COLUMBIA—In 1979, Doris Arvelo joined the faculty at St. Martin de Porres as the leader of the preschool program. Those Hampton Street classrooms became her professional and spiritual home for the next 30 years, as she guided hundreds of students through preschool, and taught classes in reading, language arts and religion.
On June 7, Arvelo retired. The following day current and former students, faculty, school and parish staff held a party to show their thanks for her years of dedicated work in Catholic education.
“I enjoyed my time at St. Martin de Porres so much that 30 years went by fast,” Arvelo said during an interview with The Miscellany at her Irmo home.
“It was time to end this chapter in my life, however, and do something else,” she said. “I’m really going to miss the children though. I love children, and I love watching them grow and become successful individuals. I thank God that I’ve seen that in my career.”
Arvelo grew up in the Saxon Homes housing complex off Harden Street, which has since been torn down. She said she and her four siblings were raised in a loving home by a mother who worked long hours and taught her children about the importance of education.
Arvelo said she was always interested in working with children. While studying at Morris College in nearby Sumter, she met her future husband, the late Michael Arvelo, who was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base. They were married for 35 years and had two daughters and one son.
After earning her degree, Arvelo taught in Columbia public schools and eventually ran her own early childhood development center called “It’s A Small World.”
She was raised Baptist but learned about Catholicism from her husband, a cradle Catholic from Puerto Rico.
The Arvelos joined St. Martin de Porres Church and their children attended school there.
“I learned to love the Catholic faith through being a parent at the school and participating in the activities at the church and school,” she said.
She converted to Catholicism and rapidly developed a love of the church’s long history, and the important, deep heritage of African-American Catholics.
When Arvelo started at St. Martin de Porres, she took over the pre-school program and eventually expanded it to include after school care. It was a challenge, she said, to work with classes that at times included 30 three-year-olds, but she said the discipline at the foundation of a Catholic school gave the students the structure they needed to learn and blossom from an early age.
Over the years, Arvelo began teaching religion and language arts, and worked with third- through fifth-graders for many years. During her last year at the school, she came full circle to teaching preschoolers again.
Arvelo praised St. Martin’s commitment to excellent spiritual and academic education.
“The great thing about Catholic education is that no matter where you come from, we’re there to help students move to a new level,” she said. “I gained so much satisfaction when I helped a child learn something new and move to another level. We looked at the needs of all the children and tried to help all of them.”
Arvelo said she was also fortunate to work with dedicated parents of many faiths who were committed to the school’s mission.
“In 30 years of working in a Catholic school environment, I can say I never had a disagreement with a parent,” she said.
The fact that faith in God was at the center of everything she did also helped Arvelo during her tenure.
“At a Catholic school, we could talk about God and share His love,” she said. “Although many of our students came from different denominations, we knew there was only one God and we could talk about Him. I just loved talking about God and Jesus with the children, taking them to Mass and praying with them. The Catholic faith was part of everything I did.”
Arvelo regularly hears from her former students, and is frequently invited to weddings, graduations and other celebrations. Many of them have graduated from good colleges and universities and gone on to successful careers.
“They really make you so proud,” she said.
Retirement will give Arvelo a chance to travel, take some classes, and spend time with her family.
She will continue to serve as director of religious education at the church, where she wants to pursue some important goals such as making young people aware of their heritage as black Catholics.
“I just love everything about being able to share my faith and to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people,” she said.