Book Excerpts


Little Flower Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland

Published by: RoseDog Books

Reverend Edward J. O'Brien, a native of Covington, Kentucky, ordained in 1932, recipient of a PhD. in Sociology from the Catholic University of America, director of catholic charities for the Baltimore/Washington Archdiocese until 1942, and pastor of several diocesan parishes, was sent in 1948 to found Little Flower Parish in Glen Echo, now Bethesda, Maryland.

At first, services were held in a chapel on MacArthur Boulevard. One parishioner recalls that Father O'Brien rented a house on Namakagan Road for the rectory and was often seen running across busy Massachusetts Avenue to church services in what is now the auditorium. (234) Seeing the large, beautiful physical plant that constitutes Little Flower Parish facilities today, it is difficult to imagine this area without its magnificent cathedral-like church, the fine rectory, convent and sprawling colonial-style school. What is today a parish of nearly 1,400 households had its simple beginnings in the pastorate of Father Edward J. O'Brien in 1948. A spirit that is today described as "generous and friendly" was evidently cultivated by this first pastor who was described as "so generous he'd not only give you the shirt off his back, but his undershirt too!"

Because of its convenient location as a suburb of the nation's capital in Washington, DC, Little Flower Parish grew rapidly and attracted to its residential boundaries the families of diplomats, senators, congressmen/women, cabinet officers and many other dignitaries and business men and women, as well as professionals in the many colleges and universities of the area. As one writer says:

 "At Little Flower Church in Bethesda, diplomats are just part of the parish family and at the Sign of Peace people are not surprised to find themselves shaking hands with Secretary of State George Shultz . . . or (former) Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, who has been worshipping there for years.

Edmund and Jane Muskie are long-time parishioners and the former Senator, Secretary of State and Vice Presidential candidate said, “We came in 1959, when I was a newly elected Senator, and our first obligation was to find a place to send the children to school.”  (236)

The school the Muskies selected was, of course, Little Flower School, which had opened on October 1, 1953, and was staffed by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton, Pennsylvania. It was on August 16, 1953, that Sister Maria James McNamara, superior and principal, Sister Marcelia Brennan, Sister Josanna (Joan) Paskert, and Sister St. Patrick McAndrew arrived to open Little Flower Convent and School. Murphy's law appears to have taken over Father O'Brien's activities, for it seems that whatever could happen, did happen in his futile efforts to complete the convent and the school buildings on time. Neither the convent nor the school was ready for occupancy when the sisters arrived. Fortunately, the sisters were able to turn to the IHM Sisters at St. John's, Silver Spring, and to their pastor, Monsignor Kennedy, for hospitality for nearly two and one-half months. Sister Amata Jordan, superior and principal at St. John's, was very welcoming and understanding of the situation these sisters were experiencing, for she and the sisters opening St. John's just three years before this had endured similar conditions until their school was completed.

Sister Maria James McNamara recalls the situation with clarity, describing the sisters' daily commute at the height of the morning traffic as they crossed town to get to the "school.'' Classes opened on October 1,1953, in Little Flower Chapel and in the Glen Echo Fire Department Hall. Two hundred thirty pupils from grades one through six crowded into these two locations. Her recollection, and that of Sister Joan Paskert, was of the positive receptivity of the people and the willingness of the parents of the school children to cooperate with the sisters. Great praise was given to the children, the lay teachers--Mrs. W. Berg and Mrs. E. Wagner--to the parishioners, and to the hard working sisters, as everyone tried to make the best of a difficult situation. The pastor's forte did not seem to lie in the construction of buildings, and it seemed that the architect was in no hurry to bring things to completion. The year 1953 was not yet a time when it was usual for sisters to be asked for input, especially not about what was needed for a convent. Pastors and architects were the "experts" in these matters. Evidence that the sisters' advice was needed became apparent, however, as the convent progressed. One casual question posed by Sister Maria James as to why there was no sacristy adjoining or near the chapel revealed that the architect thought that the priest would come fully vested for Mass from the church to the convent chapel. (237)

By early November the convent was sufficiently completed for the sisters to take up residence, as well as to accommodate the classes from the Fire Hall until the school would be completed. While this consolidation brought convenience of one sort, it brought additional work to the sisters who had to clean the convent thoroughly each day after the school children left.

Bethesda Convent 1957Little Flower Convent, Bethesda, MD, circa 1957

All of this did not deter the sisters from their goal of having an excellent school. The sisters prepared 175 children for Confirmation and 75 for First Holy Communion that spring. Sister Joan Paskert had organized a Boys' Choir that would make its first public appearance on Easter. By early December the new school was far enough along to begin classes in the proper setting. The pastor, Father O'Brien, and his assistant, Father Hughes, led the children from the convent to their new classrooms. There was much exploration and joy at the new facility.

