By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published April 29, 2004
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., will send three members of their order to teach at and serve as principal of St. Catherine of Siena School this fall.
The “youngest” Catholic school in the archdiocese, St. Catherine opened in August 2002 with kindergarten through third grade using existing parish facilities. Bearing the name of a Dominican saint, it has grown from 78 students then to 140 students now and anticipates having 175 to 190 students this fall when it adds fifth grade. It is growing by one grade a year to become a K-8 school.
The news that sisters from the Nashville Dominicans will teach there was made public April 13 as the parish broke ground for a $3 million educational structure that will serve the school, the parish school of religion, and other parish programs such as Life Teen.
At a time when many orders are struggling, the Nashville Dominicans, whose primary apostolate is teaching, have been blessed with many vocations. Members of the order, established in 1860, wear a habit and live their lives in community with a rigorous Dominican spirituality and an emphasis on poverty.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue, who has been encouraging the order to come to the archdiocese for several years, welcomed the news and said he hoped it would lead to an even greater presence of the sisters in the future.
“I am very pleased to learn that the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, a very respected and admired community of teaching sisters, are coming to the Archdiocese of Atlanta. We were hoping and praying for many years they would come,” he said. “We are delighted they are able to come and hope they will be able to send even more sisters in the future.”
The parish and school also welcomed the announcement.
“We are extremely excited,” said Robyn Planchard, the school’s founding principal. “We wanted so very much to see if we could bring women Religious in” to teach at the school.
“St. Catherine’s feels very privileged they have decided to come and bring their expertise,” she said, adding, “I am sure they will have a very large impact on the lives of the children” inside and outside the classroom by their presence and witness in the community.
Planchard, a parishioner who became the first principal after working for 28 years in public schools, will retire at the end of this school year. All the rest of the current teachers and staff will stay at St. Catherine’s, she said.
Mother Rose Marie Masserano, OP, mother general of the order, will assign the specific sisters in coming weeks and notify the pastor, Father James Harrison.
Speaking on behalf of the community, Sister Marian Sartain, OP, said the decision to send three members to Atlanta is exciting to them and a living out of their Dominican charism to be “on mission.”
“We really look upon this as being sent. The whole reason is to take the truth of the faith to God’s people. Anytime we can take that to a new place, it gives energy to our zeal. That is why we exist,” she said.
The order has over 200 sisters; 130 are fully professed, 50 are in the first years of profession, 12 are novices and 10 are postulants. The median age in the order is 36.
In Tennessee, the sisters teach in elementary schools, middle and high schools, and at Aquinas College, a small liberal arts college where their own community members also receive teacher education. In addition, the Nashville Dominicans teach in 11 other dioceses, including Denver, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cincinnati, Birmingham, Ala., and most recently New Orleans. With growing numbers of sisters, they have been able to accept new “missions.”
Archbishop Donoghue has been welcoming to the order, and they are excited to have a presence in Atlanta.
“We love the fact that it is in the South. We have not yet taught in Atlanta,” Sister Marian said. “Our young sisters have come several times to the Eucharistic Congresses and have loved that. The archbishop has been so kind to invite us. Another element of our Dominican life is love for the Eucharist and love for Our Lady.”
St. Catherine of Siena is one of 10 parishes in the archdiocese to have a perpetual adoration chapel. The sisters will live in a convent at the parish. “Perpetual adoration says something not just about what the parish does, but what the parish is,” Sister Marian said.
Asked why they chose this school, Sister Marian said, “The school seemed a very good fit. They were so welcoming to us and so helpful. It just seemed a good fit for us all the way around, for being able to live our religious life and life in community and to teach in a very warm Catholic atmosphere where the faith is valued and the Eucharist is the center.”
“We are very happy to be coming,” she said.
Stan Ford, parish administrator, said the original idea to invite the order came from the archbishop and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Judith Mucheck two years ago, and although they pursued it, at that time the religious community was not able to send sisters.
The initial challenge at the school was to open it while using existing parish facilities.
“Robyn has done a phenomenal job in getting the school up and running in a very short time,” Ford said. “The community sees it is really working.”
“They came back and got very excited about the growth that has taken place,” Ford said. “They visited classrooms. They visited teachers. We got to spend several hours with them. Father Jim spent time with them.”
When it was announced at the groundbreaking they had accepted, Ford said, “The kids were very excited and the rest of the community is very much anticipating their arrival.”
The new education center will be a 30,000-square-foot expansion connected to an existing parish building, Herbert Hall. The new center will include 18 classrooms, a media center, band room, art room, science room, a full cafeteria and administrative areas. It will serve the school from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and the school of religion and other activities at other times of day. Herbert Hall, which has a full basketball court, will be used as a gymnasium.
The parish has 2,973 families with 1,400 children in the parish school of religion.
Parish support for the new building is reflected in 55 percent participation so far in a fund drive that began Jan. 1, Ford said. They have $4.2 million in pledges and have received $651,000 of that already. The new building is expected to be ready for occupancy by January 2005.