerful reflection,” she said. “I would encourage people to use (the book) as a guide, then see where the Lord takes you.”

This year, the National Catholic Educational Association awarded Sister Patricia the C. Albert Koob Award for her significant role in Catholic education.  She was scheduled to give a presentation on “Catholic Identity and Hiring Personnel” at the NCEA conference is Baltimore, but the conference was moved online due to the pandemic. She sees the honor as a recognition of all the people she’s been able to work with over the years, from her fellow IHM sisters, to the diocese to Marymount. “I really feel receiving this award is a team effort. I would not have gotten this award if I had not worked with so many wonderful people,” she said. “At the heart of it has been my desire to serve the church and to serve our community by helping to bring Christ to others.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020