January 25, 2008

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

St. Theodora’s vision continues for new generation

St. Joan of Arc School second-grader Mercedes Bickel portrays St. Theodora Guérin for the All Saints Day Mass on Nov. 1 at the Indianapolis North Deanery grade school. Students study the life of the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. (Submitted photo)

St. Joan of Arc School second-grader Mercedes Bickel portrays St. Theodora Guérin for the All Saints Day Mass on Nov. 1 at the Indianapolis North Deanery grade school. Students study the life of the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Wyand

St. Joan of Arc students in Indianapolis study the lives of two French-born saints—the parish’s 15th-century patron as well as St. Theodora Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

It’s only fitting that all the students learn about St. Theodora during Women’s History Month in March, and that fourth-graders study her life and ministries as part of their Indiana history course.

When St. Joan of Arc School was opened in January of 1922, it was staffed by Sisters of Providence who were carrying out Mother Theodore’s mission of educating children.

After founding the congregation on Oct. 22, 1840, in the dense woods west of Terre Haute, Mother Theodore wrote in her journal, “Well, my daughters, ours is a preparation for the generation that will succeed us, and eminent good will be done this way by us. You may not live to see it, but you will have sown the seed, and your sisters will come to reap what will have been sown.”

Providence sisters taught at St. Joan of Arc School until the late 1990s. Their legacy continues under the leadership of Mary Pat Sharpe, the principal, who is a graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, one of the sisters’ ministries.

“When the sisters left, the parish came together and began the Mother Theodore Guérin Scholarship about 10 years ago,” Sharpe said, “to recognize all the hard work of the Sisters of Providence at St. Joan of Arc School throughout all those years.”

Experienced lay faculty members have embraced the sisters’ dedication and ministry, she said, by working hard to provide quality academic coursework, affirm the school’s diversity, and teach the students about leadership, integrity and service.

“All the middle school students have to complete a service requirement,” explained Suzi Abell, the director of curriculum and art teacher. Sixth-grade students focus on leadership, seventh-graders on service and eighth-graders on integrity.

About 48 percent of the students are non-Catholic, Sharpe said. Every student studies Catholicism in religion class and every school day begins with prayer in the gymnasium.

Students celebrate St. Theodora’s feast day on Oct. 3 and participate in weekly school Masses on Thursday mornings.

All the prayers and hard work are “sowing seeds,” as St. Theodora would say, for the future.

St. Joan of Arc students made significant gains in every area of the 2007 ISTEP test, Sharpe said. Their total scores increased 10 percent over the previous year’s results.

School enrollment is up to 171 students, including 30 new students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth-grade.

“Our saying for the past year has been ‘Very open enrollment,’ ” Sharpe said, “meaning we are open to every student.”

That cultural diversity brings richness to the school environment, she said. The students’ continuing improvement on their ISTEP test scores is on pace to enable St. Joan of Arc School to apply for the U.S. Department of Education’s “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence” recognition in two years.

“We have shown a huge growth in enrollment and big improvement in ISTEP scores,” Sharpe said. “We’re doing a lot of great things here.”

She is proud of St. Joan of Arc School’s experienced and dedicated faculty.

A former pharmacist teaches middle school science classes, the principal said, and the 25-member staff is committed to academic excellence for every student.

“Love all in God and for God, and all will be well,” Mother Theodore wrote in her journal. “… Love the children first and then teach them.”

Sharpe exemplifies the saint’s advice each year when she talks with every student about their ISTEP test scores and encourages them to do their very best in their schoolwork.

“When I would tell them, ‘Look, you passed both parts of the ISTEP,’ ” she said, “… I was so excited to see how excited they were because if it means something [to them] they’re going to work harder at it.”

Sharpe’s leadership has inspired staff members to focus on the success of every student, Abell said, which creates “a momentum of ownership and accountability among the students and parents and parishioners.”

Other recent innovations implemented by the principal include a course on manners for students, expansion of the creative arts curriculum and a variety of resident artist programs.

They have also established a new partnership with Providence Cristo Rey High School in Indianapolis—which is a ministry of the Sisters of Providence—to help middle school students explore career opportunities by visiting companies and talking with business ­professionals.

“We tell people [that] when there is a good school in the neighborhood,” Abell said, “good things are happening in the community.”

The music program offers a band and choir. Through the use of computers, the students can even compose music.

Kelly Mosley, the librarian, keeps busy checking out books to students.

“This semester, our kids have checked out 4,998 books from our school library,” Mosley said. “They read a lot. We were one of the highest [users] of all the shared-system libraries [in the city].”

Katy Ditsch, the fifth-grade teacher, also teaches social studies and Indiana history to fourth-graders.

“During the first week of March, St. Theodora will be featured and the kids will read a different source about her each day,” Ditsch said. “They know she is Indiana’s only saint. They will learn about her past and how she became a modern-day saint.”†


Local site Links: