Book Excerpts


St. Matthew School (Woodcrest), Wilmington, Delaware

Published by: RoseDog Books

Today's observer of the beautiful physical plant--church, rectory, school and convent--which have been developed in St. Matthew's Parish, Wilmington, Delaware, could not easily imagine the difficulties experienced by our sisters at the time of their first coming to Delaware in 1942. One has to think about St. Matthew's as a newly founded parish and the dedicated pastor, Reverend John J. Foley, with no assistant to rely on, overworked yet striving to accomplish the commission given to him by the bishop to build a complete parish complex. This vast building project was underway, with the school nearing completion when the sisters arrived on August 24, 1942. The classrooms were in readiness, but the plan called for the convent to be located on the top floor above the school. This area was just open space at that point, and was being utilized for the parish Sunday Masses since the church was still under construction.

Father Foley must have had some apprehension about the situation into which he was inviting the sisters as their first introduction to the State of Delaware, the Wilmington Diocese and St. Matthew's Parish. He went personally to the Wilmington train station to meet and welcome the sisters, who from that moment on were his sisters. The group included Sister Brigida Strome, superior and principal (as well as fifth grade teacher); Sister Adrienne Wells, kindergarten and music teacher; Sister Maria Rita Ruddy, teacher of first and second grades; Sister Clarice Gallagher, third and fourth grades; and Sister Maria Angela Orr, sixth and seventh grades. On that first day Father Foley took the sisters to the small home on Curtis Avenue, which he had purchased to serve as their residence until the convent above the school was completed. This dwelling was located across from the rectory and about three blocks from the school.

St Matthew Convent-1957-croppedSt. Matthew's Convent, June 1957

Sister Brigida noted at once the absence of a chapel in this house. Father Foley, who had become accustomed to the inconvenience of offering Mass, first in the local fire station, then above the school, or in a small chapel adjoining the rectory, proposed that the sisters, too, could use the rectory chapel. Sister Brigida's first request of Father Foley on that August afternoon was that the ground floor bedroom of the house, intended for her use, be converted into a chapel and that the space above the garage be used for her bedroom. (39)

Whatever the inconveniences of the days that followed with the sounds of construction everywhere, Sister Maria Angela Orr remembers these times with fondness: “We had happy days and we laughed a lot over things that happened each day. I wouldn’t give up one of those early days, they were difficult, but we had good community life and we loved and served the Lord well.” (40) She recalls the great love and appreciation the people had for the sisters and their generosity at a time when the sisters' stipend was only thirty dollars per month per sister.

It was well that Sister Brigida had insisted on the temporary arrangements for a chapel in the original little house because it was not until January of 1946 that the new convent above the school was completed and the sisters were able to leave the little house on Curtis Avenue behind. Sister Albrette Rouleau who was stationed there at the time recalls the wintry day of their moving--a day on which regular classes were held concurrently with the moving project! (41)  By this time Sister Brigida, whose twelve years' canonical time as superior had been completed (she had been superior for nine years at Nativity in Scranton), was no longer at Wilmington. Sister Maria Angela, too, had been transferred to St. Agnes, Baltimore, where she served as principal and superior from 1945-1951 before returning to St. Matthew's in these capacities in 1951.

Meanwhile, Sister Edwin Ott was appointed in 1945 and served until 1947; Sister Kieran Helring followed her as superior and principal from 1947-1951.

The original 140-pupil kindergarten through seventh grade school, called the Woodcrest Catholic School, was later christened "St. Matthew’s School" and was to grow rapidly. April 18, 1956, saw 550 pupils and nine sister faculty members rejoicing that a new wing of seven classrooms had reached completion, expanding the capacity of the school. Several small classrooms had also been enlarged. This renovation also removed all classrooms from the convent and provided space for four additional bedrooms and an added bathroom in the convent.

Sister Juliette Flannery became principal and superior in 1957-1958. Five hundred eighty-three pupils were registered in K-8, so for the first time since the opening of the school a lay teacher was added to the faculty. The following year, with 683 pupils registered, a second lay teacher joined the nine on the faculty.

WlmgtnDE St Mathw Srs 1954IHM Sisters stationed at St. Matthew School, circa 1954

The well-sown academic and spiritual seeds were beginning to bear special fruit as two former graduates of St. Matthew's, Geraldine Vannicola (now Sister Angelique) and Theresa Angela Greggo entered the IHM Congregation in 1959, and Mary Ann Adams (now Sister Mary Ann) followed in 1960.

