By Tanya Connor
FITCHBURG – “What we can no longer do, you will do.”
The Venerini sister was paraphrasing the pope’s words to her congregation’s foundress. She was addressing the new pastor and lay principal telling them that it is up to them to carry on.
Sister Janet Badagliacca got emotional as she reflected on the future of St. Anthony Elementary School, which the Venerini Sisters helped start.
Joining her for an interview with The Catholic Free Press were other retired Venerini Sisters: Sisters Inez Ferrari and Loretta Ciccarelli, who also worked at the school; John Diorio, who becomes principal July 1, and Father Leo LeBlanc, who has been pastor of the school’s parish, St. Anthony of Padua, since July 1.
Sister Janet said she feels inspired by Father LeBlanc and Mr. Diorio and “their desire to keep the spirit of Rosa Venerini.”
St. Rosa Venerini met with suspicion when she broke with 17th century norms, founding the first free public school for girls in Italy, with a community of women who were not cloistered.
She also met with the approval of Pope Clement XI, who made a surprise visit to her first school in Rome. A booklet printed for her Oct. 15, 2006 canonization tells it this way.
On Oct. 24, 1716, “a most elegant carriage stopped … and from it descended the pope himself, with a following of eight cardinals.” He told Rosa, “I have heard good things about you, so today act as if we were not present. Continue your lessons.”
After listening to the lessons the pope told her, “You are helping us to carry on our duties since, with your teachers, you are doing that which we cannot do. We thank you very much because with these schools you will sanctify Rome.”
“You are the incarnation of the charism of St. Rosa,” Father LeBlanc told local sisters.
“The pastor has to be the biggest cheerleader of the school,” Sister Janet said, then addressed the principal: “I sense that with you, John; you want enrollment to increase.”
“We’re going to have a waiting list in three years,” boasted Mr. Diorio, a member of St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury who’s been principal of Forest Park Middle School in Springfield for three years. He succeeds St. Anthony’s interim principal, Linda Sordoni.
“I just feel this is God’s way of carrying on what we began,” said Sister Inez, second principal of St. Anthony’s, which began with a kindergarten in 1950. No Venerini Sisters work at the school anymore, but they’re invited back annually for a Venerini Day Mass and lunch, which is May 11 this year.
Father LeBlanc said Mr. Diorio will form top-notch teachers who will attract more students.
“I really think it’s important John connects with you and the Venerini tradition,” he told the sisters.
Asked about that tradition, Sister Janet repeated St. Rosa’s motto: “To educate is to set free.”
She said their foundress believed in teaching the whole child: “not only academically, but socially, emotionally, spiritually.” She wanted to “instill in our students a deeper faith, sound morals and values,” to help them make proper choices.
“I think it’s to build relationships among people, and you start with little children,” Sister Inez said of the Venerini tradition. That way they grow up learning to respect other people.
Sister Inez was once principal of Venerini Academy in Worcester. “Venerini Academy was all girls,” she said. “And I said, ‘They have to live with one another, so why don’t we accept boys?’ So I made it co-ed.”
The sisters’ other school in the Worcester Diocese – St. Anna Elementary in Leominster – is also still open, unlike all of their other schools in the United States, the sisters said.
Asked why they thought these three have fared better, Sister Janet responded, “They had more potential.” She noted that, as the sisters aged or accepted other ministries and young women no longer joined, they closed some of their houses and schools. In other places lay staff succeeded them.
St. Anthony’s also benefits from an unusually high parish-school connection.
Mr. Diorio said he can’t believe how strong the parish’s support for the school is.
Parishioners say it’s been an integral part of the parish, Father LeBlanc said.
“They want the Venerini tradition to continue … because they’ve benefitted from the sisters for so many years,” he said. Some attribute their success in business to the Venerinis.
“I was brought up in the parish,” said Sister Janet. “It was such a thrill and an honor to look forward to teaching in my own parish school.” She said she taught grades 7 and 8 for four years, and was principal for nine years. Even then, she taught the eighth-grade religion class, wanting to keep her hand in teaching.
“I used to get up in the morning and die to go to school,” said Sister Inez, who taught grades 7 and 8 while she was principal. She said she loved the students and “the parents were with you.”
Robert Girouard, now the gym teacher, still embraces her when he sees her, she said. He remembers how she gave him errands to do when, as her student, he couldn’t sit still.
As pastor and principal left the sisters, Mr. Diorio exclaimed, “Now those are some cool ladies!”
“They’re such a gift to the Church,” said Father LeBlanc.
“I really want to see people get excited about education at the school,” he said. “I want parents to feel, ‘Sending my child to St. Anthony’s is worth the investment.’ And I love what the Venerini Sisters said: ‘Education of the whole child.’