WILMINGTON – For every current student at St. Mary Magdalen, Barbara Wanner is the only principal they have ever known. In fact, if their parents went to the Sharpley school, there’s a chance Wanner was their principal as well, at least for a few years. But that will change at the end of this academic year as Wanner has decided to retire after 26 years in charge.
“I feel that it’s time that somebody with more energy than I have at this point in time can take the school forward. I certainly would never want to be the person that stopped it from going forward and, therefore, I would just like to welcome somebody to come in and take over,” said Wanner, who declined to give her age.
“I love my job. I’ve always loved my job. I love the people I work with. But you get a sense of knowing when it’s time.”
Wanner came to Wilmington after spending nearly two decades teaching and three years as an administrator in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. She taught eighth grade for a year at St. Mary Magdalen before taking over as acting principal.
“They asked me to be interim principal until the Bernardine Sisters were able to get someone to be assigned here,” she said. The sisters did not return to the school, and Wanner had the interim tag removed from her title.
The school has a healthy enrollment of 549 students and benefits, Wanner said, from families that value Catholic education and tend to be able to afford it. Families are important at the school, which is not afraid to ask for assistance from its parents.
Families tend to make the school a tradition. Wanner said recently at the parish “there were four parents whose children made their first Communion that were in the eighth grade when I first came here. We have a lot of that, and that’s a wonderful thing, to see that next generation come through.”
For the most part, St. Mary Magdalen has enjoyed a stable and dedicated staff.
“We have wonderful, outstanding faculty members here. People that really value Catholic education, people who are willing to make sacrifices financially to be part of the community here, who spend incredible amounts of time doing lots of things,” she said.
The biggest change at the school during her tenure was the addition that St. Mary Magdalen veterans still call the “new wing,” which is, in fact, nearing its 20th anniversary. That project added a library and gymnasium to the original building.
“We knew we were either going to build the school up or keep it the same,” she said. “We decided to take the risk to build. And we had a capital campaign, and Father (Bill) Graney — because so many people wanted a gym — was forward-thinking enough to say that if we’re going to have a gym then we needed a library as well. We have to take the whole educational piece.”
Lou De Angelo, the diocesan superintendent of schools, said the school has an excellent reputation and Wanner is respected by students, families, staff, faculty and administration alike.
“Barbara has been a long-serving and faithful witness to Catholic education throughout her life,” he said. “We wish Barbara many blessings in the years ahead and with future plans.”
Serena Brasco, principal of St. Juliana School in West Palm Beach, Fla., will replace Wanner.
Wilmington still home
Wanner, who grew up just over the state line in Linwood, Pa., and attended Holy Saviour School and Chichester High School, said she won’t miss the early dismissals and snow days or some of the pressures that come with the job. She is looking forward to spending more time with her large family, including her five sisters, and being able to start a new morning ritual.
“I can’t wait to get up and drink my coffee in the morning and watch ‘Good Morning America,’” she said.
She hopes to do some traveling, but Wilmington will remain her home and St. Mary Magdalen her parish. She said she is willing to do whatever the parish needs.
Wanner said some of the younger students have asked her why she’s leaving and who will be taking her place. She is not worried about the transition’s effects on them, saying children are “extremely resilient. They’ll be just fine.”
She will miss their faces and being around a group of people she regards as much more than co-workers.
“When you’re around that long, you’ve been through a lot of people’s personal lives and the teachers’ personal lives. You’ve been there for their births and their deaths; it makes for a community versus a place of work. It’s not a place I came to work everyday. It was a place I wanted to be and wanted to be involved in.”