By 1962, a peak enrollment of 795 pupils was reached and two classrooms were added in the church basement. The faculty now numbered ten Sisters of IHM and five lay teachers. (42) Sister Juliette's term was completed in June 1963 and Sister Agnella Murtaugh was appointed superior and principal. Ten teaching sisters and five lay teachers constituted the faculty, thus allowing Sister Agnella to devote full time to administrative duties.

The following year, on September 26, 1964, Father John Foley who had been pastor since the opening of St. Matthew's Parish, died. This dedicated priest burned himself out in building up, both physically and spiritually, St. Matthew's Parish. He was deeply mourned and left a lasting imprint on the children and people of this parish.

Monsignor Eugene J. Biggins was appointed to succeed Father Foley as pastor. One of his early decisions, seeing the crowded conditions of the eleven sisters in the convent atop the school, and the bulging classrooms, augmented by two separate mobile units, was to build a new convent for the sisters. By April 1966 he presented to the sisters the plans for the new two-story brick structure, to be located on the corner of Maryland and Victoria Avenues. Due to the subsequent ill health of Monsignor Biggins and the death of Bishop Michael Hyle, there were unavoidable delays in forwarding the plans. However, on January 22, 1968, the sisters were told to begin to take some personal and other lightweight materials to the new convent. On January 23 a large moving van arrived to complete the move. The official dedication took place on February 11, with open house for the sisters of the Wilmington Diocese on February 17, and for the parishioners on February 18. Open house for the IHM Sisters from nearby states was held on March 16 and 17, with approximately 150 Sisters attending. Monsignor Biggins, due to a March 11 surgery, was unable to join in the celebration.

WlmgtnDE StMathw Cnvt 1968St. Matthew's Convent, circa 1968

It had been a very full year for all, especially for Sister Helen Hemmer who was in only her second year as principal and superior at St. Matthew's. Twelve sisters now resided in the convent, including Sister Eamon O'Neill, diocesan reading consultant. Six lay teachers, in addition to Sister Helen and ten teaching IHMs, served as faculty. By 1969-1970 Sister Helen would have an assistant principal, Sister Domitilla (Mary) Sweet. Four additional sisters would reside at St. Matthew's as the new St. Mark's Diocesan High School opened and the faculty residence was not yet constructed. These included Sister Mary John (Jean) Conaty, Sister Ignatius (Ann) Seguljic, Sister Isabel Schratwieser, and Sister Dolores Filicko.

By 1970-1971 the office of superior was separated from that of principal and Sister John Francis Marley was appointed superior of the house and fourth grade teacher. Sister Roberta Peters was named principal, with seven lay teachers and ten IHMs as faculty members. St. Mark's Faculty House was dedicated on September 20, 1970, by Bishop Mardaga, so the four IHMs who formed part of that faculty group left St. Matthew's to take up residence at St. Mark's. (43)

Over subsequent years the Lord was to call many of our sisters to suffering as physical illness was a frequent visitor to this house. Most notable of these was the patient suffering of Sister Elizabeth Buschman. She was hospitalized in January 1978, returned in February to teach small groups of primary students in the convent parlor until the close of the school year. On November 7, 1979, she had surgery for a cancerous condition, recovered, and returned to half-day teaching from January to June 1980. The following school year found her actively engaged in teaching, preparing the children for First Holy Communion, being a member of the adult choir and parish Liturgy Committee, and of the Diocesan Religious Education Committee. In her twenty-fourth year of religious profession, and after five years at St. Matthew's, she died on August 19, 1981. Her funeral Mass was held at St. Matthew's Church. She had enriched the sisters of this local community, the pupils she taught, and the parish and diocese she served so well. (44)

While there was some expected decline in the enrollment of St. Matthew's School, registration was maintained at about 525 pupils in the early 1980s. New signs of life were found in the fifty-pupil kindergarten newly established in 1980 under Sister Sharon Kelly, IHM, and the pre-kindergarten founded in 1982 and located in the basement of the convent. With the opening of this latter facility, Sister Elizabeth McEneaney took over the kindergarten in the school.

Additional sisters who served as principal at St. Matthew's were Sister Mary Martin O'Dea, Sister Karen Braun, Sister Timothy Smyth, and Sister Amy Zychal.

This vibrant school continues with an enrollment of 472 in 1987-1988, a faculty of seven full-time and two part-time IHM Sisters and thirteen full-time and two part-time lay teachers. (46)