Book Excerpts


Costello Nursery School, Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Published by: RoseDog Books

In 1942 a small kindergarten was in operation on Saturdays only in St. Joseph's School, Williamsport. Monsignor Frank P. McHugh was pastor of Annunciation Church, Williamsport, at the time and was receiving many requests to enroll pupils for the entire week, since many mothers of small children were working in defense plants in and around Williamsport. Father McHugh saw the need of a nursery school rather than an extended kindergarten to meet this need. He also saw the possibility that a non-sectarian nursery school might overcome some of the strong prejudice then existing toward Catholics in Williamsport.

Bishop Hafey approved Father McHugh's plans and personally assisted him in the selection and purchase of the home in which the nursery school would be located. A large three-story dwelling on Campbell Street in Williamsport, known as the "Banker Graham" property was chosen. Renovation began on August 1, 1942, in order to comply with state standards for nursery schools; the second and third floors were converted into quarters for the three sisters whom Mother Marcella had promised.

The school was opened on September 14, 1942, and named "Costello Nursery School" in memory of a former pastor of Annunication Parish. Sister Georgina Wertz was in charge with Sister Jane Frances Keating and Sister Michael Donnelly assisting. (15) A note from Sister Georgina to Mother Marcella indicates that the sisters did not move into the Campbell Street house until December 6, and even then the chapel was not yet completed. (16) They had, no doubt, been residing with our sisters at St. Joseph's Convent, Williamsport. At the opening of the nursery school there were only seven children, but very soon there was an average of fifty children per day as word spread about the loving care and the excellent program being offered. Children between the ages of two and six years, about 75% of them non-Catholics, were accepted. The daily hours of operation of the nursery school were 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The nurse put the early arrivals to sleep on cots until time for morning inspection. There is no doubt that the later concept of "day care center" was already operative at the Costello Nursery School of 1942.

As the first nursery school in Pennsylvania to begin operation under the Defense Program for Child Care under the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) auspices, the Costello Nursery School was a unique operation. All personnel were paid through the WPA, so teachers, a nurse, the cook, janitor and other helpers were all on the federal payroll.

As early as October 15, 1942, a federal government supervisor, a Mrs. Pinkham, visited the school, evaluated it as an A-1 nursery school and urged the hiring of a kindergarten teacher to be paid under the program funds. WPA support continued until April 30, 1943, at which point application was made through the Pennsylvania Council of Defense in Harrisburg for funding under the Lanham Act. Only two of eighty applications received grants—the Costello Nursery School was one of the two awardees.

On January 16, 1943, Sister Michael Donnelly, who had been assigned to work one-half day in the office and one-half day with the children, fell and broke her ankle. Soon after, Sister Monice Sullivan was sent to replace her.

Celebrating the first birthday of the Costello Nursery School in September 1943, the local newspaper ran an article and pictures of the children with Sister Georgina. That the work had earned the respect of the area people is evident from what was written:

One year ago the Costello Nursery School opened its doors to the children of war-pressed working mothers . . . Today there are more than fifty youngsters depending on the non- sectarian nursery school for daily-supervised care. Their mothers spend long hours at war work, but are content that the children are safe. (17)

The article continues quoting Sister Georgina:

Not all soldiers wear uniforms. These tots are soldiers too—they get up as early as six o'clock in the morning and part with their mothers every working day in the week, just so that the war can be won. (18)

Having served a wartime need, once the war was over the need for Costello Nursery School no longer existed. Quite inconspicuously and without fanfare it was closed in 1946.

15. Notes of Sister Immaculata Gillespie. Archives, IHM Center.
16. Letter from Sister Georgina Wertz to Mother Marcella, December 6, 1942. Archives, IHM Center.
17. The Williamsport Sun, undated, 1943. Archives, IHM Center.
18. Ibid.