The principal of the nation's oldest African-American parochial school, Sister Marie Santry, SND, is studying in the Lynch School of Education's Catholic School Leadership Program this academic year. (Photo by Justin Knight)
The blaze destroyed the convent that housed three teaching Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who escaped unhurt, but with only the clothes on their backs.
Also ruined were the principal's office, a room housing the school's computers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in school supplies that had been donated through a charity drive organized by friends at BC's Lynch School of Education.
But the spirit that has animated Holy Family since its founding in 1890 as a school for segregation-era black children survived the fire, says the school's principal, Sister Marie Santry, SND, known as Sister Marie St. Joseph by her fellow religious in the Ipswich-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
"Even though this fire is a challenge, we still strive to show the face of Christ to the community, through our love, care and concern for the students and their families," she said in a recent interview.
Sister Marie is spending the current academic year at Boston College, pursuing a master's degree in the Catholic School Leadership Program at the Lynch School. She will return in June to the principal's job she has held the past four years at the Mississippi school.
The native of St. Mary's Parish in Lynn has traveled the world in her vocation as a teaching sister. Before her assignment to the parochial school in Natchez, she taught English at a junior college in Hiroshima, Japan. In Massachusetts, she has taught in parochial schools staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame in Danvers, Dorchester, South Boston, East Boston, Somerville and Methuen.
Her quiet manner does not indicate the rebel blood in her veins: Her Irish immigrant father fought with Michael Collins in the old Irish Republican Army, and she is a proud descendant of Fenian dynamite campaigner O'Donovan Rossa.
Sister Marie has been dogged in her work and prayers on behalf of the Holy Family School. Of the 148 pupils currently attending the school in grades pre-K through six, all are African-American, and only 17 are Catholic. The school is seen providing a valuable grounding in both morals and academics, and its graduates have become valedictorians and civic leaders.
But many of the parents who send their children to Holy Family can't afford the $1,700 yearly tuition. "I don't turn anyone away," said Sister Marie. "No child is ever turned away."
The Josephite Fathers who administer the school and parish under the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., have mounted a campaign to raise $300,000. But more is needed, said Sister Marie, who encourages benefactors this holiday season to consider contributing all or part of the tuition for a needy pupil. "Supporting a child makes it possible for that child to have a fine education and to be a contributing citizen," she said.
The Feb. 10 fire destroyed all of Sister Marie's belongings except for a pair of rosaries that belonged to her mother and father, and her Sisters of Notre Dame cross, inscribed on the back with a saying of the order's foundress, St. Julie Billiart: "Ah, how good is the good God."
Finding that bronze cross in the ashes "was the great joy of my life," Sister Marie said. "God is always here. He's here in the sunshine. He's here in the shadow."
After the fire, a reporter asked her why God had done such a thing. "God didn't do it," Sister Marie recalled replying. "I look at this as a challenge to see what we can do for God."
To donate, make checks payable to "Holy Family School" and send care of Pastor Robert Zawacki, SSJ, Holy Family Catholic School, 8 Orange Ave., Natchez MS 39120-3647, or call the school at (601) 442-3947.
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