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A surprise for a man of surprises: Mary of Nazareth's Michael Friel named Principal of the Year

Michael Friel, the principal of Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, Maryland, addresses students there after the surprise announcement on Oct. 4 that he is the 2019 Principal of the Year for the Archdiocese of Washington. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

On Spirit Days and Halloween at Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, Maryland, the school’s principal Michael Friel is known for surprising students, often dressing up as pop culture figures, including the time he dropped from the rafters of the Katie Fitzgerald Center via a bungee cord, dressed as Spider-Man.

But on Oct. 4, the surprise was on him, when following a school Mass at the same center, Bill Ryan – the superintendent and secretary of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington – stepped up to announce that Friel had been named as the archdiocese’s 2019 Principal of the Year.

“One of my favorite schools and one of our best schools is Mary of Nazareth,” Ryan said. “To be a great school, you need great students, great teachers, great parents and great pastors… What’s also critical is that you have an outstanding principal.”

Ryan then explained that each year, the archdiocese honors the best principal, and for 2019, “that principal is Mr. Friel!”

Friel bowed his head humbly, and the school community erupted in loud cheers and applause and gave him a standing ovation.

The principal offered thanks to the teachers and parents, and jokingly noted that morning he was down to his last clean dress shirt, and if he had known he was receiving the award, he would not have worn a striped shirt with striped pants. “I’m at a loss for words, which usually doesn’t happen!” he said.

Then the principal posed with students who had just received awards for displaying virtue, and as students headed back to their classroom from the gym, the song “Celebrate Good Times” by Kool & the Gang played loudly over the sound system.

Bill Ryan, the superintendent and secretary of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, congratulates Michael Friel, principal of Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, for being the archdiocese's 2019 Principal of the Year. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Friel, the first lay principal of Mary of Nazareth School, has led that school for the past 17 years. A New England native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Providence College in Rhode Island and a master’s degree in education from The Catholic University of America. He served for a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in St. Louis and later taught at an alternative junior high school in Newark, New Jersey. He began serving in the Archdiocese of Washington 25 years ago, as a social studies teacher and then assistant principal at the now-closed St. Catherine Laboure School in Wheaton from 1994-2003, when he became the principal at Mary of Nazareth School. That school now serves 475 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Mary of Nazareth School, founded in 1994, is a regional school sponsored by seven upper Montgomery County parishes: Our Lady of the Visitation in Darnestown, Mother Seton in Germantown, Our Lady of the Presentation in Poolesville, St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg, St. Mary in Barnesville, St. Paul in Damascus and St. Rose of Lima in Gaithersburg.

During his leadership at Mary of Nazareth, the U.S. Department of Education named it as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2011, recognizing it as one of the nation’s outstanding schools. To celebrate, the school’s students, teachers and staff wore blue and stood on a field and posed together in the shape of a blue ribbon for an overhead photo.

After the school earned that honor, Friel noted, “With seven supporting parishes, Mary of Nazareth School by its very nature has been required to work together since our inception.”

Since Friel has led Mary of Nazareth School, a new middle school wing was added in 2004, the Susan McAndrews Falcone Computer Center was dedicated there in 2006, and in 2018, the school launched a STREAM (Science Technology Religion Engineering Art and Mathematics) lab.

“It’s an opportunity for students to gain 21st century skills,” Friel said of the hands-on learning in the lab, designed in a cross-curricular program that emphasizes creative problem solving and hands-on learning for kindergarten students through eighth graders. When it opened, the lab included five Chrome tablets, a 3-D printer, an LCD projector, materials for circuitry, electronics and coding, a digital camera and video production equipment and a green screen.

When he became principal there, Friel noted, “Mary of Nazareth is a school on the move.”

Michael Friel, the principal of Mary of Nazareth School, visits with young students there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

In an interview, he noted that as the school has grown, he has also experienced growth in his own life, both personally and professionally. He noted that on the day he was offered the job, he showed up wearing a bracelet reflecting the birth of his new daughter Sophie born one day earlier.

