One day Mary P. Boyle’s mother walked into a pawn shop and left her jewelry there, determined to keep her young daughter in Catholic school.
Mary Boyle did stay in Catholic school — as a student, then later as an elementary, middle and high school teacher, principal and, most recently, as superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Camden for the past 13 years.
Now, for the first time since 1973, a new school year is beginning without her. She retired at the end of the summer and has already planned a trip to Ireland, County Donegal, this month, where she still has cousins. The trip is long overdue; she last visited 28 years ago. Among her other plans is spending more time with the woman who helped shape her devotion to Catholic education. Her mother is now 92.
Boyle acknowledges that retirement will be an adjustment, recalling how she felt on the first day of school when she was a new principal. After all the beginning-of-the-year preparations, and all the excitement and activity in the school yard that first morning, she said, the teachers brought their students into the building and took them to their classrooms. The doors closed. After years of being a teacher and following that same routine, the new principal found herself alone in an office, with a desk full of paperwork. It was a lonely feeling for a woman who thrives on personal connections.
Speaking of her upcoming retirement on the Catholic Star Herald’s Talking Catholic podcast over the summer, she said, “I will miss the daily interaction with the wonderful people working in the Diocese of Camden, as well as the people who make up the church of South Jersey.”
She was talking in specific, not general, terms. Boyle’s tenure as superintendent has been characterized by what a former pastor of the diocese termed “a ministry of presence.” That is to say, she has travelled the six counties of the Diocese of Camden the way Saint John Paul II relentlessly travelled the globe. Boyle was well known for driving to any of Catholic school, at any time of the day, anytime she was needed.
“Being there is important, even in this age of Skype and conference calls. Being face to face,” she said. “You show people you value them enough to take the time to see them.”
It’s an intensely personal vision that reflects not only Boyle’s dedication but also the nature of the local Catholic school system, and how different it is from a public school system. Take, for example, the Cherry Hill School District, one of the state’s larger districts. The superintendent answers to a board of education consisting of nine members and is responsible for 19 schools within the within the township’s approximately 24 square miles. The schools have more than 11,000 students enrolled, and the district, one of the region’s largest employers, has more than 1,600 employees.
As the head of the Catholic school system, the superintendent answers to the bishop and is responsible for 37 Catholic schools spread out over the six counties of southern New Jersey, with some 11,600 students and more than 1,025 staff.
With her crisscrossing travels across South Jersey to visit schools, plus her daily commute to and from home, Boyle put some 21,000 miles on her car in the past year. During those long drives she would often listen to baseball or classical music, a favorite being Panis angelicus by Cesar Franck, a composer who, like Boyle, was famous for taking on a punishing workload.
Boyle, whose formal education was in the natural sciences, doesn’t use the jargon common to the education field. In conversation, she often uses commonplace analogies and metaphors. Teachers should be like doctors, diagnosing students’ weaknesses to help them overcome them and learn better. Schools and faculties have to strive for balance — for example, veterans teachers’ experience and newcomers’ enthusiasm — just as a conductor realizes that an orchestra’s sound can be ruined if the brass is too loud or the strings too soft.
In fact, Boyle’s reflections on education tend toward the aesthetic and spiritual and reflect both a nostalgia for her own experiences, as well as an awareness that society, and consequently education, is constantly changing.
She is all too aware of the financial challenges of keeping the schools open, and the dilemma of parents who, like her own mother, have to sacrifice to pay tuition. But she is convinced that Catholic education is more important than ever for young people in today’s world and for the future of the church.
She recalls how much she liked teaching first grade. “Little sponges,” she says affectionately.
One day early in her teaching career she was inspired to teach a lesson about individuality, and how each person, in his or her unique way, could walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
In her mind, she envisioned the children’s different colored footprints after they carefully stepped in paint and walked neatly on the long sheet of paper that she spread out. In reality, she soon had barefoot first-graders sliding all over the classroom, leaving multi-colored streaks in their wake.
She laughs as she tells the story at her own expense as an example of how much she had to learn as an inexperienced teacher. But listeners take away something else: the impression of a woman who still marvels at all the challenges, aspirations, rewards and wonder that fill a classroom in a Catholic school.
She wasn’t writing about herself — but she might as well have been — in 2016 when she wrote an open letter to teachers of the diocese. “Like parents, teachers are co-creators with God in developing the fullness of each person made in God’s image,” she wrote. “How tremendous is this vocation!”