By Ginny Little, Guest Correspondent
NEWBURYPORT – While June 20th will mark the end of the school year for many students in the Newburyport area, it will also conclude forty years of dedicated classroom teaching by one of the Immaculate Conception School’s longest-serving teachers.
To put this in perspective, when Sister Mary Braley first arrived in Newburyport and began her classroom duties at the IC, President Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency, the Vietnam War had not officially ended, the old YMCA was still standing on State Street, and Byron Mathews was the City’s mayor.
Though she will turn out the lights in her second grade classroom for the final time this June, Sister Mary plans to remain involved at the school as a classroom aide. But Sister Mary’s departure from the daily duties of classroom teaching also marks the end of a larger tradition that began in 1882, when the Immaculate Conception School was founded by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the same religious order to which Sister Mary belongs. She is the last of her order to teach at the school founded over 130 years ago by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
The positive impact made on Newburyport by the Immaculate Conception and its founders is still felt today. Dedicated to promoting peace and social justice since its founding, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth began its educational ministry shortly after its founding in Nazareth, Kentucky, in 1812.
Just seventy years later, nine young sisters arrived in Newburyport at the request of the Reverend Arthur Teeling of the Immaculate Conception Parish. Newburyport was the first educational mission of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth to venture east of the Mississippi. Reminders of the Sisters’ influence at Immaculate Conception are still present, most notably in the school’s symbol of the female pelican feeding her starving young with her own blood, a reference to the Sisters’ selfless devotion to students and their commitment to helping future generations.
On September 4, 1882, the Sisters welcomed 520 students into a new school building near the site of the present school. This new “throng of students” at the new Immaculate Conception School, as one historian wrote, helped to relieve the burden on Newburyport’s public school system to the point where two of the city’s public schools could be closed. The number of students flocking to the Immaculate Conception School increased quickly, and there were 700 children enrolled at IC by the end of the second scholastic year.
Sister Mary began her educational ministry in Kentucky, teaching briefly in Ohio before settling in Newburyport. From teaching proper handwriting to ensuring that her second graders know the Church’s Act of Contrition and are ready to receive their First Holy Communion, Sister Mary has been a cornerstone of early education at the Immaculate Conception School.
Though she has taught the first and third grades as well, Sister Mary says she has constantly been drawn to the second grade. “It seems that everywhere I’ve taught, there was a second grade class who needed a teacher,” says Sister Mary. Believing it was part of God’s plan for her to teach the second grade course of study, preparing her students for their first holy sacraments “has certainly been a highlight of each year” for Sister Mary.
Generations of Immaculate Conception School graduates who have passed through Sister Mary’s classroom recall her attention to detail, her unyielding patience, and her dedication to ensuring her students receive the best education possible. In her forty years of education in Newburyport, she has taught hundreds of youngsters their math facts, spelling, science and reading.
Combining the traditional Zaner-Bloser method of penmanship with modern SMART board classroom technology, Sister Mary enriches her students with her years of experience. Having been taught by Sisters of Charity herself, Sister Mary remembers her teachers’ “sense of joy in their ministry,” and, she explains, “I wanted to be like that, too!”
While greatly appreciated by parents, alumni, and her peers, Sister Mary’s classroom expertise and years of service to others has not gone unnoticed beyond the walls of the school. In 2012, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston honored her with the prestigious Cheverus Award, given by the Archdiocese to those who have shown exemplary service to the Church and God’s people. That year was also Sister Mary’s Golden Jubilee, marking the fiftieth anniversary of her entering into the community of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth.
Though she will remain very involved in the school, Sister Mary will miss greeting her new group of second graders each fall as she has done for so many years. “I will miss the new beginnings each year, when I get to welcome thirty students into my classroom and into my heart.” For Sister Mary, the “ministry of teaching . . . has been God’s work, and I am most grateful to have had the opportunity.”
Virginia “Ginny” Little is a sixth grade student at the Immaculate Conception School. She fondly recalls her second grade year with Sister Mary Braley.