On May 16, 1954, Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle dedicated the church, school and convent.

In 1954-1955 there were 360 pupils, an increase of 130 pupils over the opening year. The seventh grade had been added and an additional sister, Sister Olive Kelly, was assigned to Little Flower. Some changes occurred among the lay teachers who now were three in number and included Mrs. O'Dea, Miss Mary McIntyre, and Mrs. Berg as art teacher.

Grade eight was added in 1955-1956, and the enrollment climbed to 465 pupils. Sister Olive Kelly moved up from seventh grade with her 35 pupils who would become the first graduation class from Little Flower School on June 2, 1956. Sister Maria Raymond Grogan was added to the faculty. Construction was underway before the end of the year to add four classrooms and a gymnasium to the school.

With the influx of an additional 100 pupils in 1956-l957, for a total of 565, the new space was utilized immediately, although its dedication did not occur until Bishop John McNamara's arrival on October 24 to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation to 200 children of the parish. In May of that year, Father O'Brien had to resign because of poor health. Monsignor Henry F. Graebenstein was appointed pastor on June 8, 1957.

Sister Joan Paskert was transferred to Olyphant in 1957 and replaced by Sister Martin Marie Stanwich. The high enrollment necessitated a double track of classes for the first time. Seven sisters and five lay teachers composed the faculty. By the end of Sister Maria James' term in 1959 ground had been cleared for four additional classrooms. Evidence of the growth being experienced by Little Flower Parish was seen in the 103 First Communicants, 205 Confirmandi, and 56 eighth grade graduates--all parish children.

Sister Brigida Strome as new superior and principal at Little Flower in 1959-1960 found a thriving school of 750 pupils and a faculty of eleven sisters and seven lay teachers. The local community included Sisters Olive Kelly, Maria Raymond Grogan, Mary Ruth Samon, St. Mark Lowery, St. Patrick McAndrew, Angela Mary Parker, Martin Marie Stanwich, Mary Howard Krotzer, Helenita Hicks and Maria Regina Loures. The school continued its tradition of excellence in music for liturgical functions in the parish, as well as for entertainment. It was beginning to establish also the ability of its students to win prizes in county and state contests, and to receive high school scholarships. In an area where competition for acceptance into Catholic high schools was very keen, all 56 Little Flower graduates received acceptance. (238)

A grateful pastor and parish responded by supporting the sisters as religious and professional women. The original convent was enlarged by the addition of eight bedrooms with four bathrooms adjoining, and a recreation room paneled in mahogany. A generous parishioner provided a television set for the recreation room. Father Graebenstein blessed the new addition to the convent on November 6. In mid-November another convenience was given to the sisters by the parish, namely, a Chevrolet sedan. Permission had been given for sisters to drive, so the gift of a car was deeply appreciated.

The school term 1961-1962 was also a banner year in the development of the school, as the expansion of classroom libraries became the focus of all efforts. Sister Brigida had procured 1,000 books as the start-up for what would eventually be a central school library. The youngsters, highly motivated as avid readers, were very enthusiastic about the project. An atmosphere of growth and progress seemed always to be a part of Little Flower Parish. The building of a suitable rectory for the priests was long overdue, but April of 1963 was to witness the completion of this imposing brick structure. Two years later, on March 21, l965, ground was broken for the erection of the new church. The annals give this description of the event:

" . . . The pastor, Monsignor Graebenstein, insisted that Sister Brigida turn a spadeful of soil. He graciously aided her and at this precise  moment the photographer snapped a picture. Of course, this was the picture that appeared in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard, much to the chagrin of Sister Brigida, but to the glee of the Sisters." (239)

Sister Brigida's six years had seen much internal development in Little Flower School, with a stabilizing of its enrollment growth in 1965. The faculty included twelve sisters and seven lay teachers, remarkable for their teaching ability, creativity and enthusiasm.

As Sister St. William Lynch assumed her new duties as principal and superior at Little Flower, she was joined by five other new faces on the faculty. These were Sister Therese Culhane, Sister Isidore (Elizabeth) Grace, Sister Benedicta Berendes, Sister Miriam Frances (Agnes Mary) Devitt, and Sister Ruthanne Gypalo. The new Sisters joined Sisters Gabrielle Driscoll, Mary Hugh Placilla, Angela Mary Parker, Helene Hicks, Agnetta Casey, and Thomasina McQuaide to complete the even dozen. Six hundred fifty pupils were enrolled at Little Flower.

