It didn’t occur to me until last month. Reminiscing with a friend about our elementary school days at Cherry Hill’s Queen of Heaven, we recalled the evening in June 1997 when our eighth grade class received our diplomas from Msgr. Edward Alleyne, the parish pastor, and Sister Marita Regina, IHM, the school principal.
The year was 1997. Twenty years ago. Just like that, the previous thoughts of tests, detention, and pizza and chicken nugget lunches had turned into deadlines, bills and almond milk smoothies with spinach.
The old Queen of Heaven Church and School, since closed, on Route 70 across from the still-functioning Erlton Firehouse became an anchor for my family when they first moved into the area in the early 1980s.
My parents desired a quality Catholic education for their two young daughters (I was yet to be born), and Queen of Heaven, staffed by the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, seemed like the perfect fit for the new family in town.
Soon it became evident that, yes, this was the right place. My mother, father and sisters fell in love with the school’s dedicated, faithful and firm-yet-engaging teachers and staff. In 1988 I began the coloring, glue-pasting, and napping days of kindergarten, and shortly thereafter my younger sister followed suit.
During 23 consecutive years at Queen of Heaven School, my family and I spent September to June joyfully immersed in science fairs; Christmas plays (the great benefits of a Catholic school!); talent shows (my group’s Cherry Hill Hopeless sketch, where we played bumbling doctors, is a personal highlight); yearbook; cheerleading (my sisters), and intramural soccer (me); May Processions; the Saint Jude Math-a-Thon; and school fundraisers that had my sisters and me walking up and down our street selling candy or Christmas wrapping.
Through my nine years deep into the life of the school and church, tenets and values of the Catholic faith were engrained in me, that continue to serve me well.
I was introduced to the beautiful traditions of the Mass, beginning and continuing as an altar server. I still remember the look on Msgr. Alleyne’s face during the Easter morning celebration when, asking me to retrieve the aspergillum and holy water boat to bless the congregation, I instead walked out of the sacristy with a plastic cleaning bucket.
I can still recite from memory “The Perfect 10” song on the commandments, first brought to me in kindergarten. Or “Companions on the Journey,” used at many a monthly school liturgy.
Somewhere tucked in the back of my childhood bedroom closet are the cardboard keys and brown cloak I wore during an All Saints Day parade as my namesake saint. “The Rock” has kept my faith solid ever since.
Mostly, though, I remember the names of teachers and administrators such as Ms. Pavalko, Sister Regina Catherine, Mrs. McGuire, Mrs. Mueller and Sister Stephen Ann, who will be etched in my consciousness forever: passionate about their faith and learning material, caring but disciplined when they needed to be.
Mrs. Mueller, my fifth and eighth grade teacher, especially, I remember instilling in my classmates and me a sense of duty to our school, of showing up every morning eager to learn and face the day: “Unless you are projectile vomiting and bleeding from the eyeballs, you should be in the classroom.”
I remember the oft-repeated words of Msgr. Alleyne (God rest his soul), said to us young students during Mass: “Good, better, best. Never rest, until the good is better, and the better best.”
My family and I remained committed to the Queen of Heaven faith community because we realized how committed the school and church were to us.
When I drive past where the old church and school once stood, the memories rush back. I understand the decisions that led to its closing almost a decade ago, part of an unfortunate shifting of the cultural landscape and families’ priorities, but I still miss seeing the backpack-laden students on the schoolground and hearing the church bells ring out the Good News.
Queen of Heaven helped to create a habit of faithful prayer, hope, praise, thanksgiving and charity in my being. Twenty years since I walked out of its doors for the last time, I’m still singing the song Mrs. Murphy, the music teacher, taught to us: “I’ve Got That Joy, Joy, Joy.”
Peter G. Sánchez is a staff writer for the Catholic Star Herald.