Catholic Free Press

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Presentation Sisters still influence Catholic education in north county

Posted By August 18, 2017 | 5:01 pm | Featured Article #1
St. Leo Principal Nancy Pierce, left, poses with Presentation Sisters Mary Anne Seliga, Mary Laurita and Pauline LeBlanc in front an image of Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Photo by Caitlin Reidy | CFP
St. Leo Principal Nancy Pierce, left, poses with Presentation Sisters Mary Anne Seliga, Mary Laurita and Pauline LeBlanc in front an image of Nano Nagle, foundress of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Photo by Caitlin Reidy | CFP

By Caitlin V. Reidy  |  CFP Correspondent
And Katherine Bigelow, Julie Erickson,
and Sarah Plume | CFP Interns

LEOMINSTER – “A tree can’t grow without its roots,” said Nancy Pierce, principal of St. Leo Elementary School. The Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary are the “roots” she is talking about. The Sisters were instrumental in the growth and development of Catholic education in northern Worcester County.
Teachers, administrators, parents, and students recognize that the Sisters have remained a positive influence by living out their charism of educating students through “not words, but deeds.”
Mrs. Pierce said that the Presentation Sisters are still very active in the lives of the students at St. Leo’s and they encourage the children to live “one pace beyond,” a goal of Nano Nagle, their order’s foundress.
Also known as “The Lady with the Lantern,” Nano Nagle, after spending the day secretly educating children, would often travel in the evening to visit the sick and elderly. She could be seen carrying a lantern to “lead the way,” said the Presentation Sisters.
Mrs. Pierce’s students regularly visit the Sisters who live next door to St. Leo’s Parish and school. Having them next door strengthens the traditional values of love, tolerance, and acceptance, Mrs. Pierce said.  “They’re family,” and the children love to visit them, she said.
One of the best parts about working in a school that is influenced by the Presentation Sisters is that while the school has grown in religious and cultural diversity, students don’t see those cultural differences; they know each other as people in a community, Mrs. Pierce said. There are people of many different cultures and religions at St. Leo’s, and parents choose to send their children there because of the moral values instilled within the school.
The Presentation Sisters have worked to ensure that their Catholic schools continue to embrace cultural diversity, the Sisters say. The various school mottos reflect that. St. Bernard Central Catholic High School’s maxim is “Love one another.” St. Bernard’s Elementary’s motto is, “Deeds, not words,” a restatement of Nano Nagle’s family motto, “Not words, but deeds.” And the students at St. Leo’s are encouraged to reach “One pace beyond” both academically and morally, Mrs. Pierce said. DSC_0408
“We’ve never tried to push students to believe in our faith or have ever tried to convert anyone,” Sister Mary Anne Seliga said. “We’re teaching students to accept one another and to embrace diversity through the teachings and life of Nano Nagle.” Sister Mary Anne also said that even if students are not Catholic, teaching in the Christian tradition gives students good moral values that benefit them through life.
Bonnie Hunter, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Leo’s, said that the Presentation Sisters “inspire her to teach from the heart.” She also said that they have shown her what a “privilege it is to teach in a Catholic school” where she has the opportunity to “instill Christ’s teachings in her students.”
Ms. Hunter said that she chose to come back to St. Leo’s after working in the public school system for one year because of the community atmosphere that the Presentation Sisters instill in the school.
“The love that the Presentation Sisters have for the children radiates from them; it is a constant reminder that it is a gift to work in a Catholic school,” she said.
Kathleen McDermott Boudreau, who was taught by the Presentation Sisters at St. Leo’s and Holy Family High School, has taught at St. Bernard’s high school for more than 30 years. She said that she left teaching for a while and pursued other work opportunities, but ended up coming back to St. Bernard’s.
“For me, St. Bernard’s is home,” Mrs. Boudreau said.
“Throughout my life, I have seen the charism of the order and have absorbed it. I try to live up to Nano’s philosophy and show new teachers and students that they are loved and respected,” she said.
When new educators come to teach at St. Bernard’s high school, they are given a small lantern with a flickering candle as a reminder of whose mission they are there to fulfill – Nano Nagle’s. Sister Joan Mary McDermott said that this is a way to “bring the past of the Presentation to the future.”
Barbara McGuirk, an alumna and former teacher at the high school for 44 years, said that the foundation set by the Presentation Sisters allowed her to thoroughly teach her subject by incorporating the Bible into lessons. She stated that students pick up morals in the Presentation schools because they “become a part of everyday life.”
Mrs. Pierce and Deborah Wright, principal of St. Bernard’s Elementary School, also described working in their schools as “coming home.” Both taught in public and Catholic schools.
“Coming to St. Leo’s was coming home. I love that the focus in Catholic school is teaching academic and spiritual principles,” Mrs. Pierce said.
Ms. Wright said she originally taught at Catholic schools but left to go to public school for 26 years. But, when she was able to, she came back so that she could “continue the legacy of Nano Nagle … by continuing to build community within a school based on Gospel values.”
Ms. Wright said that Nano Nagle set out to teach the poor and oppressed using Catholic values of treating one another with respect, a lesson that is still prevalent in St. Bernard’s Elementary today.
Founded on the principles and teachings of Nano Nagle, many of the Presentation Sisters are graduates and have taught in the Catholic schools in northern Worcester County. The sisters said that one of the best parts of being associated with a Catholic school was the freedom to weave morality into the subjects.
Though not many Sisters are currently teaching in the classroom, Sister Paula Cormier said that “the charism of the Sisters is a guide for new educators to apply their practice in a different reality.”
Sister Mary Laurita, who taught high school English for nearly 10 years, said that while teaching literature, “you could bring out Catholic principles to students. You could teach them to be kind, gentle, and accepting without breaking the rules.”
Sister Pauline LeBlanc had similar thoughts. While teaching at St. Bernard’s Elementary for 25 years, she found that the “children were open to what you were teaching.”
Sister Joan Mary McDermott said that supporting the schools gives “hope for the future” in terms of producing strong students that have benefitted from a strong, morality-based education.
“Catholic school provides both Catholics and non-Catholics alike a type of faith-based education that simply cannot be provided in public and private, secular schools,” Bishop McManus said. Many of the graduates of the Worcester Diocese’s Catholic schools have found their calling as contributing members of society in the “Catholic Church, as well as education, finance, science, medicine, and politics,” he said.
Mrs. Wright said one of the most important parts about running a school community is the involvement and support of the parents.
Lisa Linnane, who has a daughter at St. Bernard’s Elementary and a son attending the high school, said she decided to send her children there because Catholic schools have helped “her kids thrive not only academically, but also by building strong core values, self-esteem, and a strong moral character.”
Mrs. Linnane said that in today’s society, it’s important to have God and “the understanding to take care of each other in a world that struggles with religions, cultural differences, and problems like drugs.”
Karen Pelletier, alumna of St. Bernard’s, said that though “there are not many Sisters in the schools as there once were, their impact can still be felt because they established the atmosphere so long ago.”
Sister Mary Anne and Sister Pauline  both expressed the importance of having dedicated teachers in their schools who are committed to continuing the legacy of their foundress.
Robert Blanchard, the high school’s principal, said that “as a school founded on the principles of the Presentation Sisters, we hold students to higher expectations and expect them to meet those expectations through hard work, determination, and Christian values.”
Through “not words, but deeds,” the schools that were founded and supported by the Presentation Sisters continue to grow and educate by “shining Nano Nagle’s light,” according to Mrs. McGuirk.