Following a recent Mass at St. Camillus to honor the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught at the parish school, Sister Denise Curry and Sister Janet Cahill greet St. Francis International School students Jeffrey Mejia and Alexandra Molina. CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN
Following a recent Mass at St. Camillus to honor the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught at the parish school, Sister Denise Curry and Sister Janet Cahill greet St. Francis International School students Jeffrey Mejia and Alexandra Molina. CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN
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Sixty years ago, eight sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and one lay teacher founded St. Camillus School in Silver Spring. And so this past fall, past students and faculty along with the current students of what is now St. Francis International School gathered at Mass to thank the ones who had made it all possible.

Sister Patricia Schwartz, a past principal of St. Camillus, thought the Mass demonstrated the beauty of the children and the character of the school.  “Just seeing the way these children were acting in church, it was beautiful,” she said. “I said to the principal (Tobias Harkleroad), I have to congratulate you.”

The students were active participants in the Mass, even younger children, who were paired with older ones. Student served as lectors and the children’s choir led songs. When it came time for the Gospel, without hesitation they all began clapping for the “Alleluia.” Father John Dakes, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac who graduated from St. Camillus School, celebrated the Mass. In his homily on the parable of the talents, he likened the sisters to the men who used their talents wisely.

“What are you learning right now?” he asked the children. Hands shot up as they answered things like math, grammar and science. “The sisters taught me all those things, too,” he said. “But they also taught me that God is first and foremost my friend and to this day I see God as my best friend.”

The sisters and lay teachers received a special blessing before the final song and then all were dismissed to the cafeteria where a hot breakfast was waiting. Though the kids quickly had to return to their classes, past and present community members were free to socialize and reminisce.  Father Dakes explained that he had received his first Communion in that cafeteria, which served as the sanctuary before the church building was completed in 1970.

“I received my first Communion here in 1968 and then I received Confirmation in the new church in 1975,” said Father Dakes, who was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1987.

Father Dakes said the example set by the priests, sisters and lay teachers at St. Camillus fostered the discovery of his vocation in the fourth grade.  “The priests in the rectory and sisters and lay staff at St. Camillus—the way they worked together, the way they shared the faith, and the way they challenged us to grow in the faith, really planted in me the seeds for wanting to do the same thing,” said Father Dakes.

He also has fond memories of the sisters who taught him, starting even in kindergarten.

“I joked in my homily about looking up to Sister Margaret Loyola but in all honesty I really did. Not only was she tall, but she really had a gentle spirit about her,” he said. “As a little kid brand new to a school, to have someone caring for you made entry into this school simple.”

The many sisters who were able to come received a medal from the school, homemade cards from the students, flowers from past parishioners and many thanks.

“When my kids were here they had leukemia and you gave us a break on tuition,” parishioner Debby Giancoli said to Sister Patricia Schwartz. “I wanted to thank you. I want you to know that they’re all doing fine and I have 10 grandchildren,” she said.

Sister Patricia Schwartz was just a novitiate when the school was started in 1954. She served twice as the principal of the school and now lives with other sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Miami. “It’s always been a wonderful school with a wonderful family spirit. The parents were always willing to help,” said Sister Patricia Schwartz. She then called across the room to her friend Pat Bulman, a long-time teacher at St. Camillus, to help her describe the essence of the school.

“It was always a family,” Bulman said. Sister Patricia Schwartz smiled.