The influence of the completion of Vatican Council II was felt by the sisters as Congregation-wide study and discussion of the Documents of Vatican II were initiated. Many additional opportunities for spiritual and intellectual development existed in the Washington, DC area of which the sisters took advantage. Six sisters from Little Flower enrolled in a Moral Theology course, which was being offered for religious by Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross. Additional professional development engaged various sisters in Saturday morning courses: Sister St. William attended the Catholic University of America; Sister Agnetta attended American University for Sociology; and Sister Gabrielle went to the District of Columbia Teachers' College for Mathematics.

With Washington, DC the location of so many outstanding educational institutions and the center of so much convention activity, it was not surprising that Little Flower Convent received many visitors. One regular guest for feast days and holidays was Sister Espiritu Dempsey from Marywood who was a full-time student at Georgetown University pursuing her doctoral degree in linguistics. Supervisors for the Congregation: Sister Eleanora Whalen, music supervisor; Sister Felicitas Ryan, Sister Sheila Reilly and Sister Nora Clarke, school supervisors; and Sister Cor Immaculatum Heffernan, art supervisor, were annual visitors, as was the then regional superior, Sister Georgina Wertz.

Meanwhile, construction on the new church progressed. Disappointment reigned when it was far from ready for Christmas Midnight Mass. But on Sunday, March 12, 1967, the church was open for visitation by the public. The exquisite beauty and vastness of this Cathedral-like structure was overwhelming. The carpeting was not laid until after the “open house," so the following week saw what seemed like miles of carpet laid. Finally came the day--Palm Sunday--March 19, 1967, when Mass was celebrated for the first time in the new Little Flower Church.

On Good Friday the Stations of the Cross were hung. From twelve noon until ten minutes to three the workmen labored at placing the Stations. At three o'clock, Monsignor Graebenstein blessed the Stations and then the assistant, Father Travers, led the Way of the Cross for the congregation. (240)

The building of Little Flower Church seemed to bring to a peak the marvelous pastorate of Monsignor Graebenstein. He had accomplished so much in his thirteen years as pastor that it was with great sadness that the parishioners received the word of his retirement on June 3, 1970. They welcomed Monsignor Joseph Coyne as their new pastor, but rejoiced to know that Monsignor Graebenstein would remain at the rectory in "Emeritus" status. When the Golden Anniversary of his ordination came in May of 1972, there were five days of celebrations as the school children honored him in their spring festival program and participated in a special liturgy for him; the sisters held a dinner in the convent for all the priests to honor Monsignor Graebenstein; and the parish celebrated this milestone anniversary for their former pastor with a special Mass on May 25.

In 1971-1972, it was also a year for getting to know all the new faces at Little Flower. Besides the new pastor, Monsignor Coyne, there was a new principal, Sister Helene Coyle; a new superior, Sister Kathleen Kelley; and Sister Jan Marie Kalyan, a new music teacher. In addition, Sister Gaudens Opinsky was in residence as a student attending American University.

More celebrations were to occur in 1973-1974 as the parish commemorated its silver jubilee on September 30, 1973. An eloquent sermon was preached by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, Church historian from the University of San Francisco. Two golden jubilees were observed among the sisters, namely, Sister Corona McDonald's on October 20 and that of Sister Mary Patrick Burke on April 27. These sisters deserved well the many plaudits they received for their dedication and religious spirit. Tributes were also given at the closing of this 1973-1974 school year as Sister Gabrielle Driscoll was transferred after eleven years at Little Flower, and Sister Agnes Mary Devitt after nine years. (241)

September 1974 brought several new sisters to Little Flower. Sister Felician Hurley was welcomed as the new superior; Sister Callista Ryan as director of religious education in the parish; and Sisters Kathleen Newett, Ann Dolora Grayeski, and Jean Coughlin for the teaching staff.

History was being made in the Washington Archdiocese as Archbishop William Baum consecrated two new Auxiliary Bishops, Thomas Lyons, former diocesan superintendent of schools, and Eugene Marino, a member of the Society of St. Joseph, the first black bishop of the Washington Archdiocese. Other new activities in the sisters' lives included participation in the parish census-taking and family-group meetings. Some sisters were involved on the parish 

council, in the choir, and in-home Masses scheduled by lay groups. Many sisters observed World Hunger Week activities at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, visited the Home for Incurables and Westward Home, joined the Right to Life march at the nation's Capitol, and assisted at S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat) soup kitchen. Touching the lives of families more closely brought a sharing of their joys also at Baptisms, Confirmations, First Communions and weddings. Two private weddings were held in Little Flower Convent Chapel. Also, a newly ordained priest, Reverend George A. Stallings, a former pupil of the IHMs at St. Joseph's School, New Bern, North Carolina, said his first Mass in the convent chapel. His later expression of gratitude captures the spirit, not only of the Little Flower local community, but also of all our sisters for whom he had such deep respect. He wrote:

