When it came time for David Nassar and his wife to choose a
school for their children, he began to think about his own education. Nassar
attended Catholic school, and fondly remembers the women religious who taught
him — Sisters, Servants of the
Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).
They taught him how to speak and write well, and imbued the
students with a sense of discipline and respect for others. But first and
foremost, he became devoted to Christ and to His mother, Mary.
Now, Nassar’s three children attend St. James School in Falls
Church, where the IHM sisters have taught since 1923. He and his wife felt the
presence of the sisters would teach their children the same values he learned
as a child. “It really does come through in the school,” he said.
Catholic schools throughout the diocese traditionally were founded
and run by men and women religious. St. James was founded in 1906 by the
Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. But, as with many other orders since,
circumstances forced them to leave the school. In the recent past, IHM sisters
left St. Michael School in Annandale and the Cathedral of St. Thomas More
School in Arlington.
Though gone, their legacy remains. Sister Mary Sue Carwhile,
principal of St. James, was educated by IHM sisters at the Cathedral School. Another
sister in the community taught at the school before joining the order. Still
another is a St. James alumna.
Knowing the presence of consecrated men and women in Catholic
schools is no longer the norm, Sister Mary Sue is grateful that she and the
sisters are able to live and teach at St. James. The community is grateful,
“A day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t thank us for our
presence,” she said. “We feel very privileged to minister here.”
The fruits of contemplation
Jerry Sarchet first interacted with the Dominican Sisters of St.
Cecelia when he began teaching at St. John Paul the Great Catholic High School
in Dumfries. Though he had taught for years, the principal asked him to observe
one of the classes taught by the sisters.
“I was floored by the level of conversation back and forth. … She
was able to bring a life and enthusiasm (to the discussion) that was unreal,”
he said. “I joked with her afterward I was going to file suit against (my home)
state of Ohio for fraudulent education.”
His experience with the sisters convinced him to enroll his own
children at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School in Woodbridge, which also is run
by the Dominicans. The sisters have a great love for the truth and for their
vocation, he said, and they embrace the entire child. They’re always joyful —
“you've never seen a (sad) Dominican sister,” said Sarchet.
In part, what makes an order-run school unique is the charism
that pervades the institution. For the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia, it is,
“to contemplate, and to give to others the fruits of our contemplation.”
Though very much in the world, the sisters spend a great deal of
time praying and meditating on the Scriptures. That’s a gift they can give to
the students, faculty and larger community, said Sister Kateri Rose Masters,
principal of St. Thomas Aquinas. They want to share God’s wisdom, “not just
lessons from a book,” she said. “Hopefully, what we’re communicating is not
just truth but a person and a relationship with Christ.”
At the top of all of their papers, the students at Holy Cross
Academy in Fredericksburg write V + J, an abbreviation of the French phrase,
“Live Jesus.” The custom is just one small way Salesian spirituality is incorporated
in the daily life of the school.
Holy Cross was founded in 1998 by Arlington Bishop John R. Keating
in conjunction with the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales. Even before it
opened, the sisters were involved in the planning.
“The beauty is from the beginning we were able to have our
spirituality as an important part of the school,” said Sister Susan Louise
Eder, principal. “(Those in the school community) love the philosophy of seeing
God in others and making Jesus the center of our lives.”
The spirit of the school enticed Amy Strickland, who sent her
three children to the school and currently teaches third grade there. “As a
parent, I came to love the school. When I started working here, I couldn't
imagine working anywhere else,” she said.
The school instilled a sense of belonging in her children and gave
them the opportunity to explore their faith. It also made the religious life
seem approachable and normal, said Strickland. Interacting with the sisters
gives young Catholics a chance to envision themselves in the consecrated life.
“It’s important for my kids to see and for all kids to see,” she said.
Whether Salesian, Dominican or IHM, the sisters hope their
presence in Catholic schools will encourage vocations, as it has for a number
of them including Sister Susan Louise. “I did attend school run by our sisters;
it (has) a profound influence on you,” she said.
Strickland agrees. “(The charism) permeates the entire school and
it is truly amazing to be a part of that,” she said. “It bleeds over into your