By Tanya Connor | The Catholic Free Press
FITCHBURG – St. Bernard Elementary School celebrated its 130th anniversary Sunday with a lesson – for teachers.
Bishop McManus taught it through his homily at a Mass at St. Bernard Parish at St. Camillus de Lellis Church. Students served in various roles and the religious sisters who started the school were honored, with present-day members carrying forward symbolic gifts.
“In a very special way, I welcome the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who join us this morning,” Deborah W. Wright, principal, said in her prepared welcome. “This is their anniversary, too.”
In 1886 the parish, under Father Philip Garrigan’s leadership, sought to educate its children, she said. At his invitation, several of the sisters, who had come to New York City from Ireland, came here. They began the school and their own foundation in New England. Soon there were a boys’ school and a girls’ school beside the church on Water Street.
Indifference to suffering is a grave sin, and when there was a need 130 years ago, the sisters responded, said Father Joseph M. Dolan, St. Bernard’s pastor. Educating is a spiritual work of mercy, an act of love, he said, and spoke of how sisters and laity have blessed people of St. Bernard’s, Fitchburg and Worcester County.
Sunday they were also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the current school building on Summer Street, he said.
The trowel used for its 1966 dedication was brought forward in the offertory procession. So were textbooks, attendance records from 1966, the school bell still rung at recess, and a newly begun Book of Remembrance, Ms. Wright noted. The book starts with the Sisters, Father Garrigan and parishioners “because without all of these people we would not be here,” she said.
Another offertory gift was a statement of purpose displayed in Catholic schools throughout the Diocese. It says Christ is the reason for the school, “the unseen but ever present teacher … the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students.”
Bishop McManus told the teachers, all of whom Ms. Wright said were present, that the nature and purpose of their ministry in a Catholic school is not only to teach with professional competence but to provide students with a vision of life and reality as God sees them. They are to teach from a divine perspective because much of what youth see in the world is shallow, vulgar, violent and sometimes borders on the hopeless, he said. He said the Church has schools to provide an alternate vision of what is ultimately important: peace and joy in this life and eternal happiness in the life to come.
This is what the prophet Ezekiel meant by God giving his people a new heart and a new spirit, the bishop said, adding that he hoped students will receive a spirit that will soar with hope and enthusiasm for what is good and true.
In today’s world of technology and mobility people seem to have lost common sense and the perspective that God is God and they are not, he said. But in a Catholic school they can learn about the good that God wants for them.
Bishop McManus said St. Bernard’s Elementary exists because of people who lived the commitment to its motto: Deeds not words. The motto comes from the family motto of Venerable Nano Nagle, foundress of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At the reception after Mass, Christopher Brouillet, a member of St. Bernard’s Parish, told The Catholic Free Press he attended St. Bernard’s Elementary in grades 7 and 8, then St. Bernard’s High School.
“Looking back I appreciate the education I got,” he said. “It gave me a good foundation to get through the Marines.” He said he’s still in contact with several people who were his fellow students at St. Bernard’s.
“One of the things I like about the school is we have something called ‘Book Buddies,’” said sixth-grader Leah Alker, explaining that older students read to younger ones. That lets them practice their reading, among other things.
Her classmate Jennifer Allen said she likes how students get so much attention from teachers and get to know them and their fellow students, since classes are small.
“It’s a wonderful place to be – it’s a family,” said Margaret Maki, who has taught eighth grade there for more than 30 years. “I love my job. It doesn’t feel like a job.”
“It’s a great school, great faculty,” said Sister Pauline LeBlanc, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary who just retired after 25 years as administrative assistant (and one year teaching there in the 1980s). “The faculty has been stable. We haven’t had a turnover in a long time.”
One of the sisters still serves there: kindergarten teacher Sister Irene Goguen, who just celebrated her 60th jubilee in religious life and is in her 38th year of teaching at St. Bernard’s.