Sister Mary’s bell is now silent

Mention Sister Mary De Angelis to anyone who attended St. Peter’s in Merchantville during the 1980s and the first thing they’ll talk about is “the bell,” a throwback to a simpler time of schooling. Thor had his hammer; Sister Mary had her bell. To a small boy, the two were indistinguishable; you could not have one without the other.
Serving as principal at St. Peter’s School for over eight years, the dedicated member of the Religious Teachers Filippini walked the hallways and playgrounds with her brass “Excalibur,” her hand firmly grasping the wooden handle at all times. Its ring made you stop whatever it was you were doing, sit up straighter, and pay immediate attention. But it really wasn’t about the bell, but rather the person who held it.
Sister Mary was a disciplinarian. As a young man, that’s what I remembered. But what I realize now is that she wasn’t so draconian. She didn’t teach fear; she earned respect. And as an older man with children of my own, I understand what she taught us, both about being responsible for our own actions and how God should always be an active part of our lives.
Last week, Sister Mary was called home to the Lord; and what a tremendous legacy she leaves behind. Scores of children, now adults, still take her lessons to heart each and every day.
I know that I am not alone. Many fondly remember their own “Sister Mary”: an encouraging priest who helped make faith more accessible; a nun who shared that God is joy in our hearts; a religious brother who helped show what it means to be truly Christ-like.
Some of these religious men and women are still with us, and they continue to guide young Catholics in their most formative years. But many of us are attending the funerals of the “Sister Marys” of the world. The numbers do not paint a bright picture. According to data by the National Catholic Education Association, in 2011, only 2.6 percent of teachers in Catholic schools were nuns, 0.1 percent were brothers, and 0.3 percent were clergy. And just six years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated that nearly 60,000 religious men and women are over the age of 60. There are more teaching religious retiring than returning. And that’s sad.
To a secular world, religious life has more than lost its luster, and Catholic schools around the country are trying to do more with less. And while students who attend Catholic schools statistically score higher than the national average on standardized testing, develop more effective writing skills, and attend college at a rate of over 95 percent, there are some things that can only be taught by priests, nuns and religious brothers. Sister Mary’s commitment to her students was more than just a passion; she was called by God to teach. And while many of us were trying to make sure she didn’t give us detention, we understood on some level that she really cared. That God loved us that much, that he gave us a “Sister Mary” to teach us.
That’s what’s impressive about Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s initiative to have priests serve as directors of Catholic identity at Camden Catholic, Gloucester Catholic, Paul VI, and St. Joseph high schools. It’s a way of continuing to address the essential need of having religious teaching the Catholic faith in our schools. Having priests be a full-time presence at these high schools helps reinforce the importance of having a stronger relationship with God in the young men and women who will undoubtedly be the future of the Catholic Church in America. Whether or not they take their faith with them to college; whether they get married in the church and raise their children to be more than just Catholic by name; these questions could very well be answered in high school hallways.
And while this is one step in many that is needed in today’s church, it does not change the fact the Sister Mary’s bell is now silent, its owner now on to her eternal reward. It is my hope and prayer that others continue to pick up the mantle and responsibility of being a religious teacher, helping teach God’s love to a new generation of young, eager minds, who long to hear the bell, sit up straighter, and pay attention.

Frank Sinatra is a communications professional living in Pennsauken.

Categories: Catholic School News

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