Two new Catholic schools, blended from others, start the school year on a positive note

Gabriel Collier, 10, a fifth grader at the new Mater Dei Regional School in Lansdale, shakes hands with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who met with students before blessing the school.
Gabriel Collier, 10, a fifth grader at the new Mater Dei Regional School in Lansdale, shakes hands with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who met with students before blessing the school. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 08, 2012

First thing in the morning on their first day of school, some students at Mater Dei Regional School in Lansdale got a pop quiz - from the archbishop.

"Do you know Latin?" Charles J. Chaput asked. Two fifth graders nodded cautiously. "Do you know the name of your school in Latin?" Mater Dei, "Mother of God," the girls answered.

The archbishop commended the girls and turned to the next volunteer. "What is character?"

"Uhhhhh . . . " replied the eighth-grade boy.

Chaput's lesson in vocabulary, metaphor, and religious history was a fitting way to christen the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's newest elementary school. Every pew was occupied Thursday morning with about 1,000 students, teachers, administrators, and relatives present as the archbishop led a prayer service and blessing for the new regional school, one of 32 that opened this week.

The atmosphere was optimistic and joyful - in stark contrast to the anxiety and fear unleashed several months ago when the archdiocese announced a plan to close and consolidate many of its low-enrollment elementary schools.

Under the plan, the St. Stanislaus school absorbed St. Rose of Lima and St. Maria Goretti under the new name of Mater Dei. The same thing happened in South Philadelphia, where Epiphany of Our Lord, Sacred Heart, and Mount Carmel were joined under the name of Our Lady of Hope.

Some parents now have to travel farther to drop their children off, or watch nervously as they board a school bus for the first time. Some students are getting used to new hallways and a new principal. And about 100 teachers are not in the classroom anymore.

But at both Mater Dei and Our Lady of Hope, parents, teachers and students said the consolidation had turned out to be a positive thing.

"I was nervous about the whole thing, there was so much preparation over the summer, so much to get done," said Terri Beck, a fourth-grade teacher at Our Lady of Hope. "But the kids - at least the kids in my class - are melding together great."

Beck said the influx of new teachers and ideas has created a "great energy" at Our Lady of Hope, where there are now enough students to have two teachers for each grade. "I've been teaching for 28 years, but even so, it's nice to learn new things."

Kelly Farzetta, an accountant from Souderton, said she didn't mind transferring her son, Dominic, from St. Maria Goretti to Mater Dei. "The joining of the three parishes makes for a stronger school, so it will last through when my 3-year-old [Giana] is in eighth grade."

Several parents and teachers said communication has made for a smooth transition.

"Flexibility is key because it's such a change for everyone," said Patricia Coty, the principal at Our Lady of Hope, who has a policy of responding to parents within 24 hours.

Margie Del Giorno, who has two young children at Our Lady of Hope, praised the principal. "She has a plan, she's a great leader," Del Giorno said of Coty. "It let parents be at ease, like, 'Patty's taking care of it.' "

Del Giorno and Danielle Capezza were waiting in the hall to pick up their children before the bell rang. The two mothers said that despite some initial worries - about the new campus, new teachers, new structure - the transition has been "exciting."

"It was a community thing, we thought we were losing something," Del Giorno said. But by the time school began, they had had so many mixers and events and communications with one another, that it no longer seemed new.

"It feels like we've all been together a long time," said Capezza.

That sentiment was echoed by many at Mater Dei. Principal Diane McCaughan said the summer was consumed by teachers, parents, and parishioners transforming St. Stanislaus into a new school. They painted unused classrooms, replaced lightbulbs and transferred computer equipment from the other schools. They met for pizza parties, pool parties, Q&A sessions, breakfasts and dessert functions.

Thursday may have been the first day of class, McCaughan said, "but honestly, it's not the first day for any of us." Even with a class of 547 students - compared with 329 last year - the principal said she'd already learned many of the new children's names.

"That's the biggest challenge for me," Coty agreed, "I meet them in the foyer and greet them every morning. I like to call them by name." Last year, Coty had 291 students at Epiphany; this year, Our Lady of Hope has 429.

Neighbors may face some of the biggest adjustments. Elizabeth Lucas, sitting on her Jackson Street stoop as students poured out of Our Lady of Hope on Thursday afternoon, said, "It's hard to get your car out in the morning," adding that the traffic should ease once more parents get comfortable with the buses.

The Lucas family tree was deeply rooted in the Epiphany school. Lucas went there, as did her father, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Now her grandnephew Nick is in fourth grade with Miss Beck.

Asked what's so different about his "new" school, Nick's eyes bug out. "It's a lot louder in the gym."

As Nick and his great-aunt sat in front of the house, a neighbor walked by and commented on the new sign over the school's four double doors: "Our Lady of Hope."

"In my heart, it'll always be Epiphany," the neighbor said.

Lucas nodded. "Yeah, it's different all right."


Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-4851 or jparks@philly.com.

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