A fading tradition

March 23, 1997


Staff Writer

Sister Corda Mullenix is in the habit of teaching.

Ask her how old she is and she'll tell you that she made her commitment to the School Sisters of Notre Dame at age 20 and she's been teaching for 50 years. She expects you to figure it out from there.

Sister Corda, a middle school language arts teacher at St. Mary's School in Hagerstown, feels an obligation to her students and to her order to continue her life's work.

"I can't up and retire at the drop of a hat," she said. "When I feel that I can no longer give everything I have to teaching then I will stop. I will retire."


In the meantime, "it's my life,'' Sister Corda said. "That's what I am."

Despite her dedication Sister Corda has become an endangered species - a nun teaching in a Catholic school.

Generations of Catholic school students grew up surrounded by the sounds of swishing habits and jingling rosary beads emanating from the nuns who commanded their classrooms. But today, because their numbers are dwindling and their average age is increasing, it's possible to pass through 12 years of education in Catholic schools and never be taught by a nun.

There are four nuns employed at the five Catholic schools located in Washington County, Franklin County, Pa., and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, according to school officials.

For the first time in its nearly 40-year history, the area's only Catholic high school, St. Maria Goretti in Hagerstown, no longer has any nuns on its staff.

In January, two nuns, the school's principal and vice principal, resigned at the end of the term after the school's board of trustees decided not to renew the principal's contract at the end of the school year, board of trustees president Luther L. Knight said.

Kenneth Simcox, a retired Washington County school system administrator, has taken over the principal's job at Goretti until the end of this school year, Knight said.

The school's board of trustees, which is comprised of parents, alumni, business leaders and community members, has formed a search committee to find a principal and has advertised the position in Catholic journals and newspapers in five states, he said.

Of the more than 20 responses the board has received, only a handful were from nuns, Knight said.

"There are not a lot of religious available," he noted.

The other Catholic school in Washington County, St. Mary's School, offers classes for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school has two nuns on its teaching staff - Sister Corda and art teacher Sister Margaret Mary Glick, according to Principal Sister Maria Goretti Palmisano, who is also a nun.

At the only Catholic school in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, St. Joseph's School in Martinsburg, the only nun on staff is the principal, Sister Ellen Marie. She also teaches French at the K-8 school.

In Pennsylvania:

  • St. Andrew's School, a K-6 school in Waynesboro, has one nun, Sister Agnes Marie, serves on the teaching staff, said Principal and former nun Eileen Sullivan.

Another nun, Sister Andrene, had taught at the school but left last fall when she was diagnosed with cancer, Sullivan said. She died March 13 at age 64.

The school may get another nun on the staff next year, Sullivan said.

  • Corpus Christi School in Chambersburg, a pre-K to 8 school, hasn't had nuns on staff since the Sisters of St. Joseph pulled out of the school in 1987 because of their dwindling numbers, principal Thomas Yurkovic said.

Despite the scarcity of nuns, Catholic schools in the Tri-State area are surviving, and in some cases thriving with committed lay faculties.

However, some administrators and lay teachers say nuns brought something special to their schools, which is missed.

"I admire their dedication and loving spirit ... When I was a little girl I looked up to them," Sullivan said. "I do miss seeing that many sisters."

"I definitely feel that the sisters do bring something unique to a Catholic school. First of all, they bring a witness. Secondly, they bring a life of dedication and perseverance," Sister Maria Goretti said.

Referring to Sister Corda, Sister Maria Goretti pointed out that "50 years of a commitment is not something you see too often today."

Some parents request Sister Corda to teach their children "because they want them to have the experience of having a sister," Sister Maria Goretti said.

When Sister Agnes Marie, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Andrew's School, entered the order of the Sisters of Saints Cyril & Methodius more than 25 years ago, she joined a community of about 425 sisters, she said. The order, based in Danville, Pa., now numbers about 225.

Sister Agnes Marie said that in her classroom she doesn't like to move on to another concept until she's certain everyone understands. "I want to hear them say `Oh, I get it now.' It's like someone gave me a million dollars when I hear that."

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