Local News Archive
Print Issue: June 1, 2000
Founding Nuns Depart St. Thomas More School
By Priscilla Greear, Staff Writer
DECATURAfter 50 years, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur are saying goodbye to St. Thomas More School, which was founded by their order.
They leave behind their mark of academic excellence, faith in each child and steadfast spirit rooted in the spirituality of their French foundress, St. Julie Billiart.
The three members of the order currently at St. Thomas More, Sisters Margaret Thomasine Grady, Grace OConnor and Rita Adele Comber, are leaving in June. Sister OConnor will teach in Delaware while the others will reside in an assisted living community in Maryland. The order that established the school now lacks enough younger sisters to staff it. The convent will close.
The school PTA threw a party for the nuns May 24. The parish will host a farewell tea, open to all, in Mulhern Hall on Sunday, June 4 from 3-5 p.m.
While individual sisters teach at and administer Catholic schools, they are the last religious order of nuns to be affiliated with a Catholic school in metro Atlanta. St. Josephs School in Athens is the only archdiocesan school led by a religious order of nuns, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Sister OConnor and Sister Comber taught fourth and fifth grades and Sister Grady, now retired, has served as principal and taught seventh and eighth grades.
Sister Grady, who helped open the school and returned in 1971, expressed mixed emotions.
Our order was not anxious to close the convent. Were all older and we just dont have the personnel and thats what the majority of orders are facing, she said. We love the people. We love St. Thomas More. We love the whole spirit of the parish ... Its hard leaving and we know its the time for us to do it. Weve been here 50 years. Well always have beautiful memories.
In a letter to supporters, the sisters wrote: We honestly regret having to come to this decision. We have truly loved our service at St. Thomas More School and in the parish. We have made lifelong friends among you, and well never forget you. ... We will keep all of you in our prayers, and we ask you to pray for us. With St. Julie let us all acclaim, God is good.
This loss reflects the decline in Religious vocations nationally. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are almost 83,000 nuns nationally, down more than one-quarter from the 115,000 counted in 1985.
Sister OConnor, who was first appointed to the school in 1963 and who returned in 1998, expressed pride in the schools academic program. The order focuses on education; St. Julie taught, trained teachers and founded schools in France and Belgium at the time of the French Revolution.
Led by a sister principal until 1992, STM was named a National School of Excellence in 1988. It has 465 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and a waiting list.
It has (developed) a good foundation over 50 years. The school has good teachers and very dedicated teachers, Sister OConnor said. I think weve made our mark on the school. Its simply an outstanding school and I think it will continue.
The school opened in 1950 with five sisters to staff five grades of 155 students. In those pioneer years, the school added on four grades, built a new lower school and hired several new lay teachers, Sister Grady recalled. In 1958 St. Piux X High School in Atlanta, where the sisters have also served through the decades, opened its doors.
It was a new school and it was the only one around. We had people from all over, she said. We did grow rapidly, but it was a wonderful time. Everyone was excited about opening a school and we were excited about being there. Those were very productive years.
On weekends, sisters hit the road for Cedartown and Rome to teach parish religious education.
In 1960 school enrollment hit near 700 and in that decade the order had the most sisters in Atlanta with 18 filling the convent, according to Sister Grady. School enrollment dropped off in the 1970s as other Catholic schools opened.
Now we are close to 500 (students) and thats great. STM has always been a blooming parish and if it went down in numbers it would pick up again with new spirit. It sort of renews itself every couple of decades, she said. It has been a real enthusiastic parish filled with spirit, with good leadership from our pastors and our principals. Its been a delight and a privilege for me to be here and to have (seen) about three generations. Our foundress has a saying that God is very good and its indeed true here at STM. God has indeed been very good.
When the order considered withdrawing the sisters from STM and other schools in the mid-70s, the parish convinced provincial representatives of the need.
It was a worrisome time for several of our schools, Sister Grady said.
Sister Comber came in 1971 and remembers a large number of non-Catholics who sent their children to the school at that time.
I had never been in a Catholic school that had such a large percentage of non-Catholics. They were lovely, lovely people, said the nun, who recently has been teaching handwriting in three grades and preparing children for the sacraments. Catholic families are again filling STM and now there is no room for the non-Catholics.
I really enjoyed teaching here. I loved it very much, in fact, she said. Twenty-nine years has been by far her longest time of serving in one location as a Religious; her next longest tenure was eight years and it will be hard to leave STM.
I wish there were some vocations, some young vocations we could send, Sister Comber said. Now they are passing that cup around (Elijahs cup), praying for vocations. We should have done that 25 years ago.
Sister OConnor said sisters, in addition to teaching, have also given leadership in the community by attending daily Mass and celebrating the sacraments and reaching out to other people in other areasnot just in the school.