". . . As you know, I feel a special affection for the IHM Sisters of Scranton. It is not I who should be acknowledged or congratulated on having been ordained to the priesthood, but rather those who took a risk and gave themselves to me in order that I, too, might experience the joy of living. But, most importantly, I think the IHMs conveyed to me that what I received from the Lord is not meant to be concealed but to be given to others so that they, too, can experience that same joy and consolation which comes from a knowledge and love of the Lord Jesus. For this, I am thankful to the Lord and your Order." 
. . . (242)

The year 1975-1976 saw five new assignees as Sisters Mary Hubert O'Boyle, Fidelmia Lynch, Mary Alice Wheatley, and Noelie Kilmer became part of the faculty of Little Flower, and Sister Paulette Furness, a student at the Catholic University, was affiliated with this local community. Sister Elizabeth Grace had been transferred after ten dedicated years of first-grade teaching at Little Flower. Sister Jan Marie Kalyan had served for four years, and Sister Jean Coughlin, entering into the nursing profession at this time, had served for one year.

The Congregation elections for sector superior in 1978-1979 took place immediately after the General Chapter but were not completed until October. The results of these elections had an impact on Little Flower Convent and School as the principal, Sister Helene Coyle, was elected sector superior of the Southern Sector. There was a mixture of sadness and rejoicing among the sisters, but only sadness and frustration as far as the pastor was concerned. His first concern was to obtain a principal, and since the school year was already underway, his choice was to select someone already at Little Flower who was familiar with the school, the children and parents. Sister Mary Alice Wheatley was appointed as principal for one year, expressing her desire to return to first grade teaching the following September. Sister Kieran Williams was temporarily moved from her position as music teacher to replace Sister Mary Alice in first grade. Since Sister Helene, as sector superior, was to continue to reside at Little Flower when she was not traveling in the Southern Sector or at Marywood for meetings, all depended upon her interest and consultation in school matters at Little Flower. Needless to say, the process of election of sector superiors was never held at so late a date thereafter. (243)

Sister Mary Alice Wheatley stepped down readily in 1979-1980, welcoming the new principal, Sister Nancy Elder. The 1980-1981 school year was ushered in with another change of leadership, as Sister Eva Marie Zlotucha replaced Sister Nancy Elder as principal. It was to be another very active year as students appeared on television, prepared winning posters, presented recitals and received awards in a variety of contests: the American Legion Essay, the Lions Club Essay, Diocesan Vocation Essay, CYO oratorical and the Optimist Club oratorical contests. The Montgomery County Science Fair saw seven Little Flower School students awarded prizes.

This was also the year of Sister Ina Kenney's golden jubilee celebration, a beautiful occasion, which served as the prelude to jubilees to come. Sister Mary Hubert O'Boyle would celebrate her 60th jubilee and Sister Eva Marie, her 25th in 1981-1982; Sister Mary Patrick Burke held her diamond jubilee on April 7, 1984; and Sister Virgine Maurer, her golden jubilee on March 28, 1987.

These celebrations, as well as the many opportunities for retreat days, conferences, renewal lectures, involvement in work with the poor, and faithful participation in the district assembly activities provided support and unity for the busy apostolic life of the sisters.

Additional superiors, not previously mentioned, who served at Little Flower Convent include Sisters Kathleen Newett, Jeanne Albrittain, Ritamary Mayan, and Josephine Joy.

No account of this mission would be complete without special mention of two Little Flower "traditions'' which existed in the persons of Sister Mary Patrick Burke and Sister Mary Hubert O'Boyle. They were twin blessings, and their hospitality was experienced by hundreds of visiting Sisters over the years as breakfast, lunch or a snack was set out with apparent ease by these two "experts." Having come to Little Flower in 1970, Sister Mary Patrick taught full-time in the school until January 1, 1978, when, having achieved 54 years of full-time teaching, she “retired" to continue as a private music teacher until 1987. She retired to the Marian Convent in the fall of 1987.

Sister Mary Hubert had come to Little Flower School in 1975 where she served as librarian until 1980. At that time she was assigned to the prayer apostolate, remaining in residence at Little Flower Convent until 1986. Sister Mary Hubert died on December 17, 1986, at the Marian Convent.

In today's parlance, it can be said that they were "the right stuff," and for all times, they exemplified that joyful, loving, self-sacrificing spirit which is an IHM Sister.