By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
for The Miscellany
GREENVILLE – Talk to teachers, parents and administrators at St. Mary Elementary School and they say its like never leaving home.
“It’s family,” said Ruthie Lutz, who has two children there. “People are very willing to help out. There’s just this great feeling that everybody truly cares. The children get a better education and learn about dealing with life and people.”
That’s the prevailing attitude and it’s one that requires little work thanks to their devotedness, according to its principal of 10 years, Sister Veronica Janas, OLM.
“I love it here,” she said. “The people are wonderful, the faculty is wonderful and the kids are great.”
When asked why she answered: “We strive very hard to be a Christian community. We pray together, we play together and we work hard for each other. We are close-knit.”
St. Mary’s is the oldest private school in the upstate. It opened as the Ursuline Academy of the Sacred Heart in 1900 with 57 day pupils, one male boarder, two female boarders and four music students. It was staffed by the Ursuline nuns from the Columbia convent on the invitation of the new pastor at St. Mary’s Parish, Father Andrew K. Gwynn. The school was staffed by the founder, Mother Patricia Enright, one other nun and a lay teacher. The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy took over in 1933-34 school year. An OLM sister has been a school principal ever since.
“It’s had its ebb and flow like any other school,” Sister Veronica said. But the gifts are flowing now. Enrollment has grown steadily. Over 300 children attend St. Mary and that number has been maintained for the past few years. Students come from several other parishes including Prince of Peace, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Anthony of Padua.
Classes are large up to 36 students yet students get plenty of attention and involvement. In addition to weekly liturgies, every year, the school takes on a spiritual motto. Last year, it was the Beatitudes while the year before, the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. This year it is the definition of love from 1st Corinthians. Through these mottoes the children learn lessons of faith. They are also active in stewardship. They give their time to helping others such as “adopting” children from the Pediatric Aids Clinic in Greenville, collecting clothes for them and sending cards or visiting nursing home patients. When they do an in-house fund-raiser, i.e. the student council has a school ice-cream sale, a percentage of their earnings are divided up nine ways and each class decides which charity receives the donation. They even allocate money to go to parish and diocesan development funds.
“We are part of a faith community,” Sister Veronica explained. “We are, first and foremost, a Catholic school. We try to give children the opportunity to be generous with their gifts. Education is more than academic learning, it’s learning life’s lessons.”
St. Mary operates under a relaxed atmosphere. Indeed, Lutz was calling the principal on some school business when she, on the other end of the phone, was handed over for the impromptu interview. She readily articulated her thoughts because they were strong feelings.
And it is the support of parents like the Lutzes that Sister Veronica says they experience the success with their students. Much to her gratitude, parents are highly involved, they volunteer to staff the playground for lunch duty, they man the advisory board and finance committee. Their fundraising efforts and annual golf tournament have allowed the school to upgrade its technology center, a playground and renovate the library.
Teachers are dedicated. Most of them retire from the school. Rose McKenna has taught math and religion at St. Mary for 20 years. She said she stayed because it has held true to the fundamentals of a Catholic environment and quality education.
“It’s a wonderful place to work,” she said. “Not only with the other teachers but with the spirit of helping each other. They have a true commitment and not an interest in their own advancement. These people are interested in what’s best for the children. We have complete parent cooperation. There is no question that this place is different. It’s a Christian attitude.”
A fellow teacher, Emily Haller, had such a positive experience as a student of St. Mary that she came back and has taught there for 14 years.
“I felt like I had received so much from this school that I wanted to come back and give something,” she said. “This is a secure place to be, for parents, for children.”
With staff like Haller, the familial theme continues unbroken. Her four siblings attended the school as did her husband and now her children carry on the St. Mary legacy.