Sisters have been involved in faith-sharing groups, fund-raisers, eucharistic ministry and religious education. Sister OConnor said she has been in the womens guild, on a parish bowling team and she even arranges flowers for special occasions.
Sister Grady, who taught confirmation classes for many years, described their parish ministry as one of presence. Through the years, I think the parish has felt that wed be glad to help with anything and we would supporting the programs that are there and helping the children to get that idea of their obligation to assist the parish.
Sister Grady established a St. Julie Fund in 1995 that provides temporary financial help to persons in need. Funds are raised through a bake sale, which she has helped with even after retirement. She leads weekly morning prayer for faculty and other activities.
In 1973 Sister Grady established a three-day retreat for eighth-graders to prepare them for high school.
Ive had sisters who formerly taught at St. Pius express the joy it was to teach students from STM. Its very great to hear, she said.
She also recalls the creativity notebooks she had language arts students complete nightly to teach them to see God in each other and in the beauty of nature ... the wonders of the beauty of creation, especially in themselves.
Many students testify that they have kept their drawing and writing going throughout high school and college.
Sister Comber, a left-hander, remembers teaching children the secret of writing clearly whether right- or left-handed. Sister OConnor recalls the pleasure of helping direct school plays. Her greatest joy was simply teaching children, despite having to compete with television stars youth try to emulate.
Being with the children helps to keep you young and keep you busy. I think people have to really love teaching to stay in the classroom today.
When you look around our school we have very good children and their families care for them. They have a good family life, which is very important.
Ann Dugan, a pastoral assistant for 10 years who taught at STM for 16 years and whose three children graduated from the school, poured out examples of gifts received from the nuns.
She recalled their generous training (of) the children in every area of learning. They did foster this idea of awareness of your fellow students and how you would like to be treated ... through every subject.
The nuns even babysat for us when we would go to family things and so my kids knew them as friends as well as teachers, said Dugan, whose daughter now teaches kindergarten at STM.
They have impacted our parish. Theyve followed the mission of their foundress, St. Julie. They have been there for the poor. They have been there for the senior citizens, for the bereaved people. Theyve been there for the Sunday school.
Dugan was one of those bereaved persons who experienced the nuns compassion and support when her husband, Brian, died of cancer six years ago. They were wonderful in helping the kids, praying for Brian ... Sister Margaret Thomasine was always present to Brian by visiting him and being in contact the whole time he was dying. They would visit, call, send meals, she said.
I havent even prepared myself for their leaving. Its going to be like a death to our community because theyve been so present for 50 years. Theyve been critically important to our community in every way, church and school. Im happy that theyve made this decision to move at this time, but Im also sad that theyre not going to be here. We always took for granted the nuns are in the convent. It is going to be a great loss. Theyre going to be missed by many, many people.
Principal Gail Msezane, who taught for 14 years at STM before becoming its principal, expressed the school-wide sense of loss.
We see how sad the children are. Were all really sad for them. Thats like what happens with your parents. We know they need more care, she said.
At the same time, she added, We feel that we have their traditions ... the impact theyve had on training me in this job. I wouldnt be able to do it without their support and strength. I know theyll be praying for me wherever they are. Ill probably be calling them.
Msezane recalled the nuns faith in children.
When I wanted to give up on a student, I thought, they never gave up on a student. Every teacher (is) carrying on that tradition of educating every child. Four of our present faculty were taught at STM by the nuns.
As the sisters pack their bags, Sister Grady is confident their presence will remain.
I would hope that the spirit of St. Julie would continue. I understand that the school would like to have a large statue of our foundress in a place where it would be noticed and the children will know about it and the spirit weve tried to give them through the years in reaching out to others. I am positive it will continue.
Msezane looks forward to the sisters visit in November for the celebration of the schools 50th anniversary.
We will make sure we always honor them.
Indeed, the St. Julie statue, a lasting reminder, will be moved from the convent to the main school entrance.
HABITS -- Sister Rita Adele Comber, SND helps Andrew Boyle, a third-grader at
St. Thomas More School, Decatur, with his cursive letters. Sister Comber has
taught many classes in 29 years, but the school will surely miss her writing
instruction. Under her guidance STM has won numerous penmanship awards,
including the 2000 state fourth-grade award.
FINAL INQUIRY -- Sitting beneath a statue of her orders foundress, St. Julie Billiart, Sister Margaret Thomasine Grady, SND, right, interviews seventh-grader Alia Murphy in preparation for confirmation. Sister Thomasine has given over 35 years of service at St. Thomas More School, Decatur.
CONSUMMATE INSTRUCTOR -- Sister Grace OConnor, SND goes over a word problem with fourth-grader Derrick Heilman during math class. At the end of the school year, Sister OConnor will relocate to New Castle, Delaware, where she will assume a teaching position.