By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 28, 2010
Founding and current members of the St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School community together reflected on 25 years of education the school has provided for thousands of students at an anniversary Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Reflecting both the present and the past, the Oct. 14 Mass was celebrated in the new St. John Neumann Church, adjacent to the school, and was attended by the founding principal, Sister Dawn Gear, a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart.
The religious congregation has been a presence in the Archdiocese of Atlanta for more than 70 years and became involved in Catholic education from the beginning as they were asked to help found Christ the King School in the 1930s. Recently their contribution was recognized at an archdiocesan Mass as the last two Grey Nuns serving in the archdiocese retired.
At the anniversary Mass at St. John Neumann, their influence in the lives of North Georgia Catholics was again honored.
At the end of the liturgy, students presented Sister Dawn with a donation to the Grey Nuns of more than $2,700. The student body raised the funds through various activities during this school year to honor the school’s founding principal and assistant principal, the late Sister Rita Raffaele, also a Grey Nun.
Sister Dawn had a gift of her own for the school as she presented the community with two relics, one of its patron saint, St. John Neumann, and one of St. Marguerite d’Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns. The unexpected gesture was greeted with applause and it was certainly a special surprise for the students and faculty in attendance as smiles could be seen on faces throughout the church.
Annie Valenty, who has two children in the school, presented an honorary American flag to the school from the congressional office of U.S. Rep. John Linder. Valenty, a district office manager for the congressman, said he had arranged for the school to receive the actual flag flown over the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 14, in honor of St. John Neumann Regional School, which she will present later.
Founded Jan. 5, 1986, St. John Neumann School was at the time the first new Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 25 years. It was established to address the needs of parents in Gwinnett County and neighboring areas, who desired a solid Catholic education for their children. The school, which first used existing classrooms and office space within the adjacent St. John Neumann church complex, served families in many surrounding parishes and was created to be a regional rather than a one-parish Catholic school. Archbishop Thomas Donnellan asked Sister Dawn, then an administrator at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, to serve as the first principal.
Initially opening with 160 students in kindergarten through fifth grades, the school began to grow quickly as it added sixth, seventh and eighth grades over the next two years. In 1989, the year prior to its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, new classrooms, a gymnasium, a cafeteria and a library, as well as music and art rooms were added.
It was not an easy task, said Sister Dawn, as she spoke to the assembly gathered for the anniversary Mass. She reminded the group, some of whom remember the early days of the school, that it took hard work from many people to get the school off the ground.
“There were a lot of people who were involved,” said Sister Dawn. “When we did start we didn’t have that much to be honest with you,” but that was not a problem, she said, because everyone worked together to accomplish the goal that they had, which was giving parents in Gwinnett County a place to send their children for excellent education in an encouraging and faith-filled environment.
The Mass was just one of the celebrations of the day as students also enjoyed a cookout, a birds of prey show, and a presentation by members of the Georgia Shakespeare Festival. The students also worked on service projects for Project Open Hand and made spiritual cards for the Grey Nuns and for parents serving in the military.
The Lilburn school, which earned a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon of Excellence award in 1994, now offers two or three classes per grade level, kindergarten through eighth grade. The initial enrollment of 160 has grown to more than 500, with the majority of students coming from Lawrenceville, Lilburn and Snellville, representing families from 25 parishes in the archdiocese.
The school, now led by principal James Anderson, has remained a close community, sharing years of space with St. John Neumann Church and its parishioners. Named after St. John Neumann, a Redemptorist missionary who served as the bishop of Philadelphia and was the first bishop in the country to organize a Catholic diocesan school system, the school continues to honor the tradition of its patron saint.
“As a school community, we ask our patron saint, St. John Neumann, who dedicated and devoted himself to the education of youth in a Catholic environment, to bless the efforts of faculty, staff, and parents as we educate our children together,” the school’s website states.
The morning’s anniversary celebration ended with a rousing rendition of the school song, which was established by Sister Dawn and composed by the school’s first music teacher, Mary Jane Insull, who was also present at the Mass.
As the founding principal celebrated with both old and new faces, she reflected on her time at the school and how it would always hold a special place in her heart.
“When I think about St. John Neumann, I get absolutely excited and ecstatic,” said Sister Dawn. “I love St. John Neumann, the school and everything it stands for.”
St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School will host an Alumni Reception at the school on Jan. 8, 2011 as well as a 25th Anniversary Gala in March. For information visit www.sjnrcs.org.