School's closed, building's gone, but bond remains

Posted: May 09, 2014

At St. Mary of the Angels Academy, an all-girls Catholic prep school in Haddonfield, skirts had to cover the knee.

A nun would speed up the tempo of her classroom piano-playing to help students become faster typists.

And in the early years, during winter break, girls were expected to tidy up classrooms and polish floors in the Kings Highway mansion that was home to an institution they loved.

"They were four of the best years of my life," says Geri (Egizi) Borbe, 69, of Voorhees, a leading organizer of the first reunion for all St. Mary's alumnae.

More than 120 are expected to attend a special Mass at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 18, at Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken. A reception will follow at Haddonfield's Christ the King Church.

"The school closed, and the building's gone, but there's still this close bond among us," says Ocean City, N.J., resident Maureen (Morrison) Arasz, 68. Like Borbe, she graduated in 1963 and is a retired teacher.

The alums say the academy's modest size - at its peak, enrollment reached about 200 - along with rigorous instruction, a faith-based focus, and all-female classrooms, created a distinctive educational experience.

St. Mary's opened in 1945 and was run by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y, a teaching order. After the order shifted its mission from educating students to helping the poor, the academy closed in 1972.

Some student records found their way to Eustace, the academy's brother institution. Individual graduating classes have held reunions, often in homes, and social media have helped galvanize support for the mass reunion.

Borbe says the event was inspired by the installation of the academy's Blessed Mother statue at Eustace by that school's alumnus Jim Rhoads, whose three sisters attended St. Mary's.

A plaque for the statue, donated by the Class of '63, will be dedicated May 18. As the date approaches, graduates are reminiscing.

"St. Mary's taught us how to be organized and prepared, how to be self-sufficient and independent," says Deborah (Sauter) Cary, 60, of Westmont. She works as a quality control analyst at U.S. District Court in Camden, and graduated with St. Mary's last class in 1972.

"We girls ran everything, and it gave us a lot of confidence," says Mary (Meiler) Francescone, who was one of 24 students who graduated in the Class of 1949, the academy's first.

Francescone, a retired secretary who is 82 and lives in Hainesport, says St. Mary's prepared her well for the male-dominated business world. "I was never intimidated," she says.

"There were no boys," Arasz notes. "So we became the leaders."

A St. Mary's education was not cheap; the 1972 tuition of $600 would be about $3,000 in today's dollars. Families made sacrifices so their daughters could go to the academy; scholarships awarded by local parishes were a help to many.

St. Mary's wasn't all work, of course. The women I interviewed have fond memories of glee club recitals, line dances, and, in the '60s and '70s, rolling up their skirts to more fashionable lengths.

An offense for which Cary once was made to walk around campus all day with a bag on her head.

"Once was enough," she says with a laugh.

At the reunion Mass, Cary will read the prayer of the faithful. Borbe will offer a welcome, Arasz will be an usher, and Francescone will be part of the offertory procession.

And after a rededication of the Blessed Mother statue - the one the girls would crown at the end of May Day processions at the academy - the women will sing their alma mater.

Its last lines:

Proudly we hail thee

Forever we'll be true.


For information about the reunion, send an e-mail to borbe3@comcast.net

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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