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.” ••