By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published May 26, 2022
TYRONE—Field Day, cleaning out lockers and graduation ceremonies are common rituals for the final month of a school year.
For two Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, these moments and events come with bittersweet feelings as they end their last school year this May.
Our Lady of Victory School in Tyrone and Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville will consolidate to form St. Mary’s Academy, the first pre-K-12 Catholic school sponsored by the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Both schools are closing due to longstanding enrollment challenges.
St. Mary’s Academy will open its doors for its inaugural year at the original Our Lady of Mercy campus, some 12 miles south of Atlanta.
It’s always a very painful thing to close schools, said Hal Plummer, superintendent of schools for the Atlanta Archdiocese. “The parents and school communities own the grieving process—we acknowledge that. We hope that the new school is a sign of continuing the Catholic school heritage.”
When it opened its doors in September 1999, Our Lady of Victory School was the first elementary Catholic school on the south side of metro Atlanta. The late Archbishop John F. Donoghue named the pre-K- eighth grade school with the motto, “Fides Nostra Vicit Mundum,” translated from Latin, it means, “Our faith conquers the world.”
The Tyrone elementary school was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in 2009 and received District-Wide Accreditation in 2018.
Working at Our Lady of Victory has been “a rewarding experience” for George Wilkerson, principal of the Tyrone school.
“We say a lot here, ‘OLV family.’ And it’s not just our teachers, but it’s teachers, students, parents, the parishes that support us—it really is a unique place.”
Wilkerson has been principal of Our Lady of Victory School since 2017 and was named Atlanta Archdiocese Principal of the Year for 2020-2021. He is a parishioner at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta.
In this last school year, the community has really come together, explained the principal. “Closing the school…it’s brought sadness, but it’s brought us really close together,” he said.
In addition to the eighth-grade graduation, end of the school year celebrations include the last School Mass at neighboring St. Matthew Church, a family picnic and a celebration to honor current and former faculty.
“We’ve had a year to reflect and to celebrate the history of this school,” said Wilkerson. “I think that’s been a good thing.”
Lisa Shupenus started working at Our Lady of Victory School in 2005 as a substitute teacher. She worked at the school on and off since then in various roles, and even worked at Our Lady of Mercy High School for three years. In this last school year, she was a third and fourth grade teacher at the Tyrone elementary school.
“I love the kids, Principal George Wilkerson for making this a great place to work, the faculty and staff who are like family, and the families who love and support our mission,” she said.
But her favorite thing about working at Our Lady of Victory is walking into the school with her grandson, Jack.
“I loved walking into work with my own kids when they were students at Our Lady of Victory,” said Shupenus, who remembers walking into Catholic school as a child with her siblings and mother, who worked in a Catholic school while she was growing up. Catholic education is a tradition in our family, she said.
Teaching at the Tyrone elementary school has made my faith stronger, said Shupenus, a parishioner at St. Matthew Church.
“Every day I have the opportunity to stand in front of a group of 9- and 10-year-olds and tell them about God and what he has done for me in my life,” she said. “I get to evangelize. God has blessed me in countless ways and I am blessed to live out my life in thanksgiving to him.”
Shupenus will teach fourth grade at St. Mary’s Academy starting this fall. She looks forward to being part of a team that loves God and believes in the advantages of a Catholic education.
“I have been a part of both Our Lady of Victory and Our Lady of Mercy communities and believe we can come together and offer so much more to the community,” said Shupenus. “I will forever hold the time I spend at Our Lady of Victory and the people I have met close to my heart.”
“We have been blessed to have Our Lady of Victory within the town limits for many years and we hate to see them leave our community,” said Tyrone Mayor Eric Dial. “We trust that their move within the county will continue to provide a good option for parents who choose St. Mary’s Academy for their children. They will be missed.”
School in transition
Accustomed to welcoming older students to Our Lady of Mercy High School, Ana DeMello finds it “refreshing” to see smaller students tour the campus that will soon be home to St. Mary’s Academy.
“The young students, when they come and visit for a tour of their school, you know you have to bend over and be at eye level with them,” said DeMello, mathematics department chair at Our Lady of Mercy. “It’s something that we haven’t done before and it is just so nice.”
DeMello has worked at the high school since it opened in 2000. The charter class of 19 students graduated in 2003. The high school has nearly 1,200 alumni.
“I’m still teaching and going strong because of the support and the quality of students and the whole community that’s here,” said DeMello. “It is just amazing.”
“[I love] the feeling of family that most people experience when they walk in the door at Our Lady of Mercy,” said JoAnn McPherson, principal of the Fayetteville high school. “We feel it among the faculty and staff.”
McPherson has been the principal of Our Lady of Mercy since last year. She came to the school in 2001 and served as vice principal for 20 years. She attends Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City. As the school closes its final academic year, she hopes for a “history that is full of gratitude.”
“I believe that OLM gave a lot of students a great foundation for their education,” said McPherson. “I hope the students who graduate are very proud.”
McPherson will be the new school principal in the fall.
“It’s a lot of work,” she said. “You actually have to analyze, take apart the school you’re in to look at what works and what doesn’t work, and how you would like for things to work better. All of those things, in the process of analyzing who we are and what we want to become has been a good step.”
While most of the physical changes at Our Lady of Mercy will occur this summer, buses have already been painted with the new school colors and storage space has already been changing at the campus. Modifications to the building and grounds will define separate areas for the elementary and high school students, add two playgrounds and feature a separate drop-off area for the younger children.
“Overall, 99% of it has been exciting,” said Bill Schmitz, athletic director at Mercy who will hold the same position at St. Mary’s Academy. “Seeing the changes, sharing the changes with people … it’s been very exciting and fun and it’s creating a lot of anticipation.”
As the transition continues, DeMello, who will also resume her position at St. Mary’s, hopes Mercy alumni know they are always invited to visit.
“Even though the name has changed, this is where they grew up, this is where they have always been,” she said. “I hope they know they will still be welcome no matter what.”