Northeast Times

Farewell, Sisters

  • Early dismissal: Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will no longer be able to staff St. Dominic’s. Three IHM nuns will complete the current academic year, including Sister Shaun Thomas. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Early dismissal: Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will no longer be able to staff St. Dominic’s. Three IHM nuns will complete the current academic year, including Sister Patrick Maureen.

  • Early dismissal: Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will no longer be able to staff St. Dominic’s. Three IHM nuns will complete the current academic year, including Sister Mary O’Connor.

  • Now and then: After completing the current academic year at St. Dom’s, Sister Mary O’Connor (left) and Sister Shaun Thomas (right) will move out of the parish’s Frankford Avenue convent.

  • An old faculty photo adorns a wall of the school.

At 165 years old, Holmes­burg’s St. Domin­ic Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church proudly iden­ti­fies it­self as “the moth­er church of the North­east.” And for about 130 years, the Sis­ters, Ser­vants of the Im­macu­late Heart of Mary have provided ma­ter­nal spir­it to the par­ish.

Now, the par­ish is lament­ing the im­min­ent, per­man­ent de­par­ture of the IHM nuns. In Janu­ary, the re­li­gious or­der an­nounced that it would no longer be able to staff the par­ish school, a res­ult of de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship in the IHM com­munity and the aging of many of its sis­ters.

Al­though sad about leav­ing St. Dom’s, Sis­ter Shaun Thomas, the long­time school prin­cip­al, is hope­ful and con­fid­ent that the sis­ters’ col­lect­ive spir­it or “cha­r­ism” will en­dure long in­to the fu­ture.

“There’s a very rich tra­di­tion here so our cha­r­ism is deeply em­bed­ded at this school. Al­though our sis­ters won’t be present here, we have made an im­pact and it doesn’t dis­ap­pear,” Sis­ter Shaun said in a March 13 in­ter­view. “What will con­tin­ue at the school is a deep sense of pray­er and pray­er tra­di­tion — the sta­tions of the cross, the ros­ary, the May pro­ces­sion — and the hos­pit­al­ity. People who come to St. Dom’s al­ways say there’s a friendly feel­ing here.”

Three IHM nuns will com­plete the cur­rent aca­dem­ic year at St. Dom’s, in­clud­ing Sis­ter Shaun, Sis­ter Mary O’Con­nor, a tu­tor, and Sis­ter Patrick Maur­een, a re­li­gious en­rich­ment teach­er. The nuns will then move out of the par­ish’s Frank­ford Av­en­ue con­vent, as will Sis­ter Ann Mark, who resides at St. Dom’s while teach­ing at St. Kath­er­ine of Si­ena in Tor­res­dale.

IHM nuns will con­tin­ue to staff oth­er loc­al pa­ro­chi­al schools in­def­in­itely, in­clud­ing St. Cecil­ia, St. Mat­thew, Arch­bish­op Ry­an and St. Hubert, along with Little Flower in Hunt­ing Park and Holy In­no­cents in Ju­ni­ata, among many oth­er city schools. The last time the Chester County-based or­der with­drew from a North­east par­ish school was about a dec­ade ago at St. An­selm in Park­wood.

“This is not a new concept, but we haven’t done this in this area in a long time so it took people a bit by sur­prise,” Sis­ter Shaun said.

The IHM com­munity’s cent­ral ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing its moth­er gen­er­al and her coun­selors, made the de­cision.

“When I entered the com­munity, there were a little un­der three thou­sand sis­ters. Now there are be­low one thou­sand,” Sis­ter Shaun said. “And this is my 44th year. We still have girls en­ter­ing, but in the 1960s and ’70s, we had many, many more.”

When she entered the com­munity, Sis­ter Shaun was among a group of 40 “sis­ters in form­a­tion.” Today, groups typ­ic­ally in­clude five or few­er young wo­men.

St. Domin­ic School has about 400 stu­dents in pre-kinder­garten through eighth grade. The par­ish pas­tor, the Rev. Ed­ward T. Kearns, has formed a com­mit­tee to lead the search for a new prin­cip­al, but he will be sad to see the IHM sis­ters leave.

