By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2015
LILBURN—Sister Dawn Gear took a victory lap at St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School, as she walked the hallways and peeked inside the classrooms she planned and cajoled construction workers to build.
The longtime educator and founding principal of St. John Neumann returned to the Atlanta area May 7-9 to celebrate her 50 years as a member of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart.
But ever the blunt-spoken, sharp-eyed administrator, she expressed mock surprise that sandwiches, pasta salad and cookies organized for her were allowed in the school’s media center. Her lunch was interrupted by students, who brought her small cards of thanks after a school Mass held in her honor.
“I was looking forward to being here. I have such a fondness and love for St. John Neumann. They repay it back,” said Sister Dawn, a large silver cross around her neck.
“I’ve been blessed. You can’t do this job without laughing,” she said.
In the mid-1980s, Sister Dawn did what was needed to get this new school open, everything from threats to the construction workers to perching over a water-filled dunk tank to raise money.
“Construction people didn’t like me. I told him I’d break your legs if you didn’t do it right,” she said, laughing.
Sister Dawn spent 26 years in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, teaching and administering Catholic schools. She was also the founding principal of the Donnellan School, now a part of Holy Spirit Prep School. After years of teaching elementary and high school, she served as assistant dean of studies/students at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta.
Her efforts led to two awards, the National Catholic Educational Association’s regional Distinguished Principal Award and the National Distinguished Principal Award of the U.S. Department of Education, both in 1996. In 2001, she became assistant superintendent and then superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.
Founded in 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. The Lilburn school earned a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon of Excellence award in 1994.
School’s ‘Catholicity’ has stood the test of time
Former students recalled a formidable person, whose imprint remains on the school she left a generation ago.
Mary Katherine (Turtle) Adams, 35, who lives in Snellville, said, “It was a tight ship. There was a high expectation of academic excellence and your spiritual life. I remember having to rise to the expectations all the time.”
She admitted visiting the principal’s office more than once for infractions. She prayed she’d land in the office of assistant principal Sister Rita Raffaele, also a Grey Nun.
Her daughter Michaela is in the school’s seventh grade. Adams likes how Sister Dawn integrated community service into the school curriculum and it remains a vital part of the education. Students share fresh produce with Clyde’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen, and create baskets filled with baby necessities for Birthright to distribute to new mothers.
Adams said, “It’s still very family-oriented here. The Catholicity has really stood the test of time.”
Principal Alex Porto said that’s because of the vision shared by the two “beloved” sisters who shaped the place and emphasized its Catholic identity.
“We have a robust service learning program that instills a sense of empathy in our students and encourages them to live their faith through their actions,” he said in an email.
Tara Delaney-Smith, 40, graduated from SJN in 1989. She enrolled her daughter in kindergarten there because of the academic excellence that Sister Dawn instilled. She recalled the school as “orderly and strict.”
Emily McCormack, 30, attended St. John Neumann School and is now on staff as the liturgical music director, leading the students in choir and band.
“I remember her smiling and having a lot of joy and hugging the students,” she said. “I like I’m a part of the family. She’s left all of her fingerprints here.”
Priest sees her as mentor
Looking back, Sister Dawn said the obstacles to opening the school doors were high, higher than she realized.
“I don’t think I realized what a challenge it was going to be. Ignorance is good,” she said.
The school was bursting at the seams during her time. Enrollment was about 560 students then. Now it hovers around 350. She recalled that, along with the constant need for money, she wanted students to have pride in the school and feel they belonged there.
She recalled the first award earned by a student, which was for an oratory contest. She wanted to make a big deal out of it, so hundreds of students were called together for a celebratory assembly.
The cleaning crew during her tenure was two high schoolers, brothers Matt and Chris Monturo. They cleaned floors, washed bathrooms, and locked the place up at night. But often they’d be leaving and Sister Dawn would still be working, said now Father Chris Monturo.
“You name it, we did it,” said the priest, a pastor in the Archdiocese of New York, who was ordained in 2003.
He remains close to the sister and drives to visit her at the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart motherhouse near Philadelphia. She is part of the leadership team of her community.
He used words like dedication, faithfulness and hard work to describe his mentor.
“I love Sister Dawn. She’s a great example to me over the years,” he said.
He told her that her life’s work isn’t about herself, but about God.
“You don’t know how God has used you as you have touched so many lives,” he said. “It’s about God’s goodness.”