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Returning to St. Augustine Catholic School like coming home, new principal says

Sister Emmanuella Ladipo, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus who is returning to serve as the new principal of St. Augustine Catholic School, wears a face mask as a COVID-19 safety precaution, as do the students at the school. (Photo courtesy St. Augustine Catholic School)

Sister Emmanuella Ladipo, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus, said returning as the principal of St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington, D.C., for the 2020-21 school year, “is like coming back, from home to home. I’m excited to come back and continue the work.”

During the 2007-08 school year, Sister Emmanuella served as the principal at St. Augustine Catholic School and was succeeded by Sister Gloriamary Agumagu, who led the school since then, until recently being appointed as the superior of the United States mission of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, a religious order of women founded in Nigeria. After serving as principal at St. Augustine, Sister Emmanuella also taught second grade there for one year and then served as the director of religious education at the parish for five years.

For the past four years, Sister Emmanuella served as principal of a coeducational Catholic school operated by the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus in Nigeria that served children from pre-kindergarten through high school. She earlier served for one year as the vice principal for a girls secondary school operated by her order in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

“Sister Emmanuella is a missionary at heart whose love for the children so obviously channels the heart of Jesus,” said Father Patrick Smith, St. Augustine’s pastor, in an email interview. “Everyone who was here when she served primarily as the school DRE but one year as principal were very happy to hear of her return.”

A native of Nigeria, Sister Emmanuella has been a member of that congregation for 38 years. She has a master’s degree in theology and education from Xavier University in Louisiana. The example of the Our Lady of the Apostles sisters who taught her at a boarding school in Nigeria inspired her to become Catholic as an 11th grader and later to become a woman religious.

Sister Emmanuella said seeing the spark in children’s eyes at school and the happiness on their faces “gives me the sense this is what God wants me to do.”

Asked about the impact she hopes to have on her students, she said, “I hope they will become good Christians who will pass on the love of God to others.”

In his interview, Father Smith also praised the work of Sister Gloriamary, noting that “in her first year here, she worked very hard to convince local Catholic high schools, some of whom were clearly reluctant to accept our children soon to graduate. Today every one of those schools enthusiastically reaches out to Sister each year requesting that she send her upcoming graduates to their schools! That’s the difference Sister Gloria has made at St. Augustine today.”

In a 2012 photo, Sister Gloriamary Agumagu, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus who was then serving as the principal of St. Augustine Catholic School in Washington, visits with students Erick Anders Jr. (left) and Noah Mozelle. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Paul Fetters)

St. Augustine Catholic School has an important legacy in the history of Catholic education in Washington, D.C., and Black Catholic women religious have been central to the school’s work for more than 100 years.

St. Augustine Parish, regarded as the mother church for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, was founded in 1858 by free men and women of color, some who had been emancipated from slavery. Those founders first established a Catholic school before building a church, in order to help their children gain a brighter future grounded in the faith, and today’s St. Augustine parishioners continue that legacy by supporting their parish school.

According to the school’s website, St. Augustine Catholic School is the second oldest Roman Catholic parochial school in the Archdiocese of Washington, and the first Catholic school dedicated to educating African -American children. After its founding in 1858, the school operated four years before mandatory free public education of African-American children became law in the nation's capital. 

The Oblate Sisters of Providence, founded by Mother Mary Lange in 1829 in Baltimore as the world’s first order of Black Catholic women religious, served children at St. Augustine School for nine decades beginning in 1908.

“The impact of the Oblate Sisters on our school is legendary, not only at St. Augustine but across the country. No religious community is more responsible for passing on the Catholic faith to Black children and their families in the United States than the Oblate Sisters of Providence,” said Father Smith.

The priest noted that women religious share their traditions and charism with the school communities they serve.

“Under the Handmaids’ leadership, St. Augustine students pray several times a day, (including) morning, midday and in the afternoon before leaving for the day,” the priest said. “They reflect on the saint of the day, pray the Angelus at noon and the Act of Contrition. More than anything else, I believe that this is the reason that the positive feedback we receive from high schools about the children that matriculate from St. Augustine is not exclusively about their academic performance, but their character and the manner in which they carry themselves and the positive impact they make on their fellow classmates.”

The example and teaching of the Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus sisters at St. Augustine Catholic School have helped inspire their students to become Catholic, such as happened at the 2010 Easter Vigil at St. Augustine Church, when Father Smith baptized 19 children from the school.

St. Augustine Catholic School reopened for the 2020-21 school year on Sept. 8 with an enrollment of about 200 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. In a letter to supporters of the school, Father Smith noted that the school had a task force committee that devised a reopening plan that was approved by the Archdiocese of Washington – a hybrid learning model that combines in-class learning and distance learning to meet the needs of students and families during the time of COVID-19 social distancing. Some children are taking all their classes online, while one-half of the other students are coming on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the other one-half of students are coming on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with all students taking virtual classes at home on Fridays.

“We have many families whose parents are essential workers – including law enforcement, health care and government – who must report to work and hence need a school that is open for their young children,” the priest wrote in the letter.

Like other Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese, St. Augustine Catholic School has adopted strict safety protocols, including mandatory mask wearing for students and teachers wearing face shields. Students’ temperatures are taken before they enter the school building. Class sizes have been reduced to enforce social distancing. Classrooms are cleaned after each daily use. The school purchased distance learning technology tools and has equipped teacher and classroom desks with plastic shields.

Reflecting on how the school has adapted in order to keep children safe, Sister Emmanuella said, “Everybody is looking out for the well-being of the other. That is part of Catholic education.”

In the interview, Father Smith said that in the midst of extraordinary challenges like the pandemic, God can help people respond with “extraordinary faith, hope, love and service.”

The priest added, “The fall of 2020 can be where crisis meets opportunity. This year, as has been the case with past challenges that our school has faced, St. Augustine Catholic School intends to take full advantage of the opportunity God has given us to face our challenges with faith, our setbacks with courage, our doubts with hope, and our fears with love that always leads to resurrection and new life.”