“One-hun­dred-thirty years. How many gen­er­a­tions would that be? Five? Sev­en? Gen­er­a­tions of Cath­ol­ics have been taught here by Im­macu­late Heart nuns,” Kearns said. “I was also taught by Im­macu­late Heart nuns at St. Mat­thew’s. My par­ents were and my nieces and neph­ews were. They give you in­sight in­to the spir­itu­al life that you nor­mally wouldn’t have. It’s the way they live and speak.”

Al­though the IHM lead­er­ship doesn’t dis­close why it chose to leave St. Dom’s in­stead of oth­er schools, Kearns and Sis­ter Shaun agree that the school’s sta­bil­ity was a likely factor. While oth­er Arch­dioces­an schools have been forced to close or merge with neigh­bor­ing schools, St. Dom’s has main­tained its en­roll­ment in re­cent years, in­clud­ing a strong pre-kinder­garten pro­gram that bodes well for the fu­ture.

“They usu­ally say if they feel the school is in good hands with a good fac­ulty, they feel they’re able to move on,” Kearns said.

“In the past, if we feel that a school has caught our spir­it, in a dif­fi­cult de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess it may come in­to play,” Sis­ter Shaun said.

IHM sis­ters have par­ti­cip­ated in the growth of the par­ish and school from humble rur­al be­gin­nings. Arch­bish­op Fran­cis P. Ken­rick, Fath­er John Domin­ic Ber­rill and a small group of loc­al Cath­ol­ics formed the par­ish in 1849. The church opened a school in 1874 with a lay fac­ulty. Sev­er­al years later, the IHM sis­ters were in­vited to staff the school.

In those early years, the nuns com­muted daily from their con­vent at St. Joachim par­ish in Frank­ford. There were no auto­mo­biles or Frank­ford Av­en­ue trol­leys in those days. Fath­er Lawrence J. Wall, pas­tor from 1876 to 1926, erec­ted a school, rect­ory and con­vent and pur­chased land for a par­ish cemetery.

In the 20th cen­tury, the growth of the par­ish and school mirrored urb­an­iz­a­tion of the neigh­bor­hood. By the 1960s and ’70s, about 30 teach­ing nuns staffed the school, Sis­ter Shaun said. But like most pa­ro­chi­al schools, St. Dom’s has ex­per­i­enced a de­cline in re­li­gious fac­ulty and growth of lay fac­ulty in re­cent dec­ades.

“It has been that way for dec­ades, with the lay fac­ulty car­ry­ing on IHM tra­di­tions,” Sis­ter Shaun said. “That has made St. Domin­ic’s what it is today.”

For the last four years, the school has par­ti­cip­ated in a Uni­versity of Pennsylvania “dis­trib­uted lead­er­ship” pro­gram in which fac­ulty rep­res­ent­at­ives sit on four lead­er­ship teams, based on grade levels. The teams meet weekly to dis­cuss man­age­ment top­ics.

“It’s an ex­cel­lent struc­ture. It’s go­ing to provide con­tinu­ity for the new prin­cip­al com­ing in,” Sis­ter Shaun said.

Ac­cord­ing to Kearns, stu­dents and their fam­il­ies won’t feel a fin­an­cial im­pact as a res­ult of the nuns’ de­par­ture. It will not fig­ure in­to fu­ture tu­ition rates. The pas­tor is “open to the idea” of oth­er nuns to staff the school, but ex­pects that the new prin­cip­al will be a lay per­son. Yet, he will miss see­ing the close re­la­tion­ships that nuns de­vel­op with pa­rish­ion­ers.

“They’ve al­ways been closer to the fam­il­ies in the par­ish through the chil­dren,” Kearns said. “It’s al­ways a sign that it’s a Cath­ol­ic school when you have sis­ters in charge. They make sure the chil­dren get re­li­gion.”

“It does make a dif­fer­ence, but it doesn’t make the dif­fer­ence,” Sis­ter Shaun said. “It’s sad, but it’s a trans­ition. All change is. (Chil­dren) re­spond dif­fer­ently to us. It’s part of the mys­ti­cism. It will be missed. As touch­ing as that is, it will be dif­fi­cult for us.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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