Just as a plant needs to be nurtured in order to mature, so a child needs education, encouragement, discipline and love. For many of us, those who supported our parents in cultivating our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth were the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. What we took for granted as children was actually a sacrifice of love. The Sisters so cherished us that they dedicated their lives to help us realize our fullest potential.
For almost 60 years, the families of Saint Jane de Chantal School in Bethesda, Maryland, have valued the blessings and traditions that the Sisters of Charity brought to their parish and school. Three Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill opened the school in a farmhouse in August of 1953. Classes were held in the living room and dining room for 49 kindergarteners and first-graders enrolled that fall. Sister Ida Marie McCarthy, Sister M. Teresina Bridges, and Sister Grace Marie Hurd lived upstairs and shared a bathroom with the students. One of the pioneer students, Betsy Hamilton, remembers that the sisters understood the culture of the rural Bethesda community and quickly became part of everybody’s life. Parents and students were committed to helping the sisters feel at home in any way they could.
Each year, another class opened for enrollment. Betsy said that her class was always the oldest class. As she and her classmates grew in “age and grace,” they took on more responsibilities to help the sisters with younger students, to care for the sisters when they were ill, and to help with odd jobs around the facilities. The seeds of love sown by the three founding sisters were cultivated and within eight years the enrollment grew to 1,190 students!
Sister Francis Teresa Masur, who taught at De Chantal in the early years, recalls that parents were eager to partner with the Sisters in the education of their children. The first Christmas pageant in the sanctuary of the parish was the result of hundreds of volunteer hours. The mother who volunteered to help with music never missed a practice. Other faithful parents traveled to Baltimore to buy fabric for costumes. They sewed the outfits of angels and shepherds, kings, and of Mary and Joseph. In the spring, the parents turned the 8th grade students into Pilate, Herod, Mary, Simon of Cyrene and other characters for the presentation of The Outdoor Stations of the Cross.
Reception of the sacraments was always a cause to celebrate at Saint Jane de Chantal School. It was a custom at De Chantal for the confirmation class to present the bishop with a gift. The class theme one year was “Kites help us to fly high.” The bishop’s gift was to be a big kite with an explanation of its significance to the class. Three students were chosen to purchase the kite at a local kite shop. Overwhelmed by enthusiasm, all 90 of the eighth-graders showed up at the kite shop. At the Confirmation liturgy, an eighth grade girl explained to the bishop and the assembly what the kite meant to the class. Joyfully, she handed the kite to the bishop and said “Now, Bishop, go fly your kite!” Tears filled the eyes of the bishop and the parents. The sense of community was strong. In quiet humility, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill reaped the rewards of their sacrifices for the children.
Today, Saint Jane de Chantal School property is surrounded by a beautiful suburban community. A gymnasium is now where the farmhouse once stood, and classes are held for over 500 students in sprawling facilities surrounded by gardens. Betsy Hamilton, now the principal of De Chantal, is proud to say that many faculty members attended De Chantal, her children are De Chantal graduates, and her grandchildren are current De Chantal students. The academic standards and strong Catholic identity established by the Sisters of Charity are thriving. Community service is still a core value.
This year, Principal Betsy Hamilton led Saint Jane de Chantal School to win the National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award presented by the United States Department of Education. This is the second time that the school has won this distinguished honor. In 1988, De Chantal won the award under the leadership of Sister Mary Donald Cusick. Betsy attributes the school’s continued success to the legacy left by the 85 Sisters of Charity who served the school. Faculty and staff still strive to provide a Christ-centered education for students in a loving and caring environment, and prayer remains the foundation of the De Chantal community. School days begin with the same prayers that the sisters taught to students years ago.
It was a sad day when the Sisters of Charity left Bethesda in 1995. Students lined the streets to wave good-bye. The sisters have fond memories of happy days with the Bethesda families, and the bonds of friendship with the sisters on the part of the people of Bethesda remain strong. The parishioners of Saint Jane de Chantal Parish are grateful to the Sisters of Charity who gave their lives to share the love of Christ with them.
Every winter, members of Saint Jane de Chantal Parish make a trip to visit the sisters’ motherhouse in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. They bring with them gifts for each of the 100 sisters residing at Caritas Christi. Life is different from the days at Bethesda. Instead of nurturing the lives of children, the sisters now care for each other. While memories of costumes, kites, school bells, and Christmas songs evoke joy in the sisters’ hearts, it is the love of Christ that the generous Bethesda visitors return to the Sisters of Charity that is the greatest gift of all.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13
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The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have taught more than half a million children in their schools nationwide. Today, as the result of aging, the number of our sisters is in decline, but the results of their sacrifices remain vibrant. Many communities are coming together to help the sisters in their golden years. As the people of Bethesda acknowledge the sisters’gift of love to them, people on the other side of the country in the communities of Tucson, Chandler and Scottsdale, Arizona, recognize the sacrifices that the Sisters of Charity have made to bring the love of Christ to them. In return, they help to raise funds for the sisters’health care needs. In Pittsburgh and Greensburg, Pennsylvania, families are hosting Home Gatherings with their friends to communicate the needs of the sisters who ministered to their communities.
The lay partners of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill all over the United States realize the influence that the presence of the sisters has had on communities, families, and individual lives through their education, social service, and health care ministries. Lay partners deeply appreciate the sisters’ work for the Church in nurturing spiritual growth through pastoral ministries. Although fewer sisters are visibly present in our schools, communities, and parishes, lay partners and friends can cultivate the gift of love given to them by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill every time they give, every time they sacrifice for someone else, and every time they act selflessly to carry Christ to another.