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St. Mary of Sorrows preschool director retires after 20 years

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It started with a conference room. Elena Quartuccio, director of St. Mary of Sorrows Preschool in Fairfax, began the task of turning the conference space into a classroom in June 1997. She hired three contractors and added cabinets and windows, tiny tables, chairs and toys. “The one room schoolhouse, I called it,” she said.

The wooded land behind the classroom soon became a playground strewn with woodchips, playhouses and swings. And after the quick transformation from church building to school, the doors opened to 60 families that September. Twenty years later, the standalone preschool is still educating 2- through 5-years-olds through play, in the faith.

After 30 years working in early childhood education, Quartuccio will retire at the end of the school year. Her career began in New York when her daughter’s teacher asked her to consider taking a job at the preschool. Quartuccio had a degree in secondary elementary education and had hoped to be a gym teacher, but she gave preschool a chance.

“I have learned something from them every day since I started,” she said. “Being with all these kiddos has certainly been a blessing to me.”

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Elena Quartuccio, the founding director of St. Mary of Sorrows Preschool, will retire after 20 years of service to the school. ZOEY MARAIST | CATHOLIC HERALD

A few years later, her family moved to Northern Virginia. They became parishioners at St. Mary, and Quartuccio taught at local Protestant preschools. For three years, she was part of the St. Mary’s Preschool planning committee. “I thought maybe I could be on the school board,” she said. “I never thought I would be the one to open the school.” 

Today, the preschool has three classrooms, with anywhere from a dozen to 15 staff members and five to seven classes based on community needs, said Quartuccio. They attract some families with their siblings and twins discount. “Father (Donald C.) Greenhalgh told me the day that I opened that if God gave someone two people born on the same day, they should get a break,” she said. 

The school’s philosophy is based on education through play, which helps children use their imagination, develop fine motor skills, socialize and learn other age-appropriate skills, said Debbie Bayless, a former parent turned St. Mary teacher. “They’re at the age when they’re poised to learn that sort of thing,” she said.

“It’s so important that our goal be to zero in on their social and emotional skills to give them the feeling of being safe and loved, of being comfortable with new adults in their lives and to communicate with their peers,” added Quartuccio. Everyone eventually learns their ABCs, she said. St. Mary Preschool wants to let kids be kids.

That mission involves crafts, songs, chapel time, science experiments and dance. They have an intergenerational program with a local senior center. Almost every year, the children get a visit from a storytelling farmer and his 500-pound potbelly pig named Daisy, whom Quartuccio kisses, to the children’s delight.

Many activities focus on the faith. On a recent morning, a preschool teacher and her stuffed animal sheep explained to the preschoolers the meaning of Good Friday and Easter. “More like terrible Friday,” said one child. They cut yellow paper into crosses, and drew Jesus on them to make crucifixes. 

Around Christmas, they have a birthday party where the children bring in a present for Jesus — baby items that later are donated to charity. In May, they crown the statue of Mary in the school playground. “The preschoolers know that this is their school and their church —  what more could you ask for?” said Quartuccio.

Recognizing the evangelization power of preschools, Quartuccio hopes that someday every parish would have a preschool. Over the years, she’s helped several parishes start their own preschools, including St. Louis Church in Alexandria, St. Mark Church in Vienna and Church of the Nativity in Burke. Today, there are 37 early childhood education centers and day-care centers affiliated with the diocese.

“This is a wonderful way to invite the next generation to be part of the community,” she said. “We feel this is more than a school —  it’s a ministry.” 

Attending the school also gives children and parents a sense of ownership over their faith lives, said Quartuccio. “We have experienced families returning to their faith, (children’s) baptisms, marriages blessed and parents coming into the church,” she said. 

Bayless is grateful that she was able to teach preschoolers in an environment that celebrates the Catholic faith. “To have that first social experience of your child in the church is a tremendous blessing, because love is a part of it,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful place, like a little incubator for them before they set out into the world.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017