After Friel was announced as the Principal of the Year, his wife Joanie and and their youngest daughter Sophie, now 16 and a junior at St. John’s College High School in Washington, came forward to embrace him. The Friels also have 19-year-old twins – a daughter Haley who is attending Providence College, her dad’s alma mater, and a son Luke who is attending Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.

In interviews, members of the Mary of Nazareth School community said Friel was deserving of the Principal of the Year Award.

Robert Antonetti, the chairman of the school’s board of directors who has three children attending there, said, “His focus is on community engagement, bringing people together. He’s not afraid to try new things and lead the school in another direction. The STREAM program is an example of that. A leader takes leaps, and he does that.”

Noting how Friel leads the students in prayers and encourages them to live their faith, Antonetti said, “He has high expectations that students reflect Catholic teaching and the identity of the school.”

That point was echoed by Father Ray Fecteau, the pastor of the neighboring Our Lady of the Visitation Parish, who said, “He’s a good example of a Catholic layman… He lives the Catholic faith by his words and actions.”

Marion Strishock, the middle school religion teacher and the religion coordinator at Mary of Nazareth, said Friel is “full of enthusiasm and energy. He’s not afraid to put himself out there and be a little silly” at Halloween and Spirit Days. Regarding him as a man of faith, she added, “He’s deeply reverent and spiritual. His Catholic faith guides his decisions, and it’s all about the students.”

Friel said that Mary of Nazareth has expanded its physical facilities and academic program while striving to keep the school affordable for families. Of his goals for the students there, he said, “I want them to walk away with a strong foundation,” not only academically so they can succeed in high school and college, but also spiritually, by being people of empathy and compassion guided by Catholic teaching. He added that children there “have the opportunity to make mistakes, and know that mistake doesn’t define them.”

This year, Friel is also teaching social studies to Mary of Nazareth fourth graders, which he said has giving him insights into integrating technology in the classroom

Eighth grader Owen Watkins said their principal offers reflections on the Gospel with students and “insights into what we can do to be better people.” Watkins said he appreciates the school’s new STREAM lab because “it really helps you think outside the box.”

Remembering Friel’s surprise appearance as Spider-Man during one Spirit Day, Watkins said, “You don’t know what’s going on. You look up, and there he is, jumping from the rafters.” The principal’s school spirit, he said, “really shows it’s more than just a job. He enjoys being here with the kids and having fun.”

Over the years at Mary of Nazareth Spirit Days or at Halloween, Friel has dressed up as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as movie characters Willy Wonka and the bedraggled principal from “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off,” and also as the classic TV characters Fonzie and Mr. Kotter. Last year he portrayed himself from the 1980s, with his grey hair dark again and wearing clothes from that era, along with a Walk-Man to listen to music. Another time he appeared on horseback as Mel Gibson’s character from the movie “Braveheart,” riding a horse, with his half of his face painted red to reflect Mary of Nazareth’s school colors, and wearing a kilt mirroring the plaid of the school’s uniforms.

Mary of Nazareth School's principal Michael Friel is known for surprising students during the school's annual Spirit Days, as he did this spring wearing a disco outfit as he roller skated into the gym. (Photo courtesy of Mary of Nazareth School)

And then there was the time he dressed as Sasquatch (the mythical monster also known as Bigfoot), wearing a Mary of Nazareth basketball jersey and driving an all-terrain vehicle as the Guns N’ Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle” played. He’s also ridden a Segway into the Spirit Day assembly looking like a heavy metal musician with long hair and sunglasses, as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” played over the loudspeaker. This past spring he roller-skated into the gym as a man from the disco era, accompanied by fog from a machine and loud music, wearing metallic silver pants and a blond wig and red sunglasses and a matching headband. On Spirit Days, classes perform skits, following the lead of their principal.

“School spirit is something I embrace here,” Friel said, adding such traditions build community, and help spur school support, enrollment